Shakeil Greeley

We’re wrapping up 2022 by sitting down with the immensely talented Shakeil Greeley. I love that his portfolio consists of all kinds of creative projects, including fine art and writing. Who says design has to be all about visuals?

Shakeil and I started off talking about his work as an art director at Splice, as well as his new role at Spring Health. He also talked about growing up between Portland and Philly, studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s Visual Studies program, and then landing at GQ doing digital art direction and editorial strategy. Shakeil also spoke about the Imaginary School and the Àròko Cooperative (formerly Design to Divest), and shared how both projects are important to him in terms of community building.

There are so many opportunities to use design to make the world a better place, and I’m glad that there are designers like Shakeil Greeley who are using their skills to make that happen.

From all of us here at Revision Path, thank you for all your support this year. Next year marks our 10th anniversary, so stick around for what’s coming up in 2023!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Shakeil Greeley:
Hey there. My name is Shakeil Greeley. I am a creative director and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. And I use design, strategy, and art to create more equitable, open, and imaginative worlds.

So in my day job, I’m an art director at a music company called Splice. Although I’m soon to be moving on to a new role as creative director of a mental healthcare company. In addition to that, I’m on the leadership teams of two organizations in particular. Àròko Cooperative, which is a Black owned design cooperative. And The Imaginary School, which is an online learning community and platform.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s a lot.

Shakeil Greeley:
It is. I stay very busy, and that’s not including any of the freelance work.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, how was 2022 for you?

Shakeil Greeley:
2022 was frankly not the best year. I think it was a lot of time to just kind of process a lot of things that had gone on. Obviously, 2020 was very hectic for many reasons, as was 2021. And I think 2022, I definitely felt a lot of the emotional burnout from just the large existential events that were happening in the pandemic, and racial uprisings, and geopolitical developments, and such.

But also from just working a lot over the last 10 years basically. I’m one of those people who always has multiple side projects running and I think I’ve probably had three or four large side projects running at all times since I was a junior in college. And I think that really caught up to me after a while coming into this year. So it’s been a year of just rest, and reflection, and de-stressing, and unplugging that has definitely been productive. But I’m really looking forward to the things that are going to come in the next year.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that, is there anything from this year that you want to carry over into the next year?

Shakeil Greeley:
I think one of the biggest things is my work with Àròko, because that has been an ongoing project for a number of years now, and we’re really getting to a spot where I think going into next year we’re going to be able to have folks working on that project for the first time. So all of the work we’ve been doing to kind of reposition because we were formally known as Design to Divest. So coming up with a mew name, new brand direction, and new strategy, all of that work has been really fruitful. And I’m really excited for that stuff to carry on into the new year, in particular in my kind of design practice and work practice.

But on a more personal note, I think just continuing to be reflective and really take time for myself. Those are two things that I’m really prioritizing the next year to not overwhelm myself with work, and just maintain a nice steady output while giving myself plenty of time to just relax and enjoy the fruits of my labor a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
I heard that from a lot of people this year that I’ve had on the show that this year has kind of been a bit of almost a rebuilding year in some ways. And I think it’s because 2020 for a lot of us was just very hectic, aside from the racial reckoning, and the protest, and things that happened during the year. But just the pandemic on top of that with also not being able to travel and congregate and stuff. 2020 was really stressful for a lot of people. 2021, I think we were trying to emerge from it. And now this year, especially with boosters and with mandates becoming lax and things of that nature, we’re just trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Which I think for a lot of people this year that’s what it’s been. It’s been about trying to find ways to move forward when take the lessons that we’ve learned from the past couple of years on how to live in a more equitable kind of holistic sort of way.

Shakeil Greeley:
Definitely. Yeah, I definitely feel that. So much has happened, and even heard in a couple of your recent interviews folks talking about the influx of things like clients, and new projects, and all of that after 2020. I know even on our end, we’re really having time to take stock and be like, “Okay, what are the kind of clients we actually really want to be taking on, and what are the kind of principles we want to be adhering to when we accept new projects?” And even for my own personal work I’m thinking, “Okay, I have limited time. I have limited energy, and I have a very specific set of goals I’m looking to accomplish in the world. What are the actual side projects I should be working on and doing at any given time?” And the conclusion has been maybe only one instead of the suite that I had been operating with previously.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I know you mentioned that you are about to leave Splice. But you’ve served there as art director roughly for about what the past four years or so now. Talk to me about your work there.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. So Splice has been a really interesting journey. I joined in February of 2019 and worked primarily on all their editorial and content marketing channels. So that includes the Splice blog, that includes Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Reels. I also assist on things like video thumbnails and video ideas, and also focus onto things like content planning and content strategy. In addition to that, obviously there’s a whole art direction side. So that includes doing art direction for brand photo shoots where we are going to go cast 10 musicians from around New York City and shoot them in their own spaces and places, to shooting more kind of advertising focused shoots with sets, and set designers, and things that are a little more formalized.

So my work has really spanned a lot of different stuff in my time at Splice. I even was interviewing artists at one point for the blog, and I’ve worked with the product team on implementing stuff on the marketplace. So it’s a wide range of projects. And I think the core thing that’s interesting that ties it all together is Splice for those who don’t know is a music technology company. And Splice’s core offering is a marketplace of samples. So we’re really a creator-forward and creator-first company, which makes it fun as a creator myself to make work for people who have a creative eye, and have things like taste and know what they think is cool, and what they’re interested in. And might be working on their own album covers, or music videos, or social media strategies for themselves. So yeah, it’s been a really interesting journey and I’m excited to talk more about some of the individual specific pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds like you were doing a lot outside of Art direction. I mean it sounds like it’s art direction, it’s creative strategy, it’s content strategy. It’s kind of a lot wrapped up under one title.

Shakeil Greeley:
Definitely. And I think that’s part of the startup lifestyle. There’s always more to be done. And I think that also is tied into our team structure across both the creative organization, but also the content marketing team I’ve been working with. Where everyone’s very collaborative and very open to new ideas, which kind of led all of us to flex onto different stuff. So I worked with content strategists who were also making beats and were writers. And I’ve worked with writers who come up with their own content ideas and whole video franchises and things of that nature. So a lot of things going on, and a small amount of people working on them across the organization. But a really creative team, which is fun always.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about the team. What did that look like? You mentioned content strategist doing a lot also.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. So the way our team is set up is my creative director, Meg Vázquez is at the head of the brand organization. And then there’s kind of a flat structure that sits underneath her. So I am art direction. So that includes all content marketing basically, as well as these larger special projects. We have three designers on the team who all have their own areas of expertise, one of whom focuses on motion graphics and kind of brand design. One of them is a really strong brand owner and ensures that the Splice brand across services from employee merchandise to landing pages all feel consistent. And then there’s a designer who focuses primarily on growth marketing, and in addition to that we also have a copywriter.

So that’s kind of a core creative team. In addition to that, there are two folks who work primarily on video. And then our sister team is the content marketing team in a lot of ways, where we work really closely with folks who do social media strategy for things like Twitter and TikTok. We have some folks who are really specific into one person runs the blog and is the editor energy for the blog. Someone is really specialized in music education and looking at how we can create different curriculums for people to learn music. I think it’s about eight or so people on each of those teams. And we support initiatives from across the rest of the organization as many content marketing and creative groups do. So we’ll take in work from things that we obviously generate on our own in our own editorial initiatives. But we also work with other teams around the company to tell the public and tell Splice users about new features, new pack releases, and just new projects that we’re working on.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging part about working at Splice?

Shakeil Greeley:
This is an interesting question. Because I think there’s two things that are challenging. One of them is a palindrome almost if you will, of a challenge. But I think the first one is just that it is a startup still, and Splice is still figuring out just where it’s going to go and what it’s going to be in the future. And that’s always something that can be difficult for any organization, especially in the creative side. Because you’re having to deal with new projects coming up, or things getting deprioritized, or new initiatives getting spun up, and potential for wider company directions to change. So just being really adaptable. That’s been a challenge that I think I’ve personally grown from, and I know several people that have also really grown from that as well. But it’s never easy to have to change what you’re working on and change your focus with that level of frequency.

And I think the other thing that’s challenging about Splice but is also I think my favorite part about working at Splice is it’s a music company first and foremost, and people tend to be very passionate about music. And so naturally, we have a lot of people on staff who are super passionate about music making. Whether they are avid listeners or concept goers, or musicians themselves. And that means you have a lot of buy-in from folks and a lot of personal attachment to the work. And that’s great, but it can also cause friction at times when people are so personally invested in the work that they’re doing. So it’s a challenge, but I think it’s one that when we can unlock, it and when we can solve it, and when we can really work together in cool ways, it’s a huge benefit and makes working there really pleasurable. But it’s kind of a push and pull always there.

Maurice Cherry:
I have to say, even as you’re describing it being the startup and then also being something that is really for music lovers and people who love music because it’s a music company, I would love something like that. I would love to work at a place that’s passionate about music, but then it’s also tech oriented, and design oriented. How big is Splice actually? Rough count.

Shakeil Greeley:
I think somewhere between 200 and 250 if I’m not mistaken right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, that’s not too bad. I’ve mostly worked at startups that have been in that 50 to 60 person range, and that’s when stuff really starts getting really thorny. Because the old stalwarts that have been there like yourself that have been there for multiple years, and then you’ve got newer hires that expect a culture that’s another way. And you’re trying to do all this together in this kind of fast-paced environment. So for me, it sounds like something I’d be interested in, but that’s because I really like music. I was a musician myself for a lot of years. But especially during the past few years we’ve had, I could see how that could take its toll.

Shakeil Greeley:
And I think like I said, it’s a great problem to have where you have people who are really passionate about the work. But again, I think that that super deep level of passion and emotional investment when tied together with the trappings of a startup and things shifting. And priorities being not in flux all the time, but they do change naturally. I think it can just be a little difficult to make sure that everyone’s on the same page about where we’re all going.

So it’s something that’s a challenge. But I think if you’re kind of ready to accept that ambiguity and really be open to flexing and taking on all these different things that you can really learn from and grow from, it’s an environment that I know I’ve learned and gained a lot from.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the most rewarding part of working there?

Shakeil Greeley:
I’m a real fan of my creative director, Meg Vázquez. We worked together at GQ as well. And being able to work under her and really see what a good creative director looks like in action has been such a pleasure and an honor. And I think all the lessons I’ve learned from her and just how to manage a team, and empower people, and solve problems, and ensure creative integrity and all these things are a lot of lessons I know I’m going to be taking with me for the rest of my career. That’s been a real pleasure to work with her. And then also it just extends into the rest of the people that I’ve been able to work with. I think the people at Splice have just been such a pleasure, and we’ve been able to do some really cool stuff.

One of my close colleagues who’s a content strategist, his name’s Ken Herman, he’s Japanese American. Important context because we were both basically the leads on all social media at the time in 2020. Him being the strategist, me being the designer. And obviously, Splice is a music company. But we are also an American music company, which means that if you’re reading between the lines, we are a Black music company, whether the staffing reflects that or not. We are a music company that primarily prophets in Black created genres.

So Ken and I were like, “I think we need to make this a little clearer for everyone here and particular for all of our audience.” And not that our audience was pushing back on that idea a lot, but we really wanted to make it clear where Splice stood on these issues, and make it clear that we understood the responsibility we had.

So we got to come together and work on a series called As Told By that actually went and became Webby nominated. It was just a small social franchise where we took a specific social issue, whether it was something like the Iran-Contra scandal, or Rockefeller Laws, and went through and found a bunch of textual evidence of all kinds of hip hop artists kind of talking about these issues in their music. And really making an effort to not just… I think there’s a misconception for a lot of probably non-Black folks, but Black folks as well around what ‘conscious’ rap can be. And folks like Jim Jones talk about the Rockefeller laws. It’s not just bound by those kind of genre constraints.

So having someone in my team that was super down to work on a project like that, and just do it together, and collaborate on the story, and the design. That kind of working environment I think is a great example of why I love working at Splice and love the people at Splice so much. Just really passionate, really intelligent, and really just down to collaborate and get into the weeds and work really closely together on stuff that they may not know front to back, but are really down to learn and figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds really dope. Actually taking a look at the series now. You covered stuff like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the crack epidemic, the Rockefeller drug laws, United States of America versus Billie Holiday, assassination of Fred Hampton, the Iran-Contra affair, the war on drugs. And it’s all through the lyrics of musicians. Yeah, this is really cool. I have to check this out. This is really cool.

So I want to learn more about your background. I mean, of course we’re hearing about the creative work, and we’ll get into what you’re doing with Àròko Cooperative and The Imaginary School. But let’s start with your origin story.

On your website you mentioned that you’re born in Seattle, but you said you grew up between Portland and Philly, which feels like two wide ends of a spectrum in terms of culture. Portland, Oregon, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Talk to me about that.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah, so I think a lot of my upbringing is a key theme being between different cultures. Because I’m biracial. My dad, he’s a white guy from the Pacific Northwest. And my mom grew up in Jamaica until she was about 18.

So they met in the Pacific Northwest and moved to Seattle. So I was born there, lived there for a couple of years. And then we moved to Portland, Oregon and lived a couple of years there. They split up, and then my mom moved to Philadelphia where my grandfather was living with his second wife and a lot of her family. So even over there, that’s Black Jamaicans, but also Black American side. And then I would spend basically my school time in Philadelphia. And then any vacation time, I would go spend with my dad in Portland. And it’s two really different places to be sure. Philadelphia, one of the Blackest big cities in America. And Portland, one of the whitest big cities in America.

I just learned a lot. I’m one of those kids who’s been drawing my whole life. I’ve always been interested in art. I think when I first realized that jobs were a thing you had to have, I either wanted to make comic books, or test video games. And I think making comic books or graphic design, not really that different. But those have always been interested of mine.

So I learned a lot from A, being around both really family at the end of the day because my grandmother on my mom’s side, she’s a prolific quilter. I’ve learned a lot about just color and pattern from her. My grandma on my dad’s side, she is just a broad crafts woman. She loves to do collage, and watercolors, and all this stuff. But neither of them ever did any of this professionally, just purely as hobbies.

And my mom, she’s a doctor. She’s an anesthesiologist. And she never really did any of this stuff but has always been really interested in clothing, and home décor, and design. And then my dad is kind of an IT worker. He does all kinds of different IT stuff, but he is also a very passionate DJ. And I think my first kind of real introduction to design was meeting one of my dad’s friends who was making his mixtape cover art. And he was like, “Yeah, this is the designer who’s making my mixtape cover art.”

So I got introduced to the field really young, but didn’t really think it was something I would do full-time until much, much later. I spent a lot of time just as any kid does in my age group watching things like Toonami. Part of my upbringing in Portland actually was going to a Japanese magnet school, which is another really key piece of my story. So half the day was taught in English, and half the day was taught in Japanese. And this was right around the big Japan and anime boom of the ’90s. So it was like kids in my second grade class were coming to school with Pokemon cards, and no one had ever seen them before. And the next year, Pokemon, the cartoon went up on WB. And obviously the rest is history.

So Japanese culture and video games, anime, things like that entered into my lexicon really early, and have been a really big source of inspiration since then. So my whole upbringing has just been a real hodgepodge mix of getting introduced to Japanese culture really early, being super interested in mixtape culture, dance hall culture, hip hop culture from a really young age, especially for my dad. And just holding records, and meeting his friends who made flyers, and helping him burn CDs, and things of that nature.

And then I think especially as I went to high school, I really got more into English, and drama, and history, and just writing more so. And I think that whole side of me that’s more analytical, and research focused, and all about communication merged with my early interests in Japanese culture, and dance hall culture, and all of these things to lead me into at least my adult design career.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s a lot.

Shakeil Greeley:
A lot of pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
The Japanese magnet school in particular really interests me. I mean one, because you’re learning about just a different culture. Both language and the Japanese culture. But then to get it at such a young age, especially at the time when in America, Japanese animation was really starting to pop off. Wow, that must have been a wild time as a kid to be a part of that.

Shakeil Greeley:
It was really interesting. And the older I get and the more I look back on it, I’m like, “Wow.” It was a public school too. And that’s a common thing in Portland. There’s a lot of magnet schools. Looking back on it, I’m like, “Geez, what an insanely foundational and formative experience that was.”

Because I had lots of friends who had older brothers who were into hacking, and modding their PCs, and importing game consoles, and all of these things that I think are super mainstream now. But I didn’t really understand at the time just how lucky I was to kind of get a front row seat to a lot of this stuff, right as it was coming out because people were going to Japan with their families for the holidays, and bringing stuff back. It was fascinating. It was a very fascinating experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So it sounds like overall growing up you really were exposed to a lot of creative things. And then eventually you went to the University of Pennsylvania, and you studied there as part of their visual studies program. Tell me about that time. What was your time like there?

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. So I got to thank my mom for even finding that program in the first place, because I was really kind of torn between how do I do creative stuff and make money. I think the eternal question of any kid whose parents don’t know what the design industry is. And I didn’t either at the time. So I was really debating do I do marketing and just do a business program, or do I go to an ad school or advertising school? Or do I go to just a full-on art school and do that? And my mom found this program, which is an amazing program that is basically a hybrid between several different disciplines. Those disciplines being biology, and psychology of sight, and seeing. So how do your rods and cones work? How do images get processed in the brain? These really foundational, biological things are practice.

Our practice, so obviously taking practical art classes like draft design, or painting, or sculpture, things of that nature. And then psychology and philosophy. So really looking at the thinking behind perception, and vision, and the real kind of heady stuff.

And you kind of choose one to focus in. So you take a majority of your classes in a specific area. I focused in fine art practice, specifically design. And then you just get this really interesting and well-rounded experience I think for an academic experience in particular, where you’re getting to learn a lot of different things that are all tightly related to each other, but are very different formally. I think each person, if you were to just focus on one of those things, that’s a whole field in and of itself. But we were having a really interesting time learning about the anatomy of your eye, and then having to go into a fine arts class and actually figure out a way to translate that into something visual. Or taking a historical image, and creating a sculpture that reflects the character of the image, as well as communicates the initial meaning.

So it was a really interesting education. And especially as someone who didn’t take any formal art classes in high school or anything like that, it was pretty wild to be dropped into the real deep end of design, and design theory, and all of these things right as I started school. But it provided me, especially someone with a lot of different interests and someone who is pretty flexible I think, a ton of freedom to just do what I wanted to do and learn about things that I wanted to do.

And I was basically able to do two thesis projects at the end of my time there, just from the fact that I was able to come to the program early. I finished my requirements early. I got a good sense of the things I was interested in, and got to take some graduate classes in my final semester. So it was a really, really great time. Academically. So yeah, very interesting program that I recommend to anyone who’s really interested in the whole ecosystem of visual image making as a whole entity.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, does Penn still have that program?

Shakeil Greeley:
It does, yeah. I believe the head of the program, his name is Ian Verstegen. He was my senior thesis advisor. So shout out to you, Ian.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean that sounds like a really great program. Especially like you said, you have all these different interests. And visual studies may sort of help you find a way to channel that into something.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. And I think the key thing it really taught me was to never make something without thinking about it first. Especially when it comes to design in particular. And always kind of have a thought of what you want something to do or what it needs to accomplish, or the response you wanted to elicit in someone, before you go into actually making the thing. That was a big thing I learned from that program.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduated from there in 2015. And one of your first jobs out of college, you were working for GQ Magazine. Tell me about that.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. So just sung the praises of this program. But it sounds complicated. And two prospective people who wanted to hire, they also I think thought it was complicated, because I could not find a job for a pretty long time. But I was really lucky enough to find this opportunity at GQ Magazine.

So if this was about seven months after I graduated, and I found this opportunity. And it was a web producer job. So it’s not a design title, not a designer, not a creative anything. It was just kind of a go between for all things within the website. At that time I was still living at home. I was doing some light freelance work, but I was like, “No, I want to move to New York. I want to get my career started. I’m going to go and take this job, and I’m going to go meet the art director first day, and tell them that I want to be a designer, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

So I was at GQ for three years, three years total. And in that three years, I had four different titles. So I started as web producer, then became a visual designer. Then I was a visual editor. Then I was an art director and manager. And I worked on a bunch of different stuff while I was there. So in my first year, I was hand transcribing stories from old magazines so they could be published on the website. And helping my boss, who was the editor of the website, do her expenses, and keep track of contracts for writers that were doing regular columns and things like that. And I just kind of kept my head down and just kept working on these things, and kept bothering people to give me more stuff to do. So eventually, I started making some small illustrations for e-commerce stories, and then able to do some more big illustrations.

And I think a big moment for me when I was in that first year is I got to make a piece of art for the editor and the chief… The editor’s letter? Yeah, the editor’s letter. And it was about, I think this was in 2016. So it was in the throes of the election and all this stuff.

And it was a piece about Barack Obama, and I just cut together a found image of his bust that I think had maybe been 3D printed by the Smithsonian or something, and Abe Lincoln’s statue. And that piece went super viral. Definitely the copy was great, but I do think the image had a lot to do with it. And that was kind of a turning point where people really started like, “This kid knows what he is doing. He knows how to make a brief. He knows how to think through the stuff. We could use him on the design side.”

So after that, I kind of really started pushing into more of the design world. Eventually they were able to make some space for me over there. And then I spent the latter half of my time at GQ working on Snapchat Discover, which for again, those who don’t know is, I mean I think it still is active. But it was a bit huge initiative that Snapchat was doing to kind of partner with a lot of legacy publications, and just making moving animated magazines for a younger audience. So I did that for two years, partly as an editor as part of a team. And then I took over the team in my third year.

And in addition to doing a lot of design, illustration, content planning, content strategy, I also got to do a lot of writing at GQ, which is I think pretty unique for a lot of designers. So I had the first interview with Daniel Kaluuya after Out came out with any major publication. And that was a big moment, that was really one I’m really proud of. And I got to interview a number of musicians like Christian Scott, and [inaudible 00:34:40] and Lil Tracy, and all these people. So it was a really wild ride to be at such a large legacy publication at a time when the money was visibly drying up day by day. So I think it worked for me in the fact that there was not enough staff around, where I was able to just grab stuff and people would just be happy to have someone do it, no matter what their title was. So it really worked out for me in that way. But it was a really interesting time just crashing into that world and having no background in fashion or New York media, and just getting the whole wave washing over me.

But I learned a ton there, met a lot of really interesting people. And really, I think especially going back to my kind of academic background, I taught myself a lot of design stuff even while I was in school. And GQ was the time when I really learned what type design and type setting really meant, and how to really apply that stuff. So I kind of cut my teeth both in the world of multitasking and doing a lot of different stuff at once, but also really getting those hard design skills that I had been lacking in my academic education and self-taught practice.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you get a chance to work on any video while you were there?

Shakeil Greeley:
I did, yeah. I did a number of video projects. I did some design for an Issa Rae video when she was on the Man of the Year issue. And some other stuff with Travis Scott, Kylie Jenner. And I got to do both creating graphics for videos, as well as producing and interviewing people for video too. So I got a whole spectrum of experience in that area.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if there’s some Conde Nast video Style Bible, but all of the videos that I watched out of GQ, Vanity Fair, etc., are so well done. It’s some of the really good video content. I’d say even now in this kind of, I don’t know, short video age when people look at Reels, and TikTok, and stuff like that. GQ is doing some of the best long form, and when I say long form, I’m thinking, I don’t know what. 10 minutes or more I guess. But they’re doing some of the best long form video content out there. It’s really good stuff.

Shakeil Greeley:
And I think actually two of the dudes who I worked with when I was there years ago I think are still there pushing a lot of that stuff forward. So they do some really awesome stuff. And it was a real pleasure to both be able to collaborate with that team, and also just watch them and see how they work. And I think that was something I really just did a lot of at GQ was just watching people, and just seeing how all these people move through the world, and did their work, and how people would just stroll into places they owned it, and were always going to think that they could get access to a certain person or anything. And that was really inspiring to me. I was like, “Oh wow, I guess I can just go do stuff. If I have GQ in my email, people will just answer my emails back. So I should just try to take advantage of that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I imagine that helps a lot.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. I still get emails to this day of people asking me to feature their X artist in GQ. But yeah, those days are behind me now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now along with what you just talked about with Splice, with GQ, and everything. You’re on the leadership teams of two organizations, Àròko Cooperative and The Imaginary School. Let’s talk about the Àròko Cooperative first. Because we’ve talked about it on the show before. As you mentioned earlier, it used to be known as Design to Divest. And we’ve had some folks on the show from Design to Divest. We had Michael Collette, we had Azeez, we had Zariah. What was behind the decision to change its name?

Shakeil Greeley:
So I’m actually super excited to talk about this because Design to Divest was this really impromptu gathering when we really came together initially. [inaudible 00:38:46] who was kind of the seed planter who put up the first Instagram post, even when we all came together for the first time, they were like, “We could change the name and maybe the logo could look different.” I don’t know. I just wanted to get people together. And I think that name and that group made sense for a while. And I think we retained a lot of the folks who kind of joined really early. And that felt good to kind of keep the momentum going.

But especially going into this year as we’re coming I guess… Yeah, we’re over two years old now. We had really started to gel a smaller, specific, dedicated team of folks that was just this core group of eight who had been consistently coming to stuff. The steering committee had had as many as 30 members at certain points.

So after a while and really working together week over week, we kind of gelled down this specific group. And once we kind of landed on that core group, we really started to ask ourselves, what do we actually want to do together? And what do we want to do here? And that led us to thinking about questions of what is the right name? Is Design to Divest, a project within our kind of wider umbrella of things that we like to do? We determined that it was.

So basically where we landed was Design to Divest is the first large scale project completed by Àròko Cooperative. And Àròko Cooperative is going to be kind of an umbrella organization for a variety of different initiatives that we’re going to be doing moving forward. So Design to Divest being one of them. And that sits within our core offerings of things like zines, or merchandise, and publishing. We are also going to be doing some consulting work. So we actually just completed our first client project very recently. So there’ll be case studies about that probably up on our website by the time this interview is up.

And then we’re going to be doubling down on a lot of community initiatives. So we’re going to be doing quarterly events that are for Black designers specifically, that are free. We’ll probably be doing some more open events for the wider design community that’ll be paid for. And then we have a Discord server, which is kind of just a little bit more impromptu place for Black designers to congregate.

So we really just took stock of all that stuff and determined let’s put Design to Divest in its own box that allows all of the work that’s been done by people who are not active in the group anymore to be really properly archived, and separated, and celebrated. And then gives this new kind of smaller group full license to create what we want this thing to be for ourselves, and really just not be bound by any historical things, or previous projects, or any of that.

And just really go from the ground up, working together to come up with a new name, and new brand, and new direction, and all of that together. So it was really just a chance to celebrate some old work and give ourselves a fresh start looking into the years to come for the rest of the cooperative.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Sounds like it was a massive change than just the name. It really sort of changed a lot with just even the purpose. I mean, not so much the purpose behind why you came together. But how do you keep the group moving forward? What are the new goals and things of that nature? Are there other things that have changed over the years now that you’ve been doing this?

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. I think the biggest honor of my design career so far to build this group with these folks. And we’ve gone through all kinds of changes, whether it’s going from using Zoom for our meetings and Slack, to moving to Discord, and using that as a primary surface for all meetings, and events, and planning, and all that stuff. To getting a better sense of what our actual deliverables and our offerings. The offerings we want to actually put out for our clients, and determining that maybe we want to do X thing and this thing, but maybe not this thing even, if we have the capacity and capability to do it.

And I think the biggest change too is we’ve all gotten paid this year for the first time. That’s a big change. We’ve been doing it for free for two years, and we were able to get some clients, and get some funds raised. Everyone was able to get a check this year I think. I’m excited to see my own tax return from the work that we completed this year.

And I think another big change too has just been getting a lot closer to each other as a group, to where we feel really good about just moving forward on new projects without having to have everyone touching everything at the same time. I think that’s been a big learning development for us is that we have a really wide set of skills in our core group of now nine. And we can divide and thrive. We don’t need to have eight people on a certain project. We can just have two people on a project, and they’re going to run it great. And that means three people over here can go and do something else.

So that process of just figuring out our working norms, and how do we operate as a non-hierarchical design entity, and just really figuring out how we can make this thing sustainable for the long term in a way that feels really good has been a series of ongoing changes for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Now let’s talk about The Imaginary School. The Imaginary School on the website is described as, “An eye on our present, past, and future.” Where did the idea to start that come from?

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. So The Imaginary School I think, at least for me in my own practice. Àròko is kind of the group activity that I really spent a lot of my time with. And it’s something that we’re going to be doing consulting and making new projects and all this stuff. And Imaginary School is kind of my personal just personal passion project, which is really about education.

So the actual idea of The Imaginary School started back in college with a couple of my friends who were all a bunch of creative folks as well, and we just kind of came up with the name as an umbrella for any collaborations we were going to do amongst ourselves. And we put out one project, and didn’t really put out any other formal projects after that. We all continued to stay friends, and we’ve all worked on different projects and stuff together. But nothing really formalized.

And I really wanted to take that, and revive it, and bring some life back to it in the form of more open collaboration with people all over the world, and different interests, and people that we didn’t have personal connections to.

So in 2019 actually, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the new iteration of this thing could be. And that was spurned by some conversations I had with another friend who was in grad school and who was continuously being like, “Hey Shak, you got to read this PDF of Saidiya Hartman,” who I’d never heard of at the time. I was like, “Oh yeah, that’d be great.” And then, Hey Shak, you got to check out this great PDF by Fred Moten, and you got to check out this from da, da, da, da.” And after a while I was like, “You know Isaac, is there a way we can just share this knowledge more widely? Because there’s so many of these things that are becoming really foundational to my thinking and design process, and I never would’ve learned about them had you not shared that PDF with me.” And we were like, “Yeah, I think we could figure something out.”

So we really took the idea of The Imaginary School of that open collaboration, and wanted to figure out a way to just open source it basically and make it accessible to everyone. And also something that other people could replicate.

So right now, it is a two-part kind of operation. We have an arena page, which just houses all kinds of resources from across the internet in fields as disparate as video games, to the environment, to Palestine, to parenting and sexuality and relationships. We just have a ton of different information that’s just kind of crowdsourced and crowd collected. And then there’s a Discord server which is attached to it where someone can go and find someone to chat about with if they have questions about a particular topic or they found something really interesting and just are looking for someone to chat to.

So it’s this two-pronged approach. And it’s pretty chill, for lack of a better word. I don’t spend a ton of time trying to curate stuff and push for engagement on it. I just really want it to be something that’s easy for people to get into and use as they please. But that’s an ongoing project for me. And I’m always looking for new ways to grow it and activate it. So I’ll be doing probably more of that into the new year as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I see on the website you have some of these discussions that you mentioned. Does doing The Imaginary School and Àròko Cooperative, do they share similar goals? Do you see there being some overlap between those two?

Shakeil Greeley:
Definitely. I think any project that I work on ideally shares some goals. And I think in those two projects, just that idea of having a more open and equitable kind of design world is a big one for me. I mean, the most popular channel of our Imaginary School channels is one that is specifically decentering whiteness in design.

So I think there’s a lot of overlap in the goals of those two projects. I think Àròko is a bit doing it a bit more active way, whereas Imaginary School is more passive and just trying to get people information so they can reach conclusions and do their projects on their own. But definitely a lot of overlap in the long-term goals of both of those.

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

Shakeil Greeley:
I think the biggest lesson I have learned about myself in recent years is that I do not have the energy that I thought I had, is the biggest one. I think even when I was younger and would work all day, and commute, and then come home and work for five or six hours at night into the wee hours of the morning on freelance projects or side stuff, I think I was kidding myself that I could keep that going for as long as I did.

So that’s really the biggest thing is that for me to do my best work and especially do my best work with other people, I need time to unplug, and de-stress, and just not think about design or any of the large issues that are constantly weighing on my head. I need time to just decompress and really give myself time to recover in between really digging into these projects.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the older we get, our energy levels in some ways kind of naturally wane. But I definitely get what you mean about that, it’s more about what you put your energy towards, I think also.

Shakeil Greeley:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
I think when you’re younger, there’s a lot of stuff that you try to do all the things because you have the time, and the capacity, and the space to do all of that. And then as you get older, you just become just more intentional about what it is that you actually want to put your energy towards, what you want to put your name on. That sort of thing, what you want to be affiliated with. It’s less about doing all the things, and more about trying to do the right things for you.

Shakeil Greeley:
Yep. I completely agree. And as someone who had a traditional education in a lot of ways but didn’t have a traditional design education, I spent a lot of my twenties… I turn 30 next year. I spent a lot of my twenties just saying yes to anything I could get my hands on, because I felt like I needed to prove my skills. And also I wanted to develop my skills. And that got very old after a while, especially when you’re still dealing with commitments that are maybe multiple years old or something like this from when you were younger and a different person.

So yeah, definitely something as I move on is going to be just probably saying no to almost everything. And really allowing myself to just focus on the things that I think are going to make the most impact for myself and for the world. So Àròko and Imaginary School are two big ones.

I also would love to have a little time to just do stuff for fun. Again, I think I spent a lot of my last 10 years of my design career doing projects for people and with people and always serving as that creative liaison, or designer, or creative director or whatever. But it’s been a long time since I’ve done something that was just for me. And I’d love to get back to the ideas I had when I was a kid of making a comic book. So hopefully that’s the next actual personal project I do I complete in some indeterminable amount of time, maybe in the next five years.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about the comic book. Because that’s an idea that I’ve had for a very long time. I’ve always wanted to do some type of a comic book, or a graphic novel, or something. I’ve sort of done print design at different times throughout my career. But I’d say roughly within the past year and a half or so, I actually started working with printers. Because I was working at a company, and we made a print magazine. So I got to really see behind the scenes with paper types and all that stuff.

And it’s a lot less expensive than I thought it was. I think at the time that I was doing it also, there was just this massive paper shortage. Because I would think with masks and with just all the other stuff happening with the pandemic and things like that, everything was in a shortage. There were supply chain issues and stuff. But it’s actually a lot cheaper to print say 100 copies of a comic book if you just want to test it out. Lot cheaper than you think, or a lot cheaper than I thought at least. I was like, “That’s not a lot of money at all. I could do that.” I just now need to write it, maybe find somebody to draw it color, and get all that sort of stuff

Shakeil Greeley:
I mentioned earlier I’m hugely influenced by video games, manga, anime, all that stuff. So this also ties into my last thing about taking more time and rest and all that. I’ve just been trying to a lot more time just playing video games and reading comic books over the last couple years. Because basically in the end of 2019, I was just so burned out and just had totally ran myself dry. And I realized, “When was the last time I just played a video game for two hours?” And it had been basically since my senior year of college. So I was like, “All right, let me take some more time to do these fun things.” And so I’ve been reading a lot more comic books and all that.

And the idea I have, and I’m happy to share this with you right now, is basically make it a traditional kind of battle anime style, where everyone has a superpower, and they fight a big villain, and there’s big fight scenes and all that stuff. But have it all be based around a community organization that helps their local community by day, and fights the US government’s secret agents by night. And all of that happens in their dreams. So it’s all kind of about astral projection. I think it allows for a lot of fun ideas to roam free. With the core idea of this is a group that’s been fighting the government for years, and this government agency has been suppressing social unrest in people’s dreams for hundreds of years or something like that. So that’s the loose idea that I’m working with, and I really do want to put it to paper sometime soon, because I think it’s certainly something I would be really happy to read at the very least.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I like that a lot. That’s a really good idea. Who are some of the mentors, or colleagues, or people that have helped you get to this point in your career?

Shakeil Greeley:
I think there’s one person in particular who is absolutely the most influential. And I mentioned her already, but Meg Vázquez. She’s just been so huge for me, I think, and really getting that serious design education. So she’s my boss at GQ. So we worked together at GQ for two years. We’ve worked together at Splice for almost four years. And Meg was a part of the Hillary for America design team. So she cut her teeth on all that stuff. And she’s just been a huge figure for me in just in terms of just getting to know design better, and knowing how to operate, and how to just do design in a professional setting. So really, really could not have done it without her.

And then in addition to her, Charles Hall is another one who’s really important for me in terms of my creative growth and expression. And he was a TA of mine at Penn in the graduate seminar I mentioned early in our interview. And he’s an amazing designer, creative director in his own write. He wrote Michael Jordan’s retirement letter, and just has an amazing way with words and communication. And we’ve worked on a couple projects together. And he’s taught me a ton about the industry, and really pushed me as a designer to I think embrace my experiences a lot, and really lean on the things that I know better than other people. So those folks are super crucial.

But I also have to give a really big shout out to just my whole Àròko Cooperative team. I’ve learned so much from working with those people. And it’s hard to put into words I think the amount of knowledge we’ve been able to build just amongst ourselves in the last couple years. And I think I’ve learned as much from that group in two and a half years than I have in my four years of Ivy League education. So those folks are all really foundational for me, and I could not have gotten to where I am or done any of this stuff where I’m at now without the help of the Meg, Charles, and my Àròko squad.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to change in 2023?

Shakeil Greeley:
In 2023, I want to just be really deliberate and intentional with how I’m spending my time. I want to be spending my time when I have to be working and making money, doing something that is directly making people’s lives better. So I’m excited about joining this mental health company to do that.

And then also in my time out of the office, I want to make sure that anytime I’m spending doing additional work, it’s stuff that’s really important to me and really is serving me in the world. And then just having plenty of time to just relax. So really just making sure that I’m not spreading myself too thin. In fact, doing the opposite and giving myself a lot of time to just learn, and read, and mess with this comic book, and just chill out a little bit. I think I’ve earned it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to still be doing? What kind of new work do you want to do? Anything like that?

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. I think in the next five years, I would ideally be working full-time for myself or in collaboration with some of the folks I’ve mentioned before. I’m really excited about this new gig, and I have no idea where that’s going to take me. But I really have the long term goal of being able to run my my own studio, either by myself or in collaboration with other folks. So that’s what I’m really hoping for is getting the chance to just do that, and have a lot more freedom to go and just build the things that I think the world needs to have out in the world.

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

Shakeil Greeley:
Yeah. So the best place to find me is just at my website. It’s shakeil.com. S-H-A-K-E-I-L.com. You’re going to find everything there. I’m really active on Arena, so if you’re looking for a little bit more of a social atmosphere, you can find me at Arena/shakeilgreeley. And then for Àròko, you can find us at aroko.coop. So A-R-O-K-O.coop. And that’s a great place to go and get a full sense of what we’re working on. We have a really large project, which is our design manifesto that’ll be coming out probably by the time this interview airs. So definitely go check that out. You’re going to get some really interesting stuff, I’ll tell you that much.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well Shakeil Greeley, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like this interview was a great way to kind of close out the year. One, I think just to hear about the great things that you’re doing around something that we’ve mentioned on the show over the past two years, which is Design to Divest, that’s now the Àròko Cooperative. But seeing how you are working with something like that and then taking that to move forward into a bigger, grander future, I think that’s something that we all of course want to see, but something that we all need as well. And I’m just glad you were able to come on the show, and share your story. And I’m really excited to see what you do next. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Shakeil Greeley:
Thank you so much for having me, Maurice. It’s been such a pleasure and a real honor to be on the show. It’s an amazing way for me to close my ear up.

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Lauren Brown

If you saw the Google Doodle earlier this month of gaming trailblazer Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, then you’ve gotten a sample of the amazing work of this week’s guest — art director and illustrator Lauren Brown.

Lauren talked to me about the ins and outs of her current role at Wizards of the Coast, which includes doing art direction for the popular Magic the Gathering game series. She also spoke about growing up in New Jersey and attending undergrad there, getting her MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design, and shared how she started her career in animation and gaming from there. Lauren is also a podcaster, so we talked shop a little bit about her show Painted in Color, and she delved into what the podcast has taught her over the years. If you’re interested in getting into animation, then I hope Lauren’s story inspires you to follow your dreams!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Lauren Brown:
Hi, my name is Lauren Brown, and I’m currently an illustrator and art director working at Wizards of the Coast.

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

Lauren Brown:
It’s been a very interesting year, because it’s been a year of a lot of change. I think that I have probably had the most tumultuous year that I’ve had. No, I guess I can’t really say most tumultuous because the pandemic did just happen. But this year, it’s very tricky because I just moved back to Atlanta from Austin, Texas, and lost a job that I really believed in the day before I moved down. And then got another dream job. So it’s been a big year of ups, and downs, and a lot of a big journey, so to speak. But it’s also been a really good year because I’ve learned a ton and I’ve been able to do a lot. So it’s been a roller coaster a bit, but in a good way

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it. I think this has been a kind of rebuilding year for a lot of folks, especially I don’t want to say coming out of the pandemic, but certainly as we are now more normalized to just the way the world is now. People are starting to get back into some sort of a familiar rhythm. So it sounds like that’s what you’ve been trying to do also.

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. But I’ve been disrupted from really reestablishing myself. Because during the pandemic, I’ve really been in my head a lot doing a lot of internal work and doing a lot of self-centering and growing. I also got diagnosed with ADHD in 2021, so it was also a lot of coping and coming to terms with that. And working from home and having that pandemic environment exacerbated that. But from that, I learned a lot about how to master myself and learning how to be in better control of my own inclinations and my own tendencies.

And so I’ve been growing a lot over that course of the pandemic. Because weirdly, 2020 was a good year for me. Even though obviously stress wise and world wise it was awful. But because I’m an introvert and because I was able to be internal, I was able to do a lot of work towards my personal growth and my career that I think I may not have been able to do if not for that crazy, awful year. And a lot of it was the product of a lot of horrible things like the protests and all that. But that’s when people started to really take notice of Black creators and really wanted to elevate them. And so therefore, I had a good year because of that, even though it’s like a double-edged sword, obviously. Yeah, it’s weird to say always.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I’ve heard that from people too with the events that happened during the summer with folks protesting and with companies trying to I guess come to some level of recognition of what people of color, particularly what Black people are going through in both professional and personal capacities. I know a lot of people got an influx of work, so I completely understand that.

Now you sort of alluded to this. You have a really long history as an art director and an illustrator. But I want to start with where you’re at now. You mentioned you’re at Wizards of the Coast. Can you tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing there?

Lauren Brown:
Yes. I just started at Wizards of the Coast in October, late October. So I am the art director on Magic: The Gathering on the marketing side of things. So that means that I get to work on trailers and online content, and art direction with commissioning artists as well for key art. It’s a really exciting opportunity because it’s a chance to work with amazing artists all across the industry, and also impact the fantastic trailers that Magic does. And I’ve also been a huge Wizards fan for probably about over 12 years now. I started playing Match at the Gathering with my best friend, and then I started playing D&D eight years ago while working at Floyd County Productions, which I’ll talk about later.

But both of those games have really changed my life in terms of just making more friends, being more social, and just giving a very enriching, inspiring experience. So it feels really good to be able to work at a company that has directly influenced my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How is the work going so far?

Lauren Brown:
Right now I’m just onboarding. So I think you’ll probably hear a lot of people say this. When you first start at a studio, you have to learn how the systems work and you have to learn how the communication styles are. All of the acronyms, all the people that you’re going to be working with. So I haven’t really gotten to dive deep into things yet just because I’ve been doing onboarding for the past few weeks. But I’m really excited to see the work that I’m going to eventually start on and which project I’m really going to be able to impact. Obviously, whatever project I work on won’t come out for a little bit. But I’m looking forward to seeing that first trailer that comes out that I’ve gotten to have a hand in, and see people react to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, of course people know of Magic: The Gathering as a card game. Of course it’s expanded to more than that. But is it different doing art direction for a card game versus say like a video game?

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. Because when you’re working on a game that already has mechanics and already has such a big following, and also for the fact that it’s a physical card game, there are a lot more considerations of various different teams that you have to collaborate with and communicate with when you’re doing video games. Because you’re handling technology, and you’re handling a player experience and how the player is going to engage with the art in a completely different context.

Obviously there’s similar considerations. It’s very parallel to a card game, because you have to still consider how the player is going to look at the card, how they’re going to interact with it. How they’re going to feel when they experience it and what the story they get out of it is. But in a video game, that story is much more immersive. So you really have to think about a video game on a moment to moment basis, and how the player is going to interact with these different objects throughout space, rather than just a physical card that you hold in your hand. But with a card game, you have to figure out how to think about the whole set as a cohesive unit, and as a whole story. So it’s a different way to think about stories and a different way to think about how the art is going to impact that experience.

But I think from my purview being on the marketing side of things, most of that figuring out is already done. And I have to figure out how the audiences are going to engage with it once it’s out into the world. It’s a completely different sphere I think, of art direction than video game art direction is. So the differences are pretty glaring, but I really enjoyed both so far. I enjoy seeing how players interact with the content that we create, and I get to see that one in both aspects. And that’s really rewarding for me.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like some of that art direction also includes I guess some play testing also, right?

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. On the wizard side, I won’t be play testing anything because again, I’m not working on the core game. However, in video games, there’s a lot of play testing that needs to be done to make sure that everything that we are creating is coming across as intended for the players. There’s a whole team dedicated to play testing. They’re the QA team, quality assurance. And they’re the ones who really make sure that they’re catching all the bugs and catching all the errors that we might have, or anything that shouldn’t be as intended. But the team is also required to play test the games to make sure that everything that we have created is coming across as intended.

It’s my job to make sure that the art is reading as it should be, that nothing is going to be difficult to understand from first read. Is the main character blending into the background? Are these elements standing out? Will the player understand that they have to go through the store? Is that door bright enough or apparent enough?

Things like that are things that video game art directors have to think about, as well as just generally managing the team and making sure that everybody has a clear vision to aim towards. It’s a really collaborative experience with your full team, because you’re talking to everybody who’s making that game. Engineers, designers, producers, tech artists. You have to make sure that all the pieces are coming together. Because again, it’s a massive collaboration. And you want to make sure that everybody understands what everybody else is doing, so that everything is going to come together as a whole. Cause that’s very, very important. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong in video game development.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds a lot like, and maybe this is maybe an abstraction, but it kind of sounds a lot like production work in that you’re really kind of herding a lot of cats almost.

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. And usually, you want to be able to trust your team to make sure that they know what they’re doing. And hopefully you have hired them because they have skills in these areas. Obviously there’s going to be more junior artists or more junior people who need training and need to learn more. But everybody has something to bring to the table in game development. There shouldn’t be anybody who is sitting idle and not able to contribute to a certain part of the project. And so really, you have to trust that your team can do what they’re setting out to do.

But I really enjoy being more of a guide as an art director rather than a straightforward manager. I like to be a mentor, and really sit with my artists and work with them on growing their skills. And making sure that they’re excited about what we’re working on, and make sure that they have buy-in about what we’re working on. So a lot of the decisions that can be made are made without the input of everybody who’s working on the team, and you can feel like you lose your agency. And so as an art director, I like to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on. Even if they can say something and maybe it doesn’t work for the game, but at least they have the chance to speak and be able to contribute to that.

But I really enjoy that collaboration because it teaches me a lot. Especially working with different teams like engineers and design, because they all have different perspectives of what to bring to a game. And I’m a longtime gamer. And so being able to contribute actively to the process of making a game is really rewarding because you get to see why all these decisions are made. When I see players complaining about a certain aspect of other games that I am a fan of, I just have to shake my head because I generally know why those decisions were made, and why they had to be the way they were. A lot of the requests are things that are completely unreasonable. So being a part of that process is really illuminating, and was eyeopening for me when I first joined the game industry back in 2016.

Maurice Cherry:
So you kind of have to think about the whole experience. You’re thinking about it from the player’s end, you’re thinking about it of course from your end as the art director. And you’re really taking all of these considerations into account at every step of the process.

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. Because again, there’s a lot of moving parts to a video game. So when you’re art directing, you can’t just say, “I just want it this way, and that’s it.” It’s like no, you have to really consider how that art is going to follow the game play, how it’s going to follow the story. How it’s going to work with whatever the engineers can actually code into the game. There’s a lot of art that you can create that’s not going to be feasible to fit into the game engine even, or be able to run on certain devices. Because I worked in mobile when I first started my career in gaming, and there’s a lot of considerations that you have to take for what a phone can handle versus what a console can handle. So you really have to be careful as an artist to not overload the engine so that people can actually play the game.

But you also have to make sure that if you’re working under a license product, does the art look like the license product? Because the licenser will tell you if it doesn’t. And you have to be very careful about that. You have to be very careful about trying to put your own point of view in where a specific style has already been established. Because a lot of artists can have the tendency to do that, especially when they’re more junior.

There’s a lot of considerations to take in art direction. But ultimately, it’s a lot more technical than working in a field, like say animation would be. And so you have to learn a lot more about what engine requirements there are if you’re working in Unity or Unreal, what implementation looks like. There is so much to consider. But it’s been a really fun experience and I’m already starting to miss it a little bit working on video games proper, even though I haven’t really gotten to dive deep into my side of things yet at Wizards. But I’m looking forward to that too. But I think I’ll always want to make video games.

Maurice Cherry:
Now will you have an opportunity to also contribute artwork as well?

Lauren Brown:
I think I might be able to contribute artwork, actually. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m pretty sure that I will have an opportunity to be able to do that. Which I’m really excited about.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned having to consider all of these different parts. And it actually is reminding me of the last job that I had. I was working for a tech startup, but one of the projects they had was that they wanted to make a print magazine.

And I had never made a print magazine before, but I was like, “I could do this. I’ve done enough kind of creative-ish projects to get a sense of what this is.” And I’m not saying that making a magazine is like making a video game, but I think very much the overall sort of creative direction of putting something together from start to finish, so it can be a singular experience is kind of the same.

With the magazine, I was considering not just the articles that we were publishing, but what’s the order? What’s the journey that I want the reader to take from cover to cover? What do we want to have for illustrations? Do we want to have these full page illustrations that mirror the article? Do we want to have maybe a center spread or something like that? So all these considerations, not to mention the size of the magazine, the paper, all of that coming into the experience.

I really think a lot of people do not understand just how much goes into art direction and creative direction in terms of crafting an experience. Cause because just get it at the end and they’re like, “This is it. They don’t consider everything that has to have been done to get to that point.”

Lauren Brown:
And because that process again, is so involved and collaborative. Like I said, there’s so many things that can go wrong. And people don’t understand the sheer amount of content that they will never see, because there’s so much that I’ve worked on animation and in gaming that has never seen the light of day, because there’s so many things during the process that can just mess up the works. And the machinery will fail in terms of just the process of what it takes to make a game. And then that project will never get picked up again.

And so the fact that anything is out is a miracle to me, because I’m pretty sure that people see about probably 1% of all the content that actually has been made behind the scenes. There’s just really so much. But being able to see it start to finish becomes all that more rewarding, because it’s so hard to create.

And there’s smaller snippets that you can make too. Anybody can make a game. And sometimes what we would do when I was working at EA and Zynga is that we would do game jams, which you would break up into smaller teams over a very limited course of days. I think the shortest game jams I’ve worked on was actually one day, but usually it’s about two or three.

And just five of us who would work together for a few years would come together and make a video game that was playable. It was a requirement that it was a playable game. And I think those experiences out of everything was the most rewarding to me because it was a really focused vision, and it had to be from the beginning because we had so little time to make it. And I was so proud of those little projects, because it was that full collaboration that happened in such a condensed amount of time. And so you really got to see the process from start to finish within that course. And you got to concept it together. You got to brainstorm. You got to come up with our style, and what that’s going to look like, and how the game is going to play and be coded, and what the experience is going to be like, what the core loop is. And you come up with all that in such a short space.

And then coming out of probably not sleeping for a little bit or staying at work late, and then you get to see people experience your game that quickly is so rewarding and so special. Because you get to see it and it’s like, “Wow, we had a nugget of an idea and we really made it happen. It actually came to life.”

And that’s usually how I feel at the end of any big project, not just with gaming, but in animation, and illustration, and personal projects. I always feel that sense of accomplishment in a sense of, “Yeah, we made something. We had an idea and it happened.” Because again, people have no idea how often it just doesn’t happen or it just ends up as a work in progress. So it’s really special to be able to play any game. So I want people to appreciate that experience a little bit more because it’s so hard to make one.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the most difficult part? The fact that you could do all this work and then it just not even be released or something like that?

Lauren Brown:
It’s not the most difficult because it’s not up to me whether or not a game is released. But it is the most heartbreaking experience when something that you’ve worked on really hard or worked really hard doesn’t see the light of day. This happened in animation as well. There’s been several projects where I’ve worked on that I never got to really show anybody. And that was really sad because a lot of us believed in those projects. Same with gaming too. I’ve worked on at least I think three different games that never got made. And so it was a really heartbreaking experience. But we could also see the writing on the wall very often where we’re like, “We don’t know if those things are going to get made because there’s too many miscommunications and things that are not really working that we thought was going to work.” And after a while, there’s money that’s spent on these things. And so you have to consider how much the company is willing to invest in this idea that may not pan out, that may not be profitable. And again, it’s not up to us. It’s up to the company ultimately.

So I think that’s why it’s special to be able to make a game jam because that one is up to the team who’s making it. And so the fact that the team can come together and agree that this is going to be good enough to create is something that’s very special.
I think the hardest parts of game development is honestly the starting of it. The pre-production. Because it’s funny because it’s also the most fun. Most of the games that I’ve worked on have actually been live service mobile games. The Simpsons Tapped Out, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Words with Friends. And those games had already had a preset cadence with which they were releasing, which is very fun and comforting because you kind of generally know what the player’s going to expect and you can add new things to it. But the process has been already established.

But when a game is just starting, you have to establish the full process, how the production is going to run, what engine you’re going to use, what art style you’re going to use, which is really hard. What the game design is going to be, which is also very hard, and how the code base is going to be set up.

And so building the game initially is difficult because you need to make sure that you can maintain that game, or whatever you’ve committed to in the beginning can be scalable. Because if it’s not scalable and you’re trying to add more things to it, things are going to break really quickly. And it’s going to be really difficult to update, and edit your game, and add more things to it, and have it be playable on all these different engines. So there’s so much that has to go into when you’re first starting the game in pre-production or I guess in prototyping, because you’re throwing a bunch of stuff at a wall and you’re just hoping things stick. A game jam condenses this because you don’t have enough time to consider and mull over the details, and you don’t have the time to noodle over whatever could be. You just have to decide on something and make it happen.

But when you’re working on a full game, I mean it’s your playground, but it’s also difficult that it’s your playground. Again, that brainstorming collaboration comes into key. Because people can have buy-in, but they also can say, “Well that’s cool, but what if this?” [inaudible 00:22:24] last forever and ever. And you could end up not making anything because you’ve done what if this too many times.

So getting people to agree on a vision is really, really difficult. Especially when you have time to disagree. And so that’s really I think the hardest part for me. But it’s the most fun because you get to be the most creative. And if all the roles are correct and if people have their wheelhouses that they’re entrusted to, that can go really smoothly. I’ve had it go really not smoothly too. So it just really depends on what kind of team you’re working with and how much everybody trusts each other. It’s really an exercise in trust I think as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I 100% agree with that. Just to go back to the example I talked about earlier with the magazine, the company sort of had an idea like, “We want to start a magazine.” But they didn’t know what they wanted to call it, what they wanted it to look like. They’re just like, “We want to start a magazine and we want to publish it in four months.” It’s like okay, so I’m building it from the ground up, like Khadijah on living single. I’m trying to build flavor.

And even the initial ideas we had for, it kept changing in that pre-production process to the point where it took us longer to eventually get the first issue out because there were like, “Well, we want the cover to be this, and we want to do this.”

And all this sort of stuff. And even getting the internal buy-in from people to write for the magazine, because initially they’re like, “We want community members to write.” And then they switched it and said, “We want employees to write.” And employees were like, “That’s not in my job description to write articles.” And it during the holidays and someone would write an article and then say, “I’m taking the rest of the month off for Christmas.” And I’m like, “What? I need my edits. Where are you going?”

Lauren Brown:
But I think that’s the whole thing too with understanding what your roles are supposed to be on the project. It was something I had mentioned because when that happens, when people were like, “But you can do this, right?” That’s when things can really start to get a little bit… Again, depends on the team that you’re working with. But if people were like, “That’s not in my job description. Why am I doing this?” Then it’s going to be really hard to make something that’s cohesive because all the lines are blurred. If you are not expecting that to already be the process. If you are to come into a studio with the idea that you’re going to probably wear a lot of hats, that’s probably fine. You’re more of a generalist. But if you’re not inclined to doing various different things, that’s going to be really difficult to get adjusted to.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yes. Oh yes. And even most of the team that we had for the first issue, we kind of changed it up for the second issue. And I felt like okay, we’re getting on a really good rhythm with this. I’m excited about the third issue. We were in production getting it ready. And then they laid off the entire team and it’s like…

So to that point about working really hard on something, I was working hard on the third issue of the magazine and they laid us off. And I’m like, “Well, is the third issue even going to happen?” And the company’s like, “I don’t know.” So disheartening would that happens. They claim that they’re going to release it maybe by the time that this interview goes out. They said that they’ll release it in December. I don’t know if they’re going to do that.

But also this has happened, and I don’t know if you maybe feel like this too, but sometimes you just have to take the L. I’m just sort of like, “Well, it’s above me. I can’t do anything about it. Oh well.”

Lauren Brown:
No, I have a lot of experience in that. Because a lot of those decisions that were made, we don’t have any control over as a development team. So we had to take the L a lot and not by choice.

I think an essential part of the creative process though sometimes is learning how to take that L. Because you can hammer it away at something and sometimes it’s really not meant to work. And I think the difference between if it’s meant to work or if it’s not meant to work is the amount of effort that you’re willing to put into it and the amount of effort that you have the budget to put into it, if the project is dependent on budget. But I think anything can be made. It’s just if it actually gets finished or not. But any art is not finished. You just say, “I’m done.” There’s no such thing as finished. You can work on anything for an infinite amount of time. But when you say, “I’m done,” that’s when the project is finished.

And so it’s just like people have to learn when walk away from something, and sometimes the effort is futile, and you have to accept that, and move on to something that is better. Because what you do is you take that learning that you got from that last project and you apply to something that could work.

And so taking the L is not always a bad thing, but it is a heartbreaking place you consider all the time that you put into it, and you consider that somebody could have seen this and enjoyed it. But ultimately, you take that experience to go to the next thing and hopefully that next thing can get made. Sometimes it never gets made and that’s really frustrating too, but it’s all a part of the process.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. Very true. Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. I know that you’re here in Atlanta, but did you grow up here?

Lauren Brown:
No, I actually grew up in New Jersey. I was from a little town in South Jersey called Willingboro, New Jersey, where there was not really much going for it in terms of culture, or art, or anything. Yeah, that’s where I grew up. It was essentially right outside of Philadelphia where most of my family is. But yeah, my hometown is in Willingboro, New Jersey.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of design and artwork as a kid?

Lauren Brown:
Actually, yes. So my dad used to be a fashion designer. He’s always been an electrical engineer for 35 years, but on the side he did fashion design. And I would sit with him as he was picking out his ties, and I would help color coordinate his ties because he was colorblind, which is pretty funny. And I was always really good with color.

But he also designed a lot of dresses, and he did fashion shows for people around the neighborhood and in Philadelphia. And I think that’s essentially how my mom and dad had met was because he used to be in that fashion industry in Philly. And so I would help him design some of his outfits too. And really getting to see him doing that process of drawing something, and then creating it, and bringing it to life was really inspiring for me.

But I had the inclination to draw ever since I could hold a pencil really. I was unstoppable. I’d draw on everything. The walls, on homework, just anything I could get my hands on. Because I had a very, very creative imagination. And I always had stories in my head, and I just desperately wanted to get them out. And watching cartoons, anime, Sailor Moon, Pokemon, all these ways that stories could come out was super inspiring for me. And I just wanted to make my own things that made me feel the way that those things make me feel. But my creativity was highly encouraged at home because my dad was creative. And my mom understood what it was like to be creative, even though she wasn’t a creative. My parents kind of made an effort to make sure that my talent was cultivated, and they enrolled me in art classes, and made sure that I wasn’t really tamped down.

Because I was a weird child. I was real weird. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and I was very, very different than everybody else. And no one really understood me. Which was fine by me because I found my little corners to draw on. And I found a best friend when I was seven years old, who was also really creative. And so me and her would just spend all our time together just making crazy stories and characters, and bringing a lot of our stuff to life. So it was a very inspiring kind of childhood even though it wasn’t a very inspiring town or culture to grow up around, just because no one really understood what we were doing. But we forged on forward regardless of that fact. So that was really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
And now eventually, you ended up going to college and studying illustration and animation first at Montclair State University. And then from there, you went to Savannah College of Art and Design. What was your time like at those schools?

Lauren Brown:
Oh man, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Because when I went to high school, it was a vocational school where they had career majors. And I was in the advertising, art, and design career major. So I really got to work with other artists then and start to dive into what it was like to kind of work as a professional, do a graphic design and doing illustration.

But at Montclair, I feel like that’s where I really started to understand myself as a person. Because for the first time, really for the first time, people started to accept my weirdness for what it was. Just this creative, artistic child. I guess not child anymore, but this person who just wanted to express themselves. And I was surrounded by all these people who really wanted to express themselves, and was fully accepted for that. Not just accepted, but appreciated for that. And I made some really amazing lifelong friends at Montclair. And I actually went to Montclair with my best friend, that same friend who I met when I was seven.

I really got to explore a lot of different areas in art, sculpture, and ceramics, and painting. I didn’t do photography, but a little bit of photography and graphic design. And got to see what all these different areas in art had to offer and be very tactile with art. Because I was doing digital for a lot of the time in high school. And so that was a really great learning experience.

But the problem was, is that I was really interested in animation. The aforementioned shows that I used to love to watch. I thought I always thought I was going to be an animator in some regard, but Montclair didn’t really have an animation program flushed out yet because they just started their animation curriculum. And so when I went there, I was hoping that I could learn about animation and that was kind of opposite from the case. So I ended up rerouting my course and going full into illustration instead.

And so when I was a senior in college, SCAD, Savannah College of Art Design had come to North Jersey to do a kind of seminar about what the school entailed, and they gave me a brochure. And when I read that brochure, I saw that they had all these different majors like sequential art, which was comic books and illustration. And animation and game design. And they were like, “As a part of our sequential art program, you get to go to Japan for two weeks and you get to learn about the studios that are in Japan.” And I was like, “Well, this is everything I wanted to do in the first place.”

So I remember that there was a London trip that I could have gone to that I chose not to because I wanted to work on my portfolio to apply and get into SCAD. And so I spent those full two weeks just heads down and making art for that because I really, really wanted to get in. And so after I graduated that next year, I applied for SCAD and got into their grad program for illustration. And that was a really crazy experience as well. Yeah, I really wanted to go for that because I think that even though Montclair gave me so much in terms of personal growth, I really wanted that professional side of things too, because I was starting to get more focused in terms of what I wanted to do.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would imagine it was probably just a different city environment too. Montclair State University of New Jersey is going to be a lot different than Savannah College of Art and Design. You went to the Atlanta campus, right?

Lauren Brown:
No, I actually went to Savannah.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you went to Savannah campus. Okay. So I would imagine even just the creative community around you was different because it inspired you in different ways.

Lauren Brown:
So Montclair was interesting, because everybody was really talented there. But I felt like I was very on par with the high ceiling of talent. I was like, “Okay, I can run with most of these people. This feels good.” There was some people who were above and beyond for sure. But I still felt like a fairly big fish in a medium pond. I know it sounds cocky to say, but that’s really how it was. And I think a lot of us felt that way. When I went to SCAD, I was a really little fish in a really big pond, and was surrounded by incredible talent. And all of my friends were just rock stars, and people who could make some amazing things like crazy illustrators. And I’m like, “I don’t think SCAD told you anything because you were naturally this gifted. There’s no way anybody could have given you this. You’re amazing.” And animators who I was like, “They’re destined to work at Disney and Pixar. They’re just crazy good.”

And so the fact that I was suddenly surrounded by a high ceiling of talent, a space high ceiling of talent. It was both really inspiring and really intimidating. I actually kind of went through a little bit of an artistic crisis when I went to SCAD because I started to try to make work that was everybody else that was in the illustration curriculum. And I didn’t really have a well-developed personal voice when I was at SCAD because I kind of rerouted myself to try to fit into the mold, fit into what I thought people had expected of me.

But when I went over to animation, my first year, I was solely really in the illustration department and really just learned from all my peers there and my friends there. But two of my really good friend, my best friends came to SCAD the year after I joined scad. And so they were animation majors and I hung out in a mission building a lot more. Which the ammunition building is a renovated coffin factory with no windows, which is really funny. It’s also open 24 hours, sorry SCAD Savannah.

But it was an environment where we all were really heads down and worked really hard on our projects. And it was the first time that I really got to experience collaboration at school as well, because illustration is a very independently focused type of field.
Animation relies on a team. And not every student opted to do this, but some students built teams of up to 60 people that were full scale productions. They had actual producers. They had storyboard artists, and layout artists, and background artists, animators, compositors, 3D modelers. They had everything. And they ran it just like you would when you were in the industry, which I would find out later.

But when I would go into animation and work on my illustrated projects, people would come recruit me. They were like, “We like the work you’re doing? Come work on my film. You want to do character design for my film?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. That sounds like fun.” And I got to meet a lot of people that way, but I also got to learn a lot about how the industry actually ran and how it functioned. And so I feel like that experience out of anything, because it wasn’t even a class I was taking. It was just extra stuff that I was doing outside of my classes. That taught me the most I think about what it looked like to actually work as a professional in the field.

And then I also did the Japan trip that was aforementioned in that brochure. I went to that Japan trip, and that was amazing too. So I got to meet a lot of friends, I got to go to Japan, I got to see animation studios up close. And that was just a really incredible experience. So SCAD gave me a lot. It’s also a very expensive school, so I can’t recommend it to everybody. But it really taught me a lot about what it looked like to work in the field. But also just that networking that I got from SCAD in particular was very, very valuable. Because a lot of those people cropped up in the future, and still are lifelong friends today.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And I’ve heard that SCAD has a really robust alumni program too, just in terms of not just the people who went there of course as alumni, but getting in touch for other opportunities and things like that. I’ve heard SCAD is really good about that.

Lauren Brown:
Oh yeah, they’re really good about it. But I haven’t even tapped into the surface of those alumni programs yet. I have done their alumni Gaming Fest and Animation Fest, and I’ve done the alumni panels on that and talked about my experiences as a professional to the students.

And I actually had applied to teach SCAD. And this summer, I mentioned at the start of the episode that I had just went back to Atlanta. I had lost my job. And I knew that even before I had lost my job, I wanted to go teach eventually at SCAD Atlanta. It’s funny because they actually got back to me right after I got hired at Wizards so it was too late. I was like, “No, you got me just too late.” But yeah, that environment is like nothing else like that. Very creative, just very focused. And it reminds me why I love art so much, just being around students and being around all that creativity.

I felt the happiest at SCAD because really when you’re a student, you’re in a bubble. And you’re in a bubble of all this creativity and all this positivity. And so as an alumni, I do want to tap back into that, and find those resources, and meet my fellow alumni who are tapping into those programs too. But yeah, ultimately I also want to go back and teach, because you can take classes too, and I just want to learn more.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned that part of the SCAD experience in terms of how they set up working on projects and things like that was very similar to how it was in the industry. So once you graduated from SCAD and you got out there in the field, you were working for Floyd County Productions. That was sort of right after SCAD?

Lauren Brown:
Yes. So after I graduated SCAD, I opt to stay in the city because I didn’t want to go back to New Jersey. I love my family a lot, and they’re awesome people. But the environment of Jersey is not a creative environment at all. And I was like, “I don’t think I want to go back to Jersey where I’m leaving all these people and all this creativity. I want to really build my portfolio and cultivate my professional appearance, and what I’m going to be.”

So I stayed in the city at Savannah, which is an awesome city by the way. Everybody should visit it. And really got to hang out with my friends and develop my portfolio. And I started to post on various different freelance websites and got a few small freelance projects as well. But because I had put my portfolio on all these websites, I was also noticed by a background director at Floyd County Productions, which is a studio that makes Archer in Atlanta, Georgia.

The manager had reached out to me and she said that, “Hey, I saw your work on freelance.com. I really like what you do. We would like you to take an art test for us and I want to see if you would be good to work as a background artist here.” And I was just like, “What?” My mind was blown. Because I didn’t know what I was going to do after I graduated. It’s weird because I didn’t remember having a bunch of anxiety around it, but I also just did not know what I was going to end up doing. I thought I just needed to develop more skills. But I was really fortunate to be able to get that email.

So she sent me an art test. It was a 24 hours to work on this art test. I took that to mean you do this art test in 24 hours right now. I used all 24 hours at this time too. I made sure that that thing was bomb. And it’s funny because it was like you had to treat a background like a bomb went off in it. It was already painted and then you had to really mess it up. And so I had a lot of fun doing that. I got critiqued from my friends and made sure that it was looking good, and submitted it. And I was like, “Okay, I hope I did a good enough job. I hope I did it.”

And also, I was going to have a trip over to Atlanta for Dragon Con. So that still happened to fall around that same time. And so I messaged her all shyly and I was like, “Hey, I might be in town in two weeks. So is it okay if I visit the studio too?” I didn’t want to say it was Dragon Con because I didn’t know if that was acceptable or not. And she messaged me back and she was like, “You’re going for Dragon Con. Yeah sure, absolutely. You can come to the studio.”

I was such a little baby. It was really funny to think about me around that time because I just did not know. Because as soon as I walked into that studio environment when I got to visit, I was like, “This looks like just all of my classmates. This feels like college again.” Because everybody had toys on their desk, and everybody was really cool. And everybody was again, creative.

When you’re a student, you think that professionals are this different breed of people. You think that they’re on this elevated, very buttoned up on this pedestal. And we’re really not. We’re so not. We’re not corporate, we’re artists. And it’s just like working with artists that you would work with as a student. We’re all creative and we’re all nerdy. We all have our own interests that we nerd out about and geek out about, and we get really obsessed about certain things. And so everybody really had that just laid back, chill kind of personality. And so it was very easy to get along with everybody because I’m like, “I don’t feel like I’m out of my element actually at all. This feels like SCAD.” And so I ended up getting hired after that trip two weeks later. And packed all my stuff, moved over to Atlanta, and found that the animation production cycle was exactly like how it was on films that I worked on at SCAD, where everybody had their different roles, there were different departments. It was a really collaborative environment there as well. And you had your team. That’s how I got over to Floyd County.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds fun. Even the environment that you mentioned, like working with all those artists and creatives is fun. I’ve mostly been a creative at tech startups. Not fun. They’re not fun. I mean if you want to nerd out about code or whatever, which I don’t really care about. But I remember I worked at one startup, and we would have our weekly all hands. And I mean these nerds would just go in on code for two hours straight. I’m like, “I have work to do.” And they’re excited about it talking about containers and frameworks and I’m like, “I have work to do.” I don’t know. I’m still looking to for that working with creatives experience like that, because it sounds like it would be a lot of fun.

When you look back at your experiences with studios though, I would imagine it probably wasn’t all fun. I mean after Floyd County Productions, you worked for four years at EA Mobile. You worked for two years at Zynga. What were those experiences like?

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, I can get into those. But first I just want to address something too. It was definitely fun to be able to work in that creative environment with a bunch of creative peers, but it’s still work and you still have to show up and do the work. So after a while you’re just like, “Oh man, I’ve been working on the same background for two weeks now. I just really want to move on.”

And also the hours can be a lot because you’re in animation. You’re in a strict production cycle, especially for TV. And so sometimes, I think I’d worked once up to 80 hours one week. So it can be crazy. Yeah, I know. So that part’s not fun. It was my first experience becoming a lead, and a manager, and a director. Because I was promoted to background director shortly before I had left Floyd. I really wanted to protect my team from a lot of the brunt of that work, of the editing and of the long hours. And so I took on a lot of that myself with my lead. And that was a lot.

Then also after a season ends, you go on hiatus, which is basically laid off for about two or three months, which can happen in a lot of animation studios. And so you had to understand how to fend for yourself too during that time. And so it was really fun to work in an environment like that, but it can also be very stressful. And so that’s something to consider as well. I don’t want to sugarcoat what it’s like to work in animation, because there’s definitely drawbacks to certain studios and certain environments. Other studios that have union, you don’t have to deal with that as much. But I’ve never worked under a union studio before, so I can’t speak to that as well. But it’s just something to look out for and something that people have to determine whether or not they want to go into.

I felt like I could handle it because I was young. I can’t handle that now. I’m too old for that. I really can’t. But back then I had the stamina to deal with it, but there was also burnout. And so I was kind of thankful for hiatus because it was an opportunity to really recharge my batteries and do personal work as well. Because when I was working full-time, I couldn’t really dedicate that much time to personal work. So there’s definitely a lot of give and take.

I will say I do miss the people and I miss the kind of work that I did. Because when I went over to EA, it was my first time going into game development. I decided to leave animation just because I was ready to explore something new. My friend told me, he went over to EA a year prior and he told me how the environment was, and what they were working on, and that I would be a good fit.
And so when I interviewed there, I realized that the experience was very parallel to what I was already doing in animation. And so I was like, “Okay, I think maybe I don’t fill all the qualifications for this, but I fit most of them. And I might as well go for it anyway.” And ended up getting hired at EA.

So I left Atlanta, which I was really sad about. I was not ready to leave Atlanta. I loved the city, and that’s why I came back. I realized that I’d fallen in love with it right before I left. So I was like, “Oh no.”

But I went over to Austin and Austin is also really cool, but it was a lot of change as well. I went over to EA, which was so much more of a corporate environment. Because EA is a huge studio and it has a lot of systems in place, and process in place, and a lot of very clear defined roles, and clear defined things that you’re supposed to do. And you can’t say everything that you used to say in a very informal environment like an animation, and you have to make sure that you’re careful about following all the rules. And so it was an interesting adjustment. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, but I found that I could roll with that as well.

Also, the people that I worked with too. Again, really awesome people. Gaming nerds, which I am also a gaming nerd. But like you were saying about your tech startup, it’s a lot more technical. And so there were a lot of things at first that really went over my head. I didn’t know what Scrum was. I was like, “What is agile? What is code base? What is all this stuff?” Working in an engine for the first time, and understanding that you had to make art a certain way to fit into the engine, and you had to optimize stuff. I’m like, “What is all this integration?” I’m like, “What does all this mean? I don’t know what any of this means.” But I learned all of that probably within the course of three months. And just letting you know, even what I learned is different from game to game. So a lot of that experience can translate and a lot of it doesn’t.

I was really determined to do a good job at EA and to really work hard because I was a senior and lead environment artist. And so I had people to manage as well. And so I was learning a lot, and they were teaching me a lot about the process as well. But I really loved working with my fellow artists and my team.

And the games that we were working on, I can’t talk about the first game that we worked on, but we started working on The Simpsons Tapped Out shortly after, which was a live service mobile game that had been out for a while. And so being able to meet the people who had made the game and then understanding what it took to make a live service and talking to a licensor for the first time. That was just a lot of new learning experiences.

But it was also the first time where I really started to see the disparity of the industry, and the fact that it wasn’t very diverse. I started to really feel that in the city of Austin in general, and my environment reflected that. And I was working in Atlanta. So before, it was a very diverse place. And now I was like, “I feel at times, very isolated.” And I wanted to work to change that.

So I think at EA is really where I started to develop my professional voice as well as my sense for advocacy, and really started to want to actively work to make change in the game industry. Because I wanted to see more people who look like me, doing what I was doing.

Because I felt very fortunate, but I don’t feel like I’m that special. I feel like everybody can do what I’m doing if they really work towards it, and they really go for it. I feel like again, I’ve been fortunate to be able to get these opportunities and to be able to make these friends. But I wanted to start teaching people how to get to where I was.

So what EA has are things called employee resource groups where there’re groups to advocate for a certain underrepresented group of people. So there was a pride one, there was a Latin one, there was a Black one. And there was a disabilities one as well. There wasn’t an Austin chapter of the Black ERG. And so I started it with a few coworkers. And we made a Black EA Team Austin, BEAT Austin, and started to do advocacy work around the city, around the industry. And that’s when I really started to do mentorships and started to do work like this where I actively did panels at Dragon Con and other conventions, and started to really talk about my experiences and be visible as one of the people who was a leader in the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
How did that experience go?

Lauren Brown:
It was really interesting. Because at first, I felt very shy. I said this story on a SCAD panel, but I feel like I started my end career very quiet because I was a Black woman, and now I’m leading it loud because I’m a Black woman. Because I really had the sense that people didn’t quite know how to handle me. One of my managers had told me that he felt intimidated by me. And I feel like I’m the opposite of an intimidating person. I’m a very huggy, affectionate, just dorky person. And the fact that he felt intimidated by me, I was like, “It’s probably because I’m Black.”

But also, if I am going to have somebody feel intimidated by me and he expects me to be intimidating, then I’m just going to be intimidating and ask all the questions that I really want to ask, and start saying the things that maybe I wouldn’t have said if I was feeling a little shyer. Because with that intimidation, I was like, “He must respect me a little bit too. So maybe I can just say some things.” And in a professional way always, of course. But maybe I can start to speak my mind a little bit more and start to talk about the things that I’m observing. And I started to do that. And it was actually well received.

And so that experience was really enlightening for me because I was like, “I actually have a voice now.” At Floyd, I was a young creative. I just started, so I didn’t really want to express myself. I didn’t really want to be a contrarian, because I was just afraid of what people would say. I just didn’t have the confidence yet. I started to build the confidence at EA and started to really start to call people out and, “Hey, why are we not thinking about these things? Why are we not thinking about what this Black character is doing or saying, or the fact that we’re even having Black characters in this game?”

The designer that I started doing the ERG with, we used to do a Valentine’s event for Tapped Out every February. And he was like, “This time we should do a Black history event.” And I was like, “We should do a Black history event. Let’s do it.”

And so things like that are things that I would’ve never thought to advocate for when I was working in animation. And I really started to advocate for it and started to really gain my identity too as a Black creative, when I started in the game industry. And it felt very empowering. And I really felt like I could really use my voice, because there were so few people who looked like me. There were no other Black female game developers at the time I was working at EA. And also when I moved on to Zynga four years later, there was still no other Black female game devs except for, I think there was the VP art director, which was really cool to see a woman like that in management and leadership. But that was the first time I had really seen someone like that. And it shouldn’t have taken that long. It shouldn’t have taken five years for me to see that. So I really wanted to work to change it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, good on you for really stepping into that. Stepping into that sort of, I guess vacancy that you saw. And being an advocate not just for yourself, but for other Black people, Black women particularly in the industry.

Lauren Brown:
It wasn’t easy because I also had to deal with people not understanding why things were important, not understanding why I prioritized the stuff. I didn’t let it get in the way of my workload. But we actually started to advocate at EA for all of our advocacy work and all of the things that we were doing to actually count towards our year end reviews and performance, and to be an actual positive mark. And so it actually became a company mandate. Through all of our being vocal, it became a company mandate for ERG work to be considered as a part of our performance review. And so it encouraged more people to join ERGs, and more people to advocate. And I think that it ultimately funneled up to become something really positive.

And so it worked in spite of any pushback that I got and any misunderstanding that it received, because then the company started to really back it. And that was really, really rewarding. So I feel really grateful to have a voice that was respected and had been a part of that change. But I still want to continue to do that in my work at Wizards as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do? What is it that keeps you empowered and motivated?

Lauren Brown:
I think when I was talking to a student at an event that I was doing, this was when I was still at EA. I was talking to him and he was like, “These are the things that I’m interested in, but I don’t know if I even fit in the game industry or where I could go.” And he was like, “I really like engineering, but I also like doing art.”

And I told him, I was like, “Hey you know, there’s a whole field just for you called tech art, where you get to be an engineer for artists.” And to see his eyes light up in that moment was the takeaway for me, because I got to help somebody realize that there’s space for them in the industry, and that there’s somewhere that they can fit. And so something that I love to do is to see, and mentor people, and give them reviews and give them advice. And then see them sometime later, actually break into the industry and do the job that they always wanted to do.

So being an influence for people to go for something that they would not have previously thought they could go for is such a rewarding experience for me to be able to give somebody that, because I feel like I’ve been really fortunate in the people who have supported me, and my parents being a support for me, but also my friends standing by me and advocating for me, recommending me to these things. I wanted to be able to provide that helping hand for other people. I wanted to be able to give back. And so that’s what really keeps me motivated is to be able to give back and see it really come to fruition.

But I also really want to make a more diverse game industry. I grew up playing games where very few people in those games look like me. And the more people we have behind the scenes making these games, the more diverse it’s going to get, and the more inclusive it’s going to become. And then the more accessible games will be for people who look like me. And so maybe we won’t think of it as an impossibility once we start to see faces to these games, and see people on the stage talking about what their experiences were making these games. And I think eventually, we will start to see that more and more. We’re already seeing it more and more.
So if I can get at least one Black person in the industry, or one Black woman in the industry, or somebody who didn’t believe in themselves to believe in themselves to do it, then I’ll have succeeded at my job. And I think it’s already happened a few times, so I feel like I’ve succeeded at my job. But I want to keep that going. Because I really believe that paying it forward is really our step to a better future in gaming, but just in the world in general. So I want to be a part of that change.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of paying it forward, I have to bring this up that you’re also a podcaster as well. You have a show called Painted in Color. Tell me about that.

Lauren Brown:
Yeah. So we started Painted in Color in 2020. And previously, I kind of always wanted to start some kind of YouTube show or podcast, but I was always too afraid to do it or I was like, “What could I say that anybody would even listen to?” But after doing all that advocacy work in the game industry, I realized that I do have a point of view that people don’t get to hear that much. And so I really wanted to take the opportunity to share that.

Around the time we started Painted in Color, this is in 2020 right after the protests were happening. And people started to really take notice for the first time, some for the first time that Black game devs, or Black animators, or Black creatives in the industry were really not getting their dues. Started to really reach out with different opportunities. But I found myself both feeling pleased at this, but also frustrated that it took this long. And there was also a show that I was on, like a podcast. I’m not going to mention them by name, but they had run for six years, and I was only the third Black person on the show. Yeah, I know right?

And they interview people all the time. And I’m like, “Why did it take this long?” I actually called them out on the show about this too. It was live, so they couldn’t do anything about it. It was something that really needed to be called out. But I really thought about that and took it to heart. I’m like, “Why was it that I was only the third Black person on the show?” There are so many Black creatives out there, and so many people who have great stories, and people who are highly talented, who haven’t really gotten a platform to share it.

And so when all these things were happening, we had a female fantastic art group about fantasy art. Somebody was talking about, “We want shows that are really uplifting, like women, and minorities, and creatives.” And I commented in that post saying that I really wanted to start something like that. And one of my friends who I had met at a convention had also commented on that post saying that she wanted to start something like that. Until she reached out to me on Facebook and said, “Hey, I saw that you commented that you wanted to start a show. Do you want to start a show together?” And I was like, “Heck yes I want to start a show together. That sounds awesome.”

So we started it with Esther Wu, Mia Araujo, and ended up pulling Eric Wilkerson, who’s also a fantasy artist, amazing painter, into our show. But we wanted to make a show that was dedicated to uplifting underrepresented artists in the industry. And we wanted to tell their stories, and interview them, and really get them to talk about the true experiences of what it was like to be an artist. We didn’t want to run it like a typical art podcast where people tell you, “You have to do this to succeed. You have to be like this.” Because it often comes from a white male perspective, and that’s not everybody’s perspective. And people can also feel very down on themselves when they can’t do all the things that people are prescribing them.

So we wanted to talk about all of our nuanced perspectives, and we ended up talking about a lot of mental health aspects as well. Because we were all going through it. Obviously it was the pandemic. It was a really hard time mental health wise for each of us and everybody. And it kind of ended up becoming that too organically, even though that wasn’t a part of the goal. But I’m happy that it became a part of the show, because it really showed a perspective from professionals that were still struggling in some kind of way. So we wanted to talk about our struggles and talk about how we were working to gain better mindsets around those struggles, and better perspectives around it. And a lot of the artists that came on our show also talked about those perspectives as well. And we got to hear about so many different journeys, and it was so inspiring to be able to get their sensibility and how they learn and grow. And so we started in 2020 at LightBox Expo Virtual. We had a panel discussion about what it was like to be a creative in the industry as an underrepresented group.

And we kept going from there. So we air biweekly on Mondays. We’ve been doing it for two years now. We’re about to air an interview soon with somebody amazing named Michael Uwandi, who started something similar, 9B Collective, which is a creative group over in LA that employs underrepresented artists and Black artists who work in the film industry, which is really awesome. We got a chance to really start to exercise that voice and grow our presence over time. And it’s been really, really fun and rewarding, and super inspiring. So that’s what I’m currently continuing to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’ve definitely checked out the podcast, and I’ll make sure that we put a link to it also in the show notes. I know 100% that feeling of being on a show that has not had a lot of Black guests, and you ask them. And then there’s all this hemming and hawing and, “Well, we tried.” Yeah. Okay, sure.

Lauren Brown:
A lot of the excuses too from recruiters as well and from shows is, “We don’t know where to find them. It doesn’t seem like there’s that many of them.” There are a myriad of us. We are everywhere. It’s really sad what’s going on with Twitter right now, because Twitter was actually how a lot of places had found me to interview me. I didn’t an article with Apple on the App Store. And so when people opened the app store, they saw my face. And that was because of Twitter, because there’s hashtags called drawing while Black, Black and gaming, I am POC and play. All these hashtags that really elevate the presence of underrepresented artists and minorities in the industry. And I hope that we don’t lose that platform because that was a really big presence for us. And so it’s a shame that has happened, because it was proof that we were out there. And we were present in droves, and a lot of really amazing talent too.

And so that excuse was really invalid. It was just because companies and people didn’t want to put the effort forward to look in different spaces than they were used to looking. If your spaces are only netting a certain kind of artist, then you probably need to change up the spaces that you’re looking in.

So I really want to emphasize that a lot in the show and as well as all the panels that I do, because I really do think it’s a matter of effort. There’s a lot of excuses that go around about it, and people, they’re not used to making that effort.
And we’ve had to make that effort for years. We’ve had to code switch, we’ve had to be twice as good, four times as good in order to get into the industry. So if people don’t want to make that effort, it’s time to start now. Because we’ve been doing that for a long time, and we know what it’s like to go above and beyond constantly. So we would like to be met halfway a little bit please.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Listen, I did a whole presentation called Where Are the Black Designers in 2015. Because so many companies were asking me that. They had found out about the show, and they would be like, “Where are you finding all these people?” And I’m like, “On LinkedIn, on Twitter. I’m just reaching out and talking to them. Are you not doing the same things? My melanin doesn’t grant me any special search powers. I don’t have Black spidey sense or whatever. I’m just talking to people. Are you not talking to people?” And they’re not. They’re not putting forth even the baseline amount of effort.

Lauren Brown:
The minimum amount of effort. Yeah, and my LinkedIn started to also get very diverse because I just started to follow more people who were talking about these things. And that’s really what you have to do. When you follow people who discuss these issues, people who are in the industry will respond and comment. It’s very easy, in fact, to find these people. Just follow a few DEI experts on LinkedIn to start with if people are listening to this and wondering how. Follow people like Crystle Johnson who talks about DEI issues in the industry all the time. And people will comment and say like, “Hey, this is what my experiences are.” People share their stories in these LinkedIn posts. And so that’s a great way to start finding more Black talent and Black creatives. Or maybe make a post yourself and be like, “Hey, I’m doing a search for Black creatives. I just want people to comment and see who I find.” I’ve just done that on Twitter as well.

I do several times a year when these hashtags start to go around. I’m like, “Hey, drop your portfolio in the comments. I would love to be able to follow these artists, and be able to follow you, and see what you’re creating.” So there’s so many different ways, like the hashtags I dropped earlier, so many different ways to find Black creatives or just creatives of color, diverse talent, underrepresented artists, people with disabilities. Any group that you’re looking for, you will find them. We are around, and we talk about these things all the time. So it really, really isn’t that hard. You just have to know where to look. You just have to do some research, find places to look. And then you’ll start to open up your dashboards and broaden them. And you’ll learn something along the way too. So please do that. Cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to tell people this, too.

Maurice Cherry:
What have you learned along the way from the podcast? What has it taught you?

Lauren Brown:
I can’t even go into all the things that it’s taught me. But I think one of the most important things that it’s taught me to be curious. Always be curious about learning something new, and growing, and being self-aware of who you are, and what it is like to work in your own mind, and how to work with yourself to be the best you.

Because again, a lot of shows will talk about, “Here’s what you have to do to be successful.” But if being successful means that you have to get up in the morning every day at 8:00 AM and you know you’re not a morning person, you’re not going to do that. You’re forcing yourself to do something that you hate doing. So what do you do instead? If you’re a night owl, then maybe do the bulk of your work at night where you know that your brain is awake during, and that you work with your own body. You know you get bored about working out? Then maybe switch up your routine every now and again. The fact that you’ve fallen off of a routine is not a failure. You just need something new to mix it up.

It’s the same way with any kind of aspect. Know yourself and work with yourself to be your definition of success, because success means something different for every single person. You can’t follow one set prescription of success. And so work with yourself the way you need to in order to get to your brand of success. That’s what I’ve learned about the show the most, because every single person who’s started to do the things that really make them happy has followed not the rules of society, but their own rules of how they best function and what makes them happy. And that’s what I’ve taken away the most from the show.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you worked to stay your authentic self throughout your career? I get this very strong sense of one, I think determination. But also, it’s coming from a very earnest place. It’s not grand-standing or anything like that. It’s coming from a real, genuine place. How have you worked to keep that authenticity?

Lauren Brown:
I learned not to compromise myself anymore. Not just in my art, but just personally as well. If there is something that I feel very strongly about, I know automatically that it is not for me, or it is for me. And I pursue it, or I reject it however I need to. But I’ve learned that the person who I am will attract the people who I want in my life. And compromising myself and being inauthentic is going to bring around the wrong people that I don’t want to be involved with.

And even though I’m an introvert, I thrive around people who understand me. And in order to be understood, I have to share myself. And I have to really share who I am as a person, not just a veneer of myself. And so I think that’s what keeps me authentic, because being authentic just makes me happier. And sharing my point of view makes me really understand who I am. even more.
So I have a little anecdote. There was a convention called Gen Con that it was a prestigious convention. And they had amazing fantasy artists that had been in the industry for 20, 30 years. And I got in somehow. Somehow.

And I was so intimidated by this convention. I was just like, “Oh my God, I don’t have art that looks like anybody else’s. What am I going to do? I don’t know what to create.” And I psyched myself out so hard that I didn’t make any new work for this con, and I was meant to sell my artwork there.

And the last few weeks before this convention had started, I was like, “Oh my God, I haven’t made anything. What do I do?” And I was like okay. I had a moment with myself. I was like, “I got in not because of what other artists looked like, but because what my art looked like. They accepted me for me. So why would I not make anything that looks like me? Why would I want to make anything that looks like anybody else’s, if they asked me to be in the show for what my portfolio looked like?”
And so what I ended up doing was making the most self-indulgent piece ever, which was the Mushroom Queen piece that’s on my website if anybody wants to look at it. But it was just fully 100% my authentic viewpoint. And I was like okay. I went to the show. I set it up. I was like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen.”

And that was by far my best show that I had ever done. I’d been doing conventions for about 10 years at this point, and it was the most successful, the most positive experience ever. And that piece that I made was the most sold print. I sold out of that print. And it went to show me that being authentic is really what is going to get me that far. Because people are there for my voice, and so my voice I will give them. And that’s why I’m authentic. That’s why I try to be authentic.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or something that you’d love to do one day?

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, there’s so many things that I want to do. I am ADHD, and so I want to bounce around between many different things. But what I’ve always wanted to do is make a video game, and an animated pitch, and a comic, and a graphic novel, and an art book, and a tarot card deck. So I have so many different dream projects.

Because I think the thing about dream projects is that once you’re done, you have to find a new dream. And so I have several dreams, and I want to pursue each of them one by one. And so the tarot deck is coming first. I’m going to be making a deck called the Avant Garden, which it’s a part of the Mushroom Queen series and the Rose Queen that I’ve made. They’re all different plant queens that have their own gardens. And I want to make a full deck based off of those, that project.

So that’s what I want to do first. I would really love to make a small game with a small team. But something that is meaningful, and special, and beautiful. And many different stories I have in my head. So I want to just work towards each of these different goals as I go forward in my journey as an artist. But I have several dream projects that that I want to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I feel like there’s this sort of wellspring of creativity that you could really just dive into.

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, there’s so much that wants to get out of my head, and I really just think it’s in the doing. But with the podcast Painted in Color, I really want to create it as a community in the future, and start to do live events, and start to have art retreats, and create classes around the podcast so that it’s an actual active learning experience for students. Where a lot of the people who are on the show can mentor and we can mentor as well. And really create something that is a positive environment that starts to cultivate talent of color and underrepresented talent for the industry.

I also would love to eventually start my own studio. I would like to say at Wizards for a good while, but eventually my old hermit plan is to start my own studio and to draw together a bunch of wonderful people who I’ve worked with in the past who I know are amazing and are good people. And start to create products that really inspire and uplift the next generation of gamers or animators in the industry. So that’s where I start to see myself. But in the next five years, I really want to make my podcast a really good, strong network, and a strong presence in the industry.

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

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible. So I have a Linktree. Everywhere online is LAB illustration. Labillustration, that’s my initials, Lauren Brown. And so labillustration on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Patreon, Etsy. I have an Etsy store. Everywhere you can find me, it’s labillustration. I have a Linktree to make that easier. So it’s linktr.ee/labillustration. That’s where you can find all of my links.

Painted in Color is on YouTube currently. We’re looking to expand it soon, but right now it’s only on YouTube. And that is youtube.com/c/paintedincolor. And so that’s where our channel is. And so that’s mainly where you can find me. So I hope that you do.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope people do too. Sounds good. Lauren Brown, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you for just really sharing your story of being a Black woman in illustration, in art direction, and sort of giving I think a really good behind the scenes look at what it looks like to not just be in this industry, but also to be an advocate for underrepresented voices in the industry. I mean, you’re doing that not just in the media you’re making, but also with your podcast. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do in the next five years. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Lauren Brown:
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this, Maurice.

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Lawrence Humphrey

December is a good time to take stock and think about how to approach the new year ahead. And for this week’s guest, Lawrence Humphrey, this year was about striking out on his own and starting Pearl, a peer-based leadership consulting platform where he serves as CEO.

We began by talking about the origin story of Pearl, and Lawrence walked me through the platform and spoke on how collaboration is a big part of how he makes everything work. He also shared how he started out as an engineer, talked about how his tenure at IBM inspired him to found Tech Can [Do] Better, and gave recognition to those who have helped him achieve the success he has today. According to Lawrence, the best outcomes are a result of bringing diverse people together — a great message that we can all take to heart!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Lawrence Humphrey:
Hi, yeah, so I’m Lawrence Humphrey. I’m founder, CEO of Pearl, and I as a very new startup, very stereotypically, I do everything from setting the strategy, building the team, to executing against the strategy, executing it against myself, to taken out the trash and cleaning up the floor, so to speak. So very much the stereotypical start-up journey right now. But yeah, I do it all. It’s been really exciting. As a nosy person, I love being able to stick my nose in everything.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far? I feel like the second half of this year has been plagued by news about tech layoffs and things like that. How have you been holding up?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, this has been a very, let’s say, uncomfortable year, but not, obviously there are the greater, as you mentioned, societal forces making people uncomfortable, the job uncertainty. I am one of the people that quit my job this year to go full-time with Pearl. So my discomfort is more for from, and I get discomfort and excitement for having taken that leap. And I mean this is my first rodeo, so to speak. So I’m excited, and it’s very much, and I don’t have kids, but I have so much optimism for this kid and I’d want to make sure I raise them in order to be, I want it to be successful. So that’s been a super fulfilling journey and definitely a venture into uncharted territory for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, anytime you step out there and do your own thing for the first time, it is equal parts like exhilarating and terrifying. You have so much freedom, but you also really want to make sure that it actually succeeds.

Lawrence Humphrey:
And I’ve been telling people that both the highs and lows are much more, they have a higher magnitude. I feel the highs more. I mean, because they’re my doing, this is because of direct output from my input, which the same could be said for the lows. So I’m getting used to the swings and trying to approach them with more equanimity, so not get necessarily as whipped around by them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, going into next year into 2023, do you have any kind of big resolutions or goals that you want to accomplish?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I mean, the big one and very practically is to be working on Pearl and that’s like the low-hanging fruit. Ideally, and I haven’t quantified this yet, I haven’t actually run the projections, but I would like for there to be a healthy amount of organic collaboration instead of me, let’s say heavy handedly really, really guiding people’s hand using the platform. Ideally we would have some early evangelists and the early adopters, just really giving us good data, using it, driving value from it. Beyond that, I mean I’m very shortsighted right now with just making sure that the business is set up for success long term and doing what, and I haven’t done my 2023 strategic planning yet. That’s going to be the next few weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk more about Pearl, which I see here is described as “a platform that makes finding actionable hiring solutions from vetted and diverse leaders easy.” Tell me more about it.

Lawrence Humphrey:
So this is born from, and it’s kind of without getting into the full origin story, maybe we’ll get there. The observations that I’ve seen, are we have no shortage of collaboration tools, a lot of which come to mind, let’s say the Slacks, the Teams, even HBR articles to get thought leadership.

But there is a shortage of solutions that A, get us out of our own echo chambers into finding, I mean really practically, let’s say what do women think about hiring? Where are women hiring, et cetera. And also the follow-up to that is a lot of it is quote unquote like thought leadership and not the boots on the ground practical work, the practical instructions and recipes that these users or these leaders have used in order to drive results.

And I see these both working together in this very pernicious cycle of we continue to reinvent the wheel, we’re slower in terms of delivering outcomes, we deliver worse outcomes. People feel like worse leaders because they’re not getting connected to the work that in most cases already exist from the leaders that have done it. So that’s the opportunity that I see with Pearl. And we’re starting with a problem that all leaders have or will face hiring. So this is where we’re at the first step of our journey in proving out our value prop. So without getting into the origin story, that’s what Pearl is here to solve.

Maurice Cherry:
No, look, get into the origin story. Where did the ideas sort of come from?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So for that, it starts two years ago and the name of that org was Tech Can [Do] Better. And the week after George Floyd was murdered, I was still working at IBM and I noticed how my company at the time and the tech industry, and not just the tech industry, but that’s just where I live and breathe. They threw their hands up and they were bemused about what could be done to drive racial equity and what ways are we perpetuating it, how could this happen? And I got really frustrated at the confusion and how frantic the industry was knowing that I’d been on the inside with some of my coworkers, predominantly other black tech employees, advocating for what racial equity looked like within our company. And it felt like at the time we just got pats on the head. And Tech Can [Do] Better was my response to basically remove any obstacle that a tech company could have, like I don’t know what to do, where to go.

And I co-authored essentially a white paper with other black and brown folks from across the industry to outline very actionable steps about how to drive racial equity, whether you were an executive middle manager, independent contributor, anywhere in between, this is how you can get started with racial equity. And I think we hosted a dozen community calls, had people representing 50 companies from across the industry to help get each other unstuck. And that was when I realized that there was a demand and let’s say an overlooked opportunity and unsolved pain point for having very actionable perspective from black and brown perspectives, but even more broadly, it just exposed a lot of collaboration hiccups and we weren’t making it easy to get the answers we need. So it started there. And the other half of the story, I’ve been a leader with Pearl for almost two years, or a little over two years now.

And I find myself reinventing the wheel every day. And I mean hiring is just one of them. And I wrote the white paper for what diverse hiring looks like, and I assembled all of these diverse hiring sources and I still have trouble doing it. So even for me, very selfishly, I’m creating this tool to hopefully mitigate reinventing the wheel over and over again for all of these what I perceive to be mostly solved problems. I have to imagine hiring in any capacity is roughly 80% solved. And it’s just a matter of getting that answer and putting my own little Lawrence Humphrey customization on it, or Maurice, you customize it that last 20%, but I’ve been doing a lot of starting from 20% and then building out 80%, which is an abject waste of time.

Maurice Cherry:
I see. I mean it’s interesting because you know mentioned that this sort of came out from the summer of 2020 and a lot of companies certainly had those pledges to quote unquote “do better” in whatever way that meant for them in terms of diversity and inclusion. And it feels like now two plus years out from it that some of those promises have kind of started to wane a little bit. Is Pearl kind of a way to hold companies like this accountable?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I will agree that I’ve seen the demand and let’s say the attention wane, and I wouldn’t say Pearl is a way to hold them accountable. I think Tech Can [Do] Better was more that than Pearl is. One of my philosophies is I think that as a designer, my design background here is if users will do whatever is easiest in most cases or whatever the system sets them up to do, and Pearl is an aim to make doing the right thing easier, I’d venture to say in my learnings with Tech Can [Do] Better, there are no shortage of people who want to be practicing racial equity at work, showing up in a more human way, building diverse teams, fostering inclusive collaboration.

It’s just that they don’t have the tools, and let’s say the literal practical tools like the software and let’s say the soft skills tools to actually do those things. So Pearl is trying to make doing the right thing easier and less about accountability, pointing fingers, et cetera, et cetera. It’s assuming positive intent, and connecting people that want to be doing the right thing but not, might not know where to start.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking at the website now. I see you’ve got a great diverse team of advisors behind you. What does a regular day look like for you working on Pearl?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Being so early, and I’m sure it changes at some point, but every day looks really different and to the extent that I have any sort of consistency in my routine, it’s more location based. I love going to coffee shops, so I’ll go in the AM to the coffee shop to do my heads down, deep thinking work where I will do everything from craft social media, marketing outreach, to working on the product itself, to planning out what features need to be added, prioritizing from feedback that I heard in user interviews, what releases need to happen and when. And then in the afternoon, usually I have my calls either with my team, with potential customer discovery interviews, with my advisors, and that’s usually when I do my more, let’s say, not heads down work, but by and large the shape of each day from the outside might look similar. But what I’m doing is very different day to day. I mean, I can’t say I take many podcast calls right now, so already [inaudible 00:14:09] quite the variety that I’m getting right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, you got to get the word out about what you’re doing, so you have to do a little bit of press here and there.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, no, I 100% agree. And I had a release last Monday where I opened up Pearl to close family friends, I mean the social media, the people within my first, second degree connections. And I was joking that I feel like I need to go on tour now. I dropped my little EP and I’m shopping it around and seeing how it lands, getting people to listen to it, getting them to download my mix tape and all that.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s say that I’m a company or I’m a leader of a company that’s interested in Pearl, what does the onboarding process look like?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, so right now, and I guess it’s worth backing up and just talking through Pearl is a B2B and B2C, you can think of a GitHub or even a FigMore or Slack or something like that. So there are two avenues for which you can get engaged and I know you were talking about that B2B version. For that you can reach out to us and pilot with us and you can do that from our website. But the onboarding looks like an opening call where we can do some intros. I can tell you, I mean maybe if you are listening to this, I won’t have to tell you as much about Pearl, but we do some discovery to hear which pain points are you most struggling with. The few use cases that I identified are basically we’re helpful in smoothing out the transition between either people joining or leaving your team.

So let’s say you are getting rid of some folks, which is timely, whether they’re either leaving or they got laid off, that work doesn’t just evaporate, it usually gets reallocated somewhere between the team. And it’s about helping them codify that work such that whomever is picking it up, it minimizes the time between zero to 60 and getting up to speed.

And then whenever they backfill that person, minimizing the friction of getting them caught up to speed. So that’s one use case. We’re also useful in kicking off projects that have multiple stakeholders either within or outside the company that require frequent and high-touch collaboration. So a couple of use cases that we talk out on that call and then fleshing out what success looks like at the end of a two to four-week sprint, it’s very much responding in the in-person just live in the meeting for where we can add the most value. Like I said, it’s more important to me to add value and see how folks are using Pearl, and it’s about figuring out where that sweet spot is between what problems they’re having and what I see Pearl being poised to solve.

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

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh, boy. I think that this might be, I’m just going to think out loud here and I might have to, I might discover the answer, so just more talking it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Because this is my first rodeo, I feel like I have a strong intuitive sense for what I feel like needs to be done at any given time. At the same time, I’m grappling with the fact that practically and in reality, because I’ve not done this, I cannot fully trust my intuition for what should be done. And for that I have advisors and knowing when to pull them in, and I usually bounce ideas off of them, but it is just truly the, I’m meandering, like I said, into this uncharted territory with very little visibility of what’s in front of me. And it’s just navigating the ambiguity in a way that it makes me feel like I can confidently chart the course and bring other people in.

Luckily, I’ve had great advisors and because I don’t have a team of 100, I don’t really have to justify my decisions to many people. But sometimes it’s just like the day-to-day, I have no clue if this is going to work and I just try something, and if it doesn’t work, and I don’t mean no one likes failing, but it’s just I’m getting used to things not going according to plan more so than they do go according to plan. The self-management, I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it, but just that keeping my own, keeping the wind in my own sails. I don’t know if that’s the way to say it now, I’ll probably think of a more eloquent way to say it as soon as we [inaudible 00:18:45]

Maurice Cherry:
But to keep that but to keep that motivation going essentially, right?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, and just like it is the age old, all right, “I tried six things, none of them went according to plan,” and you know have that day you get off a call where it’s like, “That did not go like I wanted it to go,” and at the same time tomorrow I’m going to get up and do it all over again. You got to keep pushing through. But yeah, that motivation’s huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I don’t know, as you were describing that, it sort of reminded me of that old Donald Rumsfeld quote about how there’s “known knowns” and there’s “unknown unknowns.” And it sounds like certainly I think with venturing into a start-up of something like this where you’re trying to, you don’t know what you don’t know, so even as you’re trying to build this product and build this company, there are other things down the line that you may encounter that you don’t really have an idea of. But that’s why you’ve got advisors to hopefully kind of help you out and to give you that foresight.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Exactly, and I mean it’s not an unknown phenomenon. There is, it always doesn’t work right before it does. And that’s what keeping me going. And I read another quote and I think it was, and this might be exposing one of my little guilty pleasures here, but there is this book called “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Cheryl Strayed, is this amazing writer, and I think she said in one of her books that “You just have to show up and do the work.” Like miners don’t show up and self-doubt like, “Oh I’m not a great miner, I don’t think that I’m not good at this. What should I do about it?” They just show up and dig, and I just tell myself literally I have it written down. It’s like, “show up and dig.”

Maurice Cherry:
I like that.

Lawrence Humphrey:
It doesn’t really matter how you feel about it. Just do the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, ultimately what would you see as success with Pearl? Let’s say it’s, I don’t know, a couple of years down the line, what do you see as being Pearl’s biggest success?

Lawrence Humphrey:
A few years out, I would like to have the most actionable stop for workplace or leadership questions period, or challenges period. And those two pain points that I mentioned at the start, I do think they’re inextricably linked. So very practically, I am a pretty early mid-career professional black leader in a SaaS-based business, SaaS-based startup.

Disproportionately the solutions that you could find on the internet that you could talk to mentors about, all of its skews towards a couple of the majority demographics. So most leaders are white, most leaders are male, most companies are enterprises. These aren’t as helpful for me with all of those attributes that I mentioned. So if I could create a platform that allows you to find the most actionable solutions by the people who have done the work and are living it, I would consider that a huge win. And speeding up time and quality of outcomes or time to task, time to delivery, quality of outcomes, but also making leaders feel like, okay, I’m not the only one struggling with this.

There, I can find my little pocket of other similar leaders, and also burst, look outside of my bubble to see, “Okay, for this challenge I want to know how women are solving it.” I mean there are just some challenges that certain demographics are more poised at addressing than others.

I mean, rewind to 2020, I don’t want necessarily to know how let’s say white folks are solving racial equity in their workplace. I think that most people were looking for what are black and brown folks’ solutions to hiring, to doing or to measuring impact of my product those sorts of things similar to the Me-Too era, men didn’t have as much of a place in that. That was a woman’s conversation. So if I can do that, that’s a huge win.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’ve talked a lot about your work, of course we’ve learned more about Pearl, but I want to learn more about you, about Lawrence. Tell me about where you grew up?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So I grew up and Nashville, Tennessee. And it’s funny because I’m living in two of the trendiest places in the US right now, but back when I was growing up in Nashville, I was both underaged and it was underdeveloped. So I didn’t really experience the cool Nashville that a lot of people experience today. But I moved around a lot growing up, landed in Nashville in third grade and was there through graduation, and I was pretty into STEM but didn’t really know. And I think that this is a through line of my story, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a long time. I had a vague idea of I wanted to create something that impacts a lot of people. And at the time it was the scientist of the time, Nicola Tesla and Leonardo DaVinci and Newton and all these people that create things that change the world.

And then as I went through high school, I had a vague idea of what computer science was because I watched “The Social Network” all the time and I was like, this seems dope. Just being able to create stuff from your dorm room that scales, it impacts just millions, tens, hundreds of millions of people. This is awesome. And it just all started as a series of guesses. And I had a friend that we would just dream up these big ideas and he was more the design business guy. I was the tech person. And it wasn’t until, I mean honestly late college that I realized that okay, entrepreneurship, it is possible even though the path to do that was unclear. But yeah, I think that if I had to reflect on my story, I didn’t really feel like I had a lot of clear direction for what was possible.

Maurice Cherry:
But you had that interest I guess from early on, like you said, right?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh yeah, I had the interest and a lot of it was gained through just guessing. And I guess media, as weird as that is, just like movies. I thought hackers were cool, I thought computer people were cool, people that built, like people in the STEM, I mean STEM always seemed like magic to me. So I was like, “This is dope.” I don’t know, I mean this might not be cool, like conventionally the cool thing to do, but it always felt really just impactful and magical.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think that’s really interesting. You know, mentioned the movie, “The Social Network,” that was, let’s see, that came out in 2010?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Like 2010, yeah,.

Maurice Cherry:
2010? So that means you were probably in elementary and middle school in the early to mid-2000s, I’m guessing?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So let me walk it back. I was definitely in high school when The Social Network came out because I was [inaudible 00:25:55]

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you were in high school then. Okay.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, I was doing my, I think my AP Bio homework. I had “The Social Network,” on my laptop and I would just play that movie over and over again, like that one and “Inception,” I watched those movies over and over again playing them while I was doing my homework.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that media was also kind of a thing that motivated you about this, because when I think about a lot of the media that sort of depicted tech during that time, I can go back probably as far as say like 1999 with “The Matrix” and then “Matrix Revolution,” or I forget what the others were.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Those movies were huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Lawrence Humphrey:
I remember even then, that was one of the movies I was watching a ton at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
But also the world wide web really started to, I don’t want to say mature during that time, but I graduated college in 2003 and I just remember that time from 2003 three to 2010 how there were new innovations in tech and design. It felt like every week there was something new. So progress was being made in such a quick pace that whether you were in it as an actual practitioner or even on the outside of it being the beneficiary of this technology, things were just moving at such a rapid pace. I mean, you think about print magazines, print magazines from 2000 to 2010 took such a sharp decline because of the rise of desktop publishing. And people could write blogs, they could make websites, they could use content management systems. So why would they have a print magazine?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Exactly. And I feel like the people, and obviously, I was mean, I don’t want to say obviously, but I was pretty young at the time, and I feel like there were beneficiaries of people who just got to create and go very hands on, and they rode that wave of let’s say digital literacy, and just that scrappy entrepreneurship and the Wild West of the worldwide web that was a mouthful.

But there are people that just made a lot of money and influence and clout and learned a ton, and that compounds. And I still think that there is a lot of opportunity in tech, which is why I’m so passionate about scaling my knowledge, and especially for black and brown people, underserved people, underrepresented folks, of raising our technical literacy because, I mean this, any sort of privilege it all compounds. So yeah, I just think that that was always so cool.

And I kind of keep going back to magic, like “Matrix” was literally just people defying physics and cracking the code. And “Social Network” just felt larger than life of how this, these gawky kids created this social network that literally changed the world of tech and connected everyone everywhere all at once. It was crazy. And I think that that’s something that I’m really passionate about, is just scaling that knowledge, like I said, because it’s magic and it’s making a lot of people a lot of money and changing the landscape in ways that are for better and worse for some people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I think what it also did is it, I would say not just for black and brown people, but if we look at black and brown folks specifically, also really kind of helped change the mindset of us from being consumers to creators. Because now the tools, whether it’s the personal computer, or whether it’s even just learning the languages themselves, had become so easy to access that you could do these things now that you were seeing other folks do, and there weren’t any sort of real gatekeepers to get a lot of these things done.

I’m thinking back, you mentioned 2010, CNN had this, they used to do this series on CNN called “Black in America,” and they would do “Black in America Two,” Black in America Three,” Black in America, Four.” And they would be focused on different things. And they had one that was “Black in America, Four” that focused on the rise of black folks trying to get into Silicon Valley. They called it the “New Promised Land,” and…

Lawrence Humphrey:
Is that like the “If you build it, they’ll come,” mentality?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. And it was so…

Lawrence Humphrey:
[inaudible 00:30:11] age.

Maurice Cherry:
It was so interesting because I was watching that and not only were these people on there that were my age, Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton, et cetera, but I personally knew these people. I had met them, I had sat down and had dinner with them, and it’s like now they’re trying to accomplish these big huge, monumental goals, now. It’s really hard to capture that feeling or to recapture that feeling I think now maybe, but certainly back then it could have been very easy to really get swept up in the feeling that you could do this too, because you also just saw people that looked like you that were doing it Exactly.

And the tools were available, the opportunity was there. It was just a perfect storm.

Lawrence Humphrey:
And I feel I very much subscribed to that last point you’re on, you can’t be what you can’t see. And I think especially when I was getting started, I kind of always consider myself a little out of the loop, but I struggle to find just role models that really fit tightly to my trajectory, let’s say.

I’ve always been a little too counterculture for my own good. So it’s never been sufficient for me to just necessarily cut and paste someone else’s trajectory. But even still like, okay, I want to find someone who is threading the needle between being conventionally successful in business and obviously meeting the needs of the business, while also taking this social responsibility lens, who is also a young black leader who also, it’s all of these Venn diagrams that I’ve just struggled to find, and which is why I try to be, and I definitely jump at the opportunity to be something of a role model if I can, through mentorship, through podcasts like these, just to be the person that I wish I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned going to college, you went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. What was your time like there?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I think that it was, if I had to summarize it still me getting closer to what I felt like my fit was, maybe it is for a lot of people and for some people it clicks more than others. But I started in engineering, so my undergrad was in computer science and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t feel like I fit there. Cultural reasons, and I mean demographic, I was one of the few black kids in my class, and in some cases one of the only black students in hundred-plus lecture halls, which exacerbated things a little bit.
But even just the culture of it, in my opinion, the egomania of some of engineers, this wasn’t for me. And also it just didn’t feel very tactile. I didn’t feel, it all felt kind of abstract from time to time. But through that, met a lot of designers which began, light bulbs started firing, and so what that world looked like, found web development, which was the sweet spot of, okay, I can be an engineer that can think more about the user, what their needs are, what can add value for them.

And it was honestly through that web development, I rode that out for a while, and found the world of design through an internship at IBM, which you know in my opinion completely, I think everyone has like landmark milestones in their life. And interning at IBM was absolutely one of them, of “This is what design looks like at scale,” this is how these multidisciplinary teams collaborate.

It was so eye-opening, and I love the work that was being done there, and I guess I won’t say moreover, but equally loved the people from very junior to senior designers, Just all incredibly talented people, and with just huge hearts, great character. And that was around my senior year of college that I did that internship. And it was then that I was like, “Okay,” I felt like it started to click, that was the first time in my four or whatever years there that I felt like, “Okay,” this is the click that I was looking for. And I guess the three years before that where, I mean obviously I did projects here, I did a class there, but it was a lot of meandering, let’s say in hindsight until I found that click.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated, you’d mentioned this sort of IBM internship and you stayed there for a long time. You were there for almost six years, starting off as an intern and then working your way up to becoming a strategist. When you look back at that time, what do you remember? Are there any sort of specific takeaways?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So it can kind of be broken down into a couple chapters. So there was my early career internship, then we went through another onboarding, let’s say experience, they call them “boot camps.” That’s the one phase where it’s like starry-eyed early career, Lawrence, “the world is my oyster,” the same traps that all of these early 20 somethings succumb to. And then I was on a team for around three years. It was basically IBM design for AI, which is the intersection of design AI and basically consulting and facilitation.

But in essence we were creating technical, so how can non-technical teams get started with AI and create compelling, honest in the sense that this is what the technology can actually do implementation with AI. And amazing experience, and maybe one of the best ways that I could have started my career, on that team in terms of the work that I was doing.

And my boss at the time, extremely encouraging and just gave me a long leash. So I mean there was that chapter, and the next chapter was my tenure on the transformation team, which worked on enterprise wide transformation efforts predominantly in hybrid cloud AI and culture.

So the net of it was, I was doing a lot more consultative work, even on my AI team, the IBM design for AI. And that was when I realized that I just loved sitting in the middle and working in cross-disciplinary teams or multi-disciplinary teams, having high visibility projects, working with a lot of different stakeholders with big personalities. Basically translating the technical needs into layman speak into the needs of the business. And the kind of glib and story that I tell about it is I started in engineering, and then realized that designers tell engineers what to do. So I went into design and then in, or designers get told what to do by PMs and the business people. So I went into that lane. So I don’t know what you can make of that story, but that was how I decided to hop through those roles

Maurice Cherry:
From designer to engineer, I feel like that’s a journey of itself.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Engineer to designer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Oh, engineer to designer.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah. And even now I feel like both are pretty misunderstood titles. I would say design a little more so than engineering, but a lot of times people think, oh, shapes, colors, make things pop as a designer, which I am not that kind of designer. It was, I mentioned my first boss, and I just think that that was a great place for me to start because he built my, I mean both, he was a design executive, so he practically sharpened my skills as a designer, but really just gave me the confidence to go into rooms with very senior people and feel like my perspective had a place there.

So when I think about leadership, and I’m really passionate about leadership, there was a lot to be learned from the myriad of actual leaders, like reporting chain leaders, and just some of my mentors and peers. Everyone was just so generous with their perspective. There was a lot to learn in how to lead teams.

Maurice Cherry:
And now when you started the organization, Tech Can [Do] Better, were you still at IBM or is this after you left?

Lawrence Humphrey:
It was at IBM. So fun fact, and I recommend this to anyone that can pull this off, I ended up taking two leaves of absence to work on, the first one was Tech Can [Do] Better and work on that full time for three months. And the second one, I took a four-month leave of absence to work on what was Pearl, and I mean we reorged right in the middle of my leave of absence, but to work on that full time. And that second leave of absence was earlier this year when we got accepted into a start-up accelerator.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. So IBM was pretty, it sounds like they were pretty supportive of what you were trying to do?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh, yeah. And I mean even more specifically, my managers at the time, my leadership, and I mean if you know me, I don’t, for better or for worse, I think that I’m pretty obvious with what my intentions are and what my feelings are about, I think. It’s no secret how passionate I was about this, and how much Tech Can [Do] Better and Pearl meant to me, and I explained it to my managers that I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Tech Can [Do] Better.

It was maybe a month or a couple months, I’m losing track of the time after the George Floyd incident and I was like, “Okay, the attention’s waning. I only have so much time before people move on and focus on the next thing. I need to focus on this in order to capitalize in this window.” And I mean they were receptive to that. And then the second one was, like I mentioned, I got accepted to a startup accelerator and I was like, this is a once in a lifetime thing. And I mean I was like, “I need to focus on this or I won’t be able to forgive myself.” So they were supportive of that. So to their credit, IBM and especially my leaders at the time, I give them nothing but my gratitude for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Shout out to IBM.

Lawrence Humphrey:
I know, big shout out. And it’s so easy to just be greedy with talent like that. And I realized that I think I took two leaves of absence, maybe less than a year and a half or something apart I think. So that was, they didn’t have to do that, shout out to them.

Maurice Cherry:
How has both Tech Can [Do] Better and Pearl kind of been received by the tech community? Have you gotten any sort of valuable feedback to go into either the organization or to the product?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh, definitely. I mean, I kind of joked that I accidentally ended up in this leadership role, because when I was starting way back, 2020, when I was starting Tech Can [Do] Better, I would’ve never predicted that I would be on here right now still talking about it by any means, I mean you always hope so.

But that was unprecedented for me. I’d never done anything of that scale. And I put out a proposal, I mean I asked some of my usual suspects and some of my closest friends and confidants at the time, “Hey, I’m doing this thing, do you want in? I really could appreciate your help.” They helped out. I kept asking more people for help. Other people were asking if I needed help, and I was like, “Yes.” Months later I ended up in Fast Company not knowing how I had got here in the first place.

And it was just overwhelmingly positive and people saying they spun up Tech Can [Do] Better chapters of their company, they gave the proposal to their executive leadership. I mean, it was incredibly surreal for me. I mean, like I said, everything was so novel, and I keep going back to, I have to imagine a lot of that came from just how actionable it was. I get personally really frustrated with all of the noise and just the content generation machine valuing quantity over quality.

And I like to think that a differentiator can just be okay, this is something that takes us beyond that 20%. If I hear another takeaway that’s like “Make sure to talk to your team,” or like, “Listen, or do your education, it’s all well intentioned, but it’s just so ambiguous and doesn’t help people get started,” that I have to imagine with Tech Can [Do] Better it was a breath of fresh air because we were going one level deeper, if not like two levels deeper, which informed Pearl.

I mean Pearl is the tech solution that is Tech Can [Do] Better at scale. So driving actionable change from diverse leaders, helping each other get unstuck and unblocked. I mean, it’s the product that allows that matchmaking to happen. So it is those learnings that I brought even into this new org. But yeah, it’s a lot of great feedback that, I mean a lot of this has just been listening and responding and reflecting, and doing my best to take in what the signal is, and what can make the product better and more valuable.

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

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh man, I was not expecting that question, but I will say, and I think that just off the cuff there is a very thin line between what is a strength and what is a weakness and vice versa. I think that that’s the high level what I’ve learned about myself. And even more practically, and I have friends and advisors call me out about this all the time. I am a very big picture thinker and great, a lot of times people love visionary thinkers, big picture thinkers.

But I am slow and I struggle to get into the details and make it very, very real, and make it maybe in another way like very small so that you can touch it. For me, it has to exist in this universal principles, the big picture, this applies to everyone sort of thing. That’s like one example, of my what I think is a strength becoming a weakness.

I have other ones too, but it really is such a thin line. And also it’s just reinforcing to me that in order to change anything, any external thing, it really does start with you. I mean, right now I’m leading the org. I’m the first full-time hire, let’s say, I jumped full-time. But I have to manage my own morale, my own boundaries, my own timeline, my own organization.

And that predicts how well I can manage all of those other things for a team of people or one other person. And let’s say if I don’t take the five minutes before the call to get my talking points, it tends to not go well when I bring in whomever I want to bring in. So everything just starts with me. And obviously, I can only control me, but I’m just front and center every single day, for how my own actions manifest and shape the outcomes.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you get to this point in your career? I mean, no person is an island of course, but I’m curious who your support system has been throughout all this?

Lawrence Humphrey:
It is kind of chapter dependent, early career, the people that got me at IBM, Adam Cutler, Greg Story, Phil Gilbert, a huge, Devin O’Brien. I mean really, either they got me to go into IBM or just really hands-on mentorship, far more than they needed to be for an intern at the time. Huge people. Then just naming names like Brad Neal, one of my co-founders of Tech Can [Do] Better. I mean, honestly, a big brother, if there is one.

He is just such a role model in composure and equanimity. And he and I chat pretty regularly and I always love his perspective. Moses Harris, Jill Soley, one of my advisors, Suresh, Fallon, Wayne, so my advisors now. I mean by and large, I need perspective, and I don’t do well just working by myself. So even if I’m not day-to-day working with someone, I’m always bouncing ideas off of people.

I mean, it might be a little trite or corny to say it, but my mom is such a reliable just, I mean she is my bedrock. I go to her for both practical and emotional support. So I mean, she is just the absolute best. So I mean her as well. I mean, of all the people who are the most reliable through lines, I mean she’s it. I love her to death.

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s someone out there that’s listening that kind of wants to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I would say, and I was reflecting on this recently, that it’s not too early to start. I know a lot of people say it’s not too late to start, but I would say it’s not ever too early to start. I do think that, I know that a lot of people would say, I’m young, but I still spent time feeling like I needed permission to do things or I needed the credentials or credibility or I needed something.

I was missing something in order to just do that thing, and I regret it. And I wish that I just had… I heard it best once, “the confidence to be imperfect and the courage to be imperfect.” And I just think that life is short. You just got to do it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid of failing or looking bad. Honestly, you are, by doing your own thing and following your path, you’re doing what a lot of people don’t, and I won’t say can’t do, but are slow to do it. And just following that fire that exists inside of you and just staying true to whatever that is. So it’ll be really fulfilling, and it’ll be a hell of a rollercoaster, but I think that that’s what makes life worthwhile. If you’re 80 years old and looking back at your time here that you’re going to be happy you did that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you want to do professionally?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I mean, get Tech-, I mean now Pearl to a place where it is I mean, it’s a mainstay, it’s a household name. I mean, that’s the obvious one. I just feel like there’s a lot of impact I haven’t yet made that is just ripe for the taking. I have also, I mean on a side note, and this could be a subject of a whole other thing, I have gotten really obsessed with writing comedy, and that is basically filming a show, that is a whole other thing, we don’t have to get into it here, but I’ve always…

Maurice Cherry:
No, let’s get into it. Let’s get into it!

Lawrence Humphrey:
I love the idea of, I mean, just writing a show or a movie or shorts and filming it, and specifically some sort of a comedy. Maybe like Atlanta Meets Nathan For You or something like that, I love stuff like that. But I honestly have no shortage of projects. But that’s been one of the ones that I haven’t been able to shake.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, the comedy writing sounds, I like that idea. Would it be something like, I don’t know for some reason when you said that, “Abbott Elementary” immediately came to mind, but would it be some kind of workplace comedy, something like that?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I’m honestly scared. I have a show that, I mean, I might actually film and every time, I’ve shopped it to a dozen or so people and they’re like, “Dude, why aren’t you making this?” I’m honestly scared to give away my game right now. But I have a show, that let’s say is the style of the show will be more like mockumentary, let’s say. So it wouldn’t be a necessarily workplace, but I have maybe the whole first season stubbed out. Definitely, I’ve talked about it with a friend just shooting the pilot, because I even think I have the pilot mostly stubbed out. It’s just a matter of doing it. I don’t know, I just I’ve always wanted to try my hand at it. I mean, I know I’m being very vague, but…

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, I get it. You don’t want someone listening to poach your idea. I totally get that.

Lawrence Humphrey:
I feel like I could be over-hyping it. I could be delusional, but this is such a good idea. Maybe someone’s already done it, but I need to release the pilot before I’m just out here talking about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, that could be a good side project. You could work on that in your downtime.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, I mean, maybe these holidays when things slow down a little bit, I can get out there and just shoot a crappy pilot.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Lawrence Humphrey:
But no, I think that that’s one of the ones, but I think that realistically, I just want to see Pearl succeed, obviously. And there are some quantitative milestones that I would love to hit. And there are some kind of qualitative things, I guess side missions, if you will, that are in support of that goal. Some of those goals that I would like to hit, I want to create a successful company, IPOs, exits or exits.

Obviously this is a long journey. I want to have a tool that is used by let’s say tens, hundreds, millions of people, that adds value, that changes the landscape, that spawns competitors, let’s say collaborative companies that do similar things. I just think that the land of the better collaborative software that focuses in on identity and personal context, because this matters, is pretty underexplored. And I say it’s to all of our detriment, and I’m going to see it through given this everything that I have. So to the extent that I have a life’s purpose, I feel like that’s my calling in addition to shooting the other show that I mentioned, but.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Well, this is kind of a good, I guess follow-up to that then, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want your legacy to be?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I see those as two different questions, but five years, I would hope to have a team and wherever Pearl evolves from this, because obviously it will evolve. I’ll use Pearl as a shorthand for the mission that I’m on now. I want to have a strong leadership team, and I mean just both be practically doing good work, but even, I’ll say equally importantly, to the work that we’re doing, the value that we’re driving through our business, be role modeling a way of better leadership.

So I started Pearl because I felt like it would be more impactful to demonstrate through our actions, all of the recommendations and that we were espousing through Tech Can [Do] Better, than it was just to say them and recommend them. So I want the team to just be a team of all-stars who are just devoted to demonstrating a higher degree of leadership and holding ourselves the industry to a higher standard and five years.

I want that to be even stronger than I’m doing it today with an awesome just all-star group of people, many of whom I’ve already collaborated with and potentially some who might be listening to this, hopefully we all find each other.
My legacy, I mean, as that’s a huge question. I do hope that in line with what I was mentioning before, I very much believe in the idea of leaving things better than we found it. And what that looks like for me is I feel like I owe so much to my ancestors, mostly black ancestors, very directly in my lineage. And let’s say my cousins, aunts, the folks around me who sacrificed a lot to get me here to where I am right now.

And I want to contribute to that chain of progress of making it easier for black and brown folks younger than me who follow me. Making it easier for them to have the opportunities to create widescale change and showing them that it’s possible, showing them that you don’t have to conform to someone else’s trajectory to do that.

You have the freedom to do it the way that is right for you, basically widening what is possible for people to be conventionally successful and what that actually means. And hopefully never sacrificing, I won’t say hopefully, hopefully this is conveyed through my actions, threading that needle between doing what’s right for the business and what is just societally responsible, whatever that looks like.

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

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, so best starting place for that is our website. So pearl.us.com, and you can find all of our links there to our LinkedIn, to our Instagram, to our app itself. Everything is, that’s the best place to start for my work. If you want to follow me similarly, you can follow me at lawrencehumphrey.com, so L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E.com. Hopefully, I think this will probably, be shared out in the description, but that also has all of my links and basically anywhere websites are found, you can find those links and find everything else.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Lawrence Humphrey, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think first of all, just thank you for sharing your story of really kind of building a company. I think it’s something that we see a lot. I think we have seen a lot over the years, just what does it look like to really step out and try to do your own thing, but I think it’s really important to also kind of build in public in a way.

And based off what you’ve kind of been saying, how IBM kind of allows you the time to do this, and now you’re building it out in public with advisors and such, I think that’s really important for people to see that they can achieve their own dreams in this way. And of course, what you’re doing is not only just helping you out as a founder, but also helping out the industry as a whole and hopefully helping generations of people to come, so.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Exactly, and that’s important to me for exactly the reasons I said before. I want to be really honest about this story too, that it’s fulfilling, that it’s hard. The self-doubt is to come and it’s just that more important to just keep doing it anyway. I have to imagine something. Only good things can come if you just keep doing the work and surrounding yourself with good people.

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

Lawrence Humphrey:
Maurice, thank you for hosting. This was a pleasure.

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Andrew Bass Jr.

By now, you’ve gotten acquainted with design educator and design strategist Andrew Bass Jr. In the second part of our interview, we explore Andrew’s calling as a design mentor, as well as his early advocacy work for diversity in the design industry. (If you missed the first part, check it out here.)

We start off talking about Black design leadership back in the day, and Andrew tells the story of how he learned about the Organization of Black Designers and how that led to his work leading AIGA’s first Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. From there, we discuss the current state of DEI with AIGA and the design industry, and he shares what gets him excited about design now at this stage of his career. It’s really an honor and a privilege to talk with Andrew about his longevity in design and about leaving a legacy for generations to come!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned when you were at Prats that you saw you had Black design professors and stuff like that. Once you got out there as a working designer, did you see a lot of Black folks in design leadership back then?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No. That was the unicorn. I was in the libraries. That was one of the things all through my years as a student to my beginning years as a practicing professional, I would hit all the design annuals, books to see who’s leading in the industry to kind of know names. And I kept coming across the same thing. It was always white men. It was always white men. Eventually it started opening up a little bit where you see the spattering of white women, but it was all predominantly white men. And I barely, barely ever saw anyone Black, Latino. Occasionally there may be a spot, a spot of an Asian. And again, usually it would be a guy, but it was very much pure white and that’s all I ever saw. And I was actively searching to find, okay, there’s got to be more folks out there.

And then eventually I did find some folks out there, not through any of the exposure through manuals. At that time there were not a lot of big design conferences. I had not heard of AIGA at that point yet. Definitely there was no HOW. There was no HOW design. And there was Communication Arts because there was a lot of design magazines out back then. Print, design, communication, arts. What was the other one?

Maurice Cherry:
Step.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Step was there. Yep. Step. This is a Canadian one, Applied Arts, I think it’s called. Some other stuff. And so it was not until somewhere in around ’93 in print when I saw Cheryl Miller’s article on, no, about Cheryl Miller, I should say. It wasn’t her article. Or was it her article? But it was in print about where are the Black designers.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And I read that article I don’t know how many times. Right now, these names. I’m like, who’s this person? Who’s that person? Oh wow. Because I had not seen that in any the quote general mainstream stuff. And that’s when I started learning that there were folks out there, and I started digging a little bit more into history. And that’s when I learned that there were a lot more that actually existed. And back in the day, just never given any exposure due to societal, the US view on race. So growing up I never saw any of the studios that I admired ever have any person of color in their leadership. And generally ones that I did find in leadership, they usually owned their own businesses. They had their own practices. I really am hard pressed to think of any leaders at any of these Fortune 500 companies throughout the nineties to even I’d say early 2000s. Nothing pops off in the top of my head. There’s always people doing their own thing.

And so a few years later, I think that was around ’95, ’96, that’s when I discovered HOW, HOW Magazine, which I sorely still miss today. That was a fantastic design magazine. Of all the other design magazines I had saw, they actually seemed to have tried to make an effort of showcasing designers of color and somewhat kind of touching the subject of diversity in the industry, because diversity didn’t exist back then in the nineties, that wasn’t a word. Some market chair came up with diversity. “Hey, I think this is going to be a good trend.” I was basically looking at it as like, fair is fair. It’s just not white folks out here. So I didn’t really started to see leadership until around then, around ’95, ’96 when I started seeing that and I started seeking them out. And then I learned Cheryl Miller was here in New York City, did actually meet her face to face. I think I did a freelance project with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Woo. She was tough too.

Maurice Cherry:
I believe it. I believe it. A hundred percent. A hundred percent I believe that. Without a doubt.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
She knew her stuff and I understand why she was very sort of stern, because the industry, it was a very different mentality. She had to fend for herself and stuff and she was doing some major work. I also met Cynthia Mackenzie, I believe. She has a studio in New York too. CM something, something. Oh man, I met her and I was like, oh wow, okay. And then I started meeting some others, especially like I said, my professor Dwight Johnson, he’s the one who really started giving me some opportunities where he was connected to NBC. He got me to meet some people at NBC. No, I didn’t meet any Black people at NBC, but he started putting me onto folks that are out there. And then I started learning about Archie Boston, started learning about Tony Gable, rest in peace, started learning about Richard Baker. I started learning about, oh, oh, Eli [inaudible 00:10:29].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Maurice Woods. And that was a little later in the nineties. Oh, how could I forget about the south? It was where I’ve met her, Cynthia Worley.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, here in Atlanta.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. And then also Turner. Turner. Illustrators where I first saw them in HOW, oh, I think the name is Turner, last name is Turner. I cannot remember their first name. They’re based in Atlanta. I think they’re still around. And I started learning about more folksm and I was like, whoa, how come they don’t get shined in these magazines? I just went into overdrive to try and find as much history as I could. That’s how I started finding it about Georg Olden. I’m still stuck on his story and the total disrespect I feel that the design industry has given him completely. And still, I wonder if I hadn’t brought up Georg Olden to Ric Grefé back then before there was Design Journeys and all that. Because I had mentioned an idea on that, and they named the Design Journeys that they honored Georg Olden, what, two years after when I was on the task force, it just dissolved and then, oh, now you decide to award Georg Olden the Medal?

I’m like, you… Okay. But at least he got it. I just feel like there needed to be more of an acknowledgement to it. Honestly, I’m sorry, an apology. Because I read that he also had won an art director’s medal, art director’s club medal. But I could not find any records of that. I did not see any of that leadership until I kind of found it on my own. And I like the fact that they were leaders on their own. They didn’t wait for other people because they couldn’t get certain opportunities they made their own. John Morning, that’s the other name, John Morning. And they did it for themselves. It wasn’t until honestly 21st century, early 2000s that I started seeing Black leadership. I still say it wasn’t like top tier Black leadership, I still think some of it was just, okay, not semantics, but perceptions, start putting some folks here. So I think they’re more middle leadership, not top leadership. So even today at 2022, I mean, yeah, you have a few that truly you can say top leadership, but it’s nearly not enough. So it was very, very barren in those early years that you had to find it and dig to see it.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, and I want to talk about AIGA because that’s an important part of your story, but I remember when I first started doing Revision Path, I did a lot of research leading up to wanting to start this. And I came across those older magazines you mentioned like Step and Communication Arts is still around, but HOW, and I wonder actually for HOW, because HOW was based out of Cleveland I believe, or somewhere in Ohio, the Midwest.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Somewhere over there.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that informed the perspective they had because so many of these other design publications were out of New York. And so maybe for them it was through a more New York lens. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I remember doing a lot of that research and I would see where people would write a letter to an editor at Step or something and be like, “Well where are more Black designers?” And the magazine would be like, “Oh well we don’t know where they are and we can’t find them,” and all this sort of stuff. And I’m like-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I was one of those that wrote a letter.

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, they’re out there. But then granted, this is also a time before the… Well, I don’t want to say necessarily before the internet, but really more before the worldwide web when where people could create these destinations for people to go to. I discovered the internet, or the worldwide web I should say in high school in the mid nineties. I was in a lot of places I probably shouldn’t have been just in terms of the fact that the Web was just such a big place. So there were things like AOL Black Voices and Africana.net and NetNoir and all those places. So there were obviously places where people were trying to create these destinations for Black people. But I don’t think those social connections really became prevalent until of course the 2000s with the advent of social media and stuff.

So I was doing my research to try to start Revision Path and I would see that a lot of people were asking these questions, and the editorial boards would just shrug their shoulders. “I don’t know where they’re at. I don’t know where they are.” And I remember through that research also discovering, or finding out, I should say, about the organization of Black designers and how they kind of started out in the Midwest. I think it was either in Chicago or somewhere in Ohio, but starting out there and then building things out. Did you know about them back then?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh that’s a whole nother story.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, I did. I found out about them early nineties. Actually because I found out about them and that’s how I found out about Fo Wilson and Michele Washington. Yeah, see now these names are coming back. Michele, she’s a teacher at City Tech right now. Yeah, I know about OBD and I actually went to one of their conferences. I can talk about that after AIGA because that’s a whole nother thing. So I lose track of where we going with AIGA.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, let’s talk about that. So you mentioned Ric Grefé who was I think a longtime executive director.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, he was.

Maurice Cherry:
For AIGA, and you kind of worked with them back in the mid 2000s to-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
2016, 2017. [inaudible 00:16:38]. Yeah, actually, yeah, you’re right. Earlier.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been a lot earlier. Yeah, because Ric, I think Ric retired or left or something.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Sorry, it was 2006, 2007, 2008.

Maurice Cherry:
So, okay. Yeah, right around that time. Because I think Ric left I want to say in 2013, 2014, something like that. But you had worked with AIGA to not only create the diversity and inclusion task force but also serve as chair. Tell me what that was like, because if diversity was not even in the conversation with regards to the design community, how much of a uphill battle was that?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Shoot, I don’t even think we even got the first step. Honestly looking back, it was all for show. It was all for show. How that all came about was Step in Design had an article based on women in design, very good article, very interesting. I was kind of starstruck that, not starstruck, I was kind of awestruck that out of all these listing of women designers, how come there weren’t any people of color in them? I think there was one, and I think it was Lucille, and I never really know how to pronounce her name, but Tenazas, Lucille Tenazas, she’s a name in the industry, [inaudible 00:18:01]. So I believe she might be either Filipino or-

Maurice Cherry:
She’s Filipino. I know who you’re talking about, Lucille Tenazas or something like that.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yes, yes. And I was like, you got one person on here. There’s a whole lot of other people out here. So I wrote a letter to Step in Design at that time just saying, “Hey, great article, cool and that, but hey, you’re kind of lacking X, Y, and Z.” And I rolled off some names that I knew of, such as Cheryl Miller, Of Wilson, Michele Washington. And just questioning, if you’re going to do a compilation like that, you really need to be a more thoughtful and full approach in doing these kind of compilations. And at the time the editor in chief there, Emily Potts, actually replied back to me via my email. I was like, ooh, I didn’t know I was going to get an actual response. And she actually struck up this conversation, I should say we struck up this conversation and she had told me she was having conversations with Bill Grant at the time who was AIGA president, right? Yeah, yeah. Board of director president.

And that was one of his issues. He wanted to expand AIGA’s reach, and so that it becomes more inclusive to people and stuff like that. And she told me, would I be interested in talking with him and that she’ll put me together with him. And I said, “Sure, I don’t mind talking. Talking’s free, not going to hurt nobody.” So within the span of I guess a day she got me in touch with him and he called me at home, because I think it was some sort of holiday because I know I was there with the kids because they were upstairs. I had to go in the basement because they were so loud. And we were just talking and he was telling me about his idea that he wanted to start up this task force about diversity for AIGA and would I be interested in helping out with it if I had any thoughts on it. And so I kind of told them some of my thoughts and what it is and stuff like that. That’s when the conversation started shifting to hard left that I did not anticipate, was that, “How about you serve as chair?” I’m like, “Wait, this ain’t even a real task force yet. You want me to be chair?”

“Yeah, because you have your ideas and what you’re thinking with something like that. How about you lead the task force?” I was like, “Okay.” Because I was kind of hesitant because I was not an official member of AIGA at this point. I’d always worked with AIGA, like some sort of ghost warrior on the end on the outside. But I never actually paid for a membership. But somehow I kept finding myself at AIGA events. And so I was like, all right, let’s talk. And he said there was a few people who are of like minds with this. And so we met, we talked, and I sincerely felt he actually wanted to do this. That he had a desire to see this happen and that to affect some sort of philosophical change within AIGA in the industry. And I was like, okay, that’s cool.

And that’s when I first met Ric. I went to a couple of their leadership meetings out in San Francisco to talk about the task force. I mean, I should have kind of seen it then when I gave that speech, I forgot who, it was with somebody else that we were talking. I can’t remember who it was. It was a last minute addition to the leadership summit. I kind of took that some kind of way. This was like, okay, it was last minute, but you’re president. Because he was in his last year. Now, I don’t know how much pushback he might have gotten, and having the experience I’ve had now I kind of understand maybe why he was trying to push it through his last year. Because I think he really did meet a lot of resistance. And so I think he just found a way to pigeonhole it in there and stuff.

Our presentation was sort of last. I really can’t remember who the other person was. But the response from the leaders there, these were chapter leaders about, well, in terms of this diversity task force and chapters looking at it, what if we don’t have any people of color here? Basically let’s put it straight. What if we don’t have any Black people? And I was like, “Okay, diversity does not mean just Black people.” I explained to them diversity means a group collection of different voices. And I said, “Just because there may not be any Black folks there, Latino folks, Asian folks there, you as white folks can still talk about diversity. There is different white folks too. There’s also the gay community, this disabled community. You can talk about diversity and how you can address practitioners of design who have been left out.”

You can be a participant and not some sort of like, well if you need help I’ll be over here but I’m not going to do anything until you ask me. The kind of snide blow back getting from that at that time kind of told me what we were headed for. But I was like, all right, fine. This is about education. Let’s school folks. Yes, I knew some chapters, they don’t have any Black people around. They probably not even been in the same room with a Black person, let alone anybody else. So back in New York, formulating these plans with the… Well actually, no, we were doing that in San Francisco. We started burgeoning a task force. It was, oh man, I’m so bad with names. I think Jose Nito out from Boston, Tracy Woods from St. Louis. There’s a brother down south, can’t think of his name. I see his site in my head. A white lady from DC, I can’t remember her name, and somebody else.

We were sort of like the initial pool. And so we started trying to put up strategies, what we’re going to do, what’s going to be the tenant of the task force, what are some of the things we’re going to try and achieve? How do we talk to chapters about this? And I was assured that the New York chapter, not New York chapter, because it’s always tricky because New York chapter is the headquarters. So it’s like, we were assured that headquarters would be a hundred percent behind this. Ric said, “Yeah, we’re going to do this.” I think Emily Woods is a name. I don’t know if she was on the board or if she was from DC, but there was some board members there or staff members from headquarters that were going to help coordinate this, set up some workshops, help supplement our plans. In meetings that I had with Ric, I talked about some of my ideas and some of the research that I had, which I still have a copy of that letter, where essentially I outlined the plan of what needs to be done with diversity task force in the infancy stage.

Because I knew, okay, I’m not going to hit you up with everything, because we got to convince you guys just to do a little bit first, and let’s test the waters to see how serious you are about this before wasting all of our time doing this. And I basically was telling him first and foremost, you can acknowledge now the invisible designers out here, the invisible pioneers both past and present. And that’s when I mentioned the idea that became Design Journeys. My plan was for that to be a roving exhibition going from chapter to chapter to chapter like they do with other stuff. Gave them a whole list of current, at that time current because this was a 2006, current and past design professionals that they could focus on and recognize for not only just AIGA and [inaudible 00:26:05] but just to make up for the, what’s the word I’m looking for? The blind eye that they existed and then set paths for people.

And again I was assured, yeah, we’re going to do this, we’re going to help put this through. And so as I tried to set up, oh that was Cooper, from Cooper Design in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I forgot her name, her first name. As we were beginning to do and set up these programs with the assurances that Ric, the headquarters was going to be behind us, started having as we tried to put these planning meetings together more and more of this initial task force, the participation wasn’t existing. Folks, some of them checked out. There was only about three of us who were actively meeting, confirming, talking and trying to set stuff up. As they sort of slid off to the back burner, like oh we’re engaging in the conversations or attending the meetings, as we try to put plans to Ric and the headquarters team as, okay, can we set this up? They’re like, “We’re going to pass it to the board and talk about stuff and see if we can get allocations and resources.” Nothing ever happened. It was always a talk, “We’ll get back to it.” Let’s talk about this. What can we do?

And that went on for about a year of just, okay, we’ll get back and talk about it. And I was really getting very frustrated and pissed off about it because I’m like, okay, it’s like this has been set up to fail from get go. Headquarters is not doing anything. And then I got half this task force team that is MIA. The three of us can’t do all this stuff. And I’m not going to say the three people that were there. I’ll keep that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man. No, I’m kidding.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But they were very active. And the funny thing is they were active because we all shared the same thing. We were all people of color. Those who were active members on this. With the exception of the lady from DC, the white lady from DC, I have to say she was actually very active too. So it was from a biased perspective so to speak. We had a vested interest in this happening. Did not get that same vested interest from headquarters and from some of the task force members. And so as those task force members started whittling away, tried to shift the focus on, all right, let’s just stick with the task force members that are here and try and get at least something jumped off from headquarters.

They tied the diversity task force into their mentoring program because it was high school art and design. Well, predominantly most of the students are Black, Latino and Asian. But I was like, but that’s already in place. I mean yeah we can kind of put that, but if you’re trying to set this as a standalone, we got to do something that puts us out first. How about we first move with, at the time I had The Invisible Designer, but it became Design Journeys. I said, “How about this exhibition? Now let’s start introducing folks to these names.” Then there was this whole thing about money, how would it be, would it be a roving thing? Who can we put together? And that’s what I learned about the bureaucracy. AIGA is ridiculous. Which I think is on purpose because they definitely can move stuff when they want to.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m holding my tongue so much. But yeah, go.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I mean the biggest, I’d say two of the biggest programs that they definitely move fast was women in leadership, women in design, I forgot that. And then the voting. Oh, they’re moving heaven and earth to do that. And granted, yes, the women in leadership, great. You still didn’t focus on anybody of color in there. Still a whole lot of white people. But you can move heaven and earth for that. You can’t do it for there, where there could be potential sponsorship opportunities here, where you can get Adobe into this. You can get vendors that this is a necessary need because this broadens the industry. And quite honestly, if you just want to go business wise, increases your sponsor’s customer base. Because we all use the products that they do. We have to, this is our industry. So through all that, my time spent there was, like I said, we barely got a foot because it was all meetings and back and forth and conversations, like okay, we’re going to set this up.

All these emails that would have back and forth, I’m like, can we do something? And because of that inaction, basically most of the members left because they were like, “Okay, nothing’s going to happen.” And then eventually I was told, you know what, this chairpersonship should be every year, which I agree it should be every year. But I’m like, look, we haven’t even done anything yet. Because the next chairperson after that was Jose Nito, who was part of the original task force. And they still didn’t do anything. They still didn’t do anything. But then it was, what was it, in 20… When was the first design studios thing? When they got their promos and everything, they held it at AIGA headquarters. That was in 20 something? Twenty…

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know when that might have been.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
2015, 2016. Maybe it was earlier than that. Maybe it was 20-

Maurice Cherry:
I think it might have been earlier than that.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Because the only thing I saw came out of it was that in 2008, a year after I just basically left and the new chairperson came on board for the D&I task force, they awarded Georg Olden the medal. And I was like, all right, so you took something out of the list. And then the subsequent years I noticed they started pulling more of the names off that list, giving them AIGA medals. So I’m like, all right, cool. Now in the beginning a lot of it was the older ones, some passed, some were old. I don’t have the polite word to say, but I’m like all right. So at least you’re recognizing them, you’re still not giving a context to it. So it’s like a half assed kind of thing. It’s like, oh, let’s just do this. Because it definitely was done just to say, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing. We are recognizing diversity, we are recognizing our past invisible pioneers in the industry, and that’s all you need to know.”

They gave no context to it, anything like that. And then a few years later they started recognizing some living folks, which I’m like, all right, you can do a mix of living and past. It doesn’t have to be one year’s all dead, now you start going to living. But I noticed that they used quite a few of the names that was on the list that I provided. And I was like, all right, fine. At least something happened. I was like, I still think it’s for show. And then I got the bomb dropped in my mail when I got the promo card for the exhibition of Design Journeys. To say I almost felt like going down the AIGA headquarters and lightening it up. I was pissed because they created, I really thought it was just a empty shell of what it could have been. It definitely felt like a lip service. Definitely. I mean, I wasn’t doing it for any acknowledgement or anything like that, but the way they did it where it just was born out of them pissed me off to no end.

Still pisses me off to no end. Because every conversation I have with them is like, oh, we didn’t know you brought this to them. And I’m like, you mofos, it’s right there in black and white. Emails, letters. It’s like, yeah, yeah, okay, whatever. When I went to the thing, because they gave me it like, “Oh come down, Design Journeys, blah blah blah, this little promo.” And I’m like, you didn’t even spend the money for the kind of promos you do for everything else. It’s this matte cardboard thing that looks like it came out my own printer. I was just ashamed to see that.

And I went down there, it was just basically a wall of some names, and I’m like, this is really not a true testament to folks’ legacies and their work. I mean, you’re not even showing the full showcasing of their space, not their space, but of their actual work and what they went into. I was not a fan of it. I thought the exhibition design, I didn’t particularly like. And then they turned it into this exercise of, “What is diversity to you?” And it turned out was AIGAs membership at that time, it was still predominantly white folks coming in. I’m reading some of this stuff and I just got offended by some of the stuff that I was reading there. “Diversity is having some Black people, some white people. It’s about listening to a different perspective you don’t necessarily have.” I’m like, okay, you’re not really getting to the root of what it’s supposed to be.

Whiteboard exercise they had. I’m like, that means absolutely nothing. Because people are going to go in there, they’re drinking their little wine. “Oh, let’s do this because I’m down for the cause,” and then next day what cause, what are you talking about? So that incensed me. And I was just kind of done with AIGA at that point because all the conversations I had with Ric, in the beginning it started pleasant and nice but towards the end he definitely could tell my frustration. And I did start getting a bit raw, which I don’t think anyone’s ever talked to him raw before, he’s high in academia and stuff. But I was like, at that time “I’m done with this bullshit. This is crap.” I was like, “You’re not doing anything.” And then he retires, and they give him a big send off and I’m like, all right. Yeah, you did great for AIGA, but you left a huge part of your membership underwhelmed.

And that’s how that came to be, this leadership. I never really felt like I got a chance to do anything with the task force because it was such a step. The thing is, while going through all this, I came to City Tech because I was now teaching there and I would talk to Dorothy Hayes and that’s when I bumped into her and I was like, “Hey, by the way, let me tell you about we’re doing this diversity task force for AIGA.” She was like, “Oh God.” I was like, “What do you mean oh God?” “You do know that’s not the first time they’d done that?”

Was like, “We tried to do that in the seventies. Me,” meaning her, Dorothy Hayes and a few others, “And we got nowhere.” She told me, “Don’t trust AIGA. They’re going to give you the runaround. They’re going to make you think they’re doing all this stuff. You’re going to do all this work and it’s going to leave you empty.” They will find an excuse why they can’t do stuff. Because she said they’re not interested, they’re really not interested. They don’t see the value in it.

And that I have to say came to fruition. To this day I still don’t think AIGA values what really D, E and I really means about, because at this point I’m even saying that diversity, get rid of that word. That’s becoming a trend word. It is very much about inclusion. It is more about being included in the conversation.

Diversity means, okay, I got a representative here, there, there, we’re good. Those representatives don’t mean nothing. It’s like you come here, you can’t say nothing, don’t be seen. Just look good. At this point it is about inclusion and equity. Giving me that same access to that power pie that you have and not the crumbs. I don’t want the crumbs, I want the pie. I don’t think they value that. I don’t think they understand the value of it or intentionally underplaying it. I don’t know.

So those early years to the subsequent later time that I came back onto the task force with AIGA under a different leadership, Julie, Julie Anixter, who I actually liked, I thought she was on point because it all comes down to leadership. Because at the time it was Bill Grant who was pushing this, but his term ended. The next president came in. He had a completely different agenda and it was not about D&I. No. I forgot what he was working on. And then subsequently every board president after that has not picked up the ball with diversity. Let me stop saying diversity. With inclusion and equity.

And then they brought in Julie. At that time, the task force leader then was Jacinda Walker.

Maurice Cherry:
Jacinda Walker, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And Jacinda I had met years ago from an OBD conference, and she was pegging me all these questions about a AIGA and I was telling her, because at the time I didn’t really know why. I was like, “All right, cool. You want to know about AIGA? Let me tell you the good, bad, ugly so you making an informed decision.” And she becomes the chairperson, which Jacinda has got energy for days. Which is great. I’m not that kind of person.

I loved how she reinvigorated, and actually that version of the task force got more stuff done than I ever seen. And I think a lot of it had to do with Julie. They were in sync. That got more traction and things going on, which reinvigorated me, honestly. I got reinspired. I didn’t want to do anything with leadership or anything like that. I was like, look, I’ll just be in the back. I’ll be a worker. Just put me in the back. I’ll work with you. I will say that was probably the best time working with AIGA was that iteration of the task force. From, I think I rejoined 2017 till 2018, until after Julie left. That was great. There was things happening and I really felt people were committed. That actually members were committed and that Julie was committed to it.

Now the board is another thing. Which at this point I feel the board has more power than the actual executive director of AIGA. I did not feel the same energy from the board. So with that, as we kept going through stuff and doing things and even the offshoots emerge, which was very interesting, and actually enjoyed working with that too. It was all about emerging designers, and that definitely was a more inclusive kind of recognizing designers and stuff like that. But Julie left, AIGA has gone through a major, major transformation. Seemed like they no longer support any of these programs. I haven’t seen anything about emerge. I no longer am a member of AIGA and won’t go back as a member of AIGA because during that last part, once Julie was gone, they had the interim CEO or interim executive director.

Maurice Cherry:
Barry.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, Barry. Somehow they got wind, I forgot, it was the engagement director or membership director who reached out to me. Because I had posted a Medium story about my frustration with AIGA, and they reached out to me probably just to cover their ass and for prep. “Oh we didn’t know this was going on. Explain this to us.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll talk to you. I don’t know why I’m talking to you. You a membership person. What are you going to do?” Come to find out after I explain all this stuff, she left three days later, she had a new job.

Maurice Cherry:
So that went nowhere.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That went nowhere. And I was like, okay, you guys are really wasting my damn time and you’re going to see Brooklyn come out with that if you keep going. So at that point I was like, I’m officially done. I’m officially done. Julie’s gone. I didn’t like how that went down. Definitely could see the support being pulled from the task force, left folks questioning what’s going on. So folks started peeling back and I was like, look, I’m not going through this road again. I’m like, I’m officially done. I ended my membership the end of 2018. I let it lapse, I said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’ll join somebody else. I’ll go to SPD.” From that point on, I’ve just seen AIGA sort of disintegrate when they appointed the new executive director Bennie Johnson. Yeah, Bennie Johnson.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Bennie F. Johnson.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I was like, oh wow. They actually appointed a Black man. And I’m like, now is that for show or are they actually really serious? But I hadn’t seen anything with AIGA after that. I slowly started seeing all the initiatives being peeled away. And then to now, D, E and I task force is just a picture on the webpage. That’s it. They don’t do anything.

Maurice Cherry:
And now Benny’s no longer the executive director, which will be news by the time people listen to this. But yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I mean, what, three years, again, that’s crazy. So essentially that signals one or two things to me. That AIGA definitely may be in its death knell, or two it really is lost in what it’s trying to be. It definitely does not serve its membership anymore. Definitely doesn’t serve a segment of its membership. Even though I still keep an eye on what AIGA is doing and some of the things, the conferences, don’t get me started on AIGA in New York because they do nothing. I don’t see anything there. I will say I do see more faces of color on the speaker panels, which instinctually I’ll say when I read the bios and stuff, I’m like okay, you got folks of color here but they’re still not creative leads. They’re from other industries. If this is a design conference, show me the Black design leadership. Show me the Latino design leadership. Asian American, not Pacific Asian, basically darker skin Asians. They’re not represented. But you still have what I say, the Eastern Asian representation. That’s still there. But you don’t really have in terms of when it comes to a whole lot of brown folks up there, that it is more from some ancillary industry.

I’m like and that’s great, you may have some inspirational stuff, but I want to know about people in my own industry, how they’re leading, how they’re faring, how their experiences to get where they’re going. I can’t relate to somebody that’s speaking from, I don’t know, they just got a motivational speaking company, I could care less about them. Give me somebody who’s leading a top design company. I want to know the trials and tribulations with that. So to me, I still see AIGA’s doing this sort of face paint. They’re really not digging into it. I don’t even see them really digging into some of the major things that they always used to do. It’s dialed very back.

So I just wonder how long is AIGA going to be around, and who’s going to pick up that vacuum? Because to me it feels like there is a emptiness there of addressing this issue. Leading into OBD, which I thought would be a good variant to AIGA, they don’t do much either. Because I got aware of them both around the same time as AIGA and OBD. Because I learned about OBD back in the early nineties and I just stumbled on it. I forget how I found out about that. I think it might have been in HOW design, where they were talking about the conference that they put on OBD did in Philadelphia back in I think ’93, no, I think it was maybe ’96.

It was full blown. I mean, I saw so many design professionals that looked like me in these companies I never heard about doing this amazing work that I really thought that was going to do something, and it did nothing. It went nowhere after that. But that’s a whole of other reasons of internal fighting and the genders and what are they really after. Seemed like it was somebody’s method of supporting themselves. It was just a lot of, again, empty promises that kind of went nowhere. That didn’t really help the community at large and stuff. But it did, at least that conference showed me that I wasn’t alone, and that was just the one thing I wanted to do with AIGA so that beginning students or students coming in to design know that they’re not alone. That there’s other people out here that look like them that may have similar stories so that they can look up to and aspire to.

I still try to do that to this day to let people know that you’re not alone. That there are folks out here. They may not get the shine but it’s up to us to give the shine to them and stuff. But that was the experience with AIGA.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So much of what you described just now is point by point what my experience was like being on the D&I task force with AIGA, it almost felt like your hands were tied at some point. You couldn’t say anything, you couldn’t do anything. We had a large amount of members, most of them never said a word. They just weren’t out there. And it was clear that for the people that were people of color that were out there, we were sort of being elevated more as the main group to the point almost where the group was more so associated with us personally than it was with AIGA.

And so when people started leaving, because when I came on, which was in 2014, Antoinette Carroll was a co-chair with this woman Aidan O’Connor who worked at AIGA. Antoinette was positioning to have a full-time diversity and inclusion employee at AIGA headquarters because she was making the case that this affects everything. This affects membership, this affects other organizations, having it as the side thing along with women in design and voting and stuff, it sort of takes it off of the main plate. It doesn’t give it as much prominence as it should. I know she was lobbying for that to happen. It didn’t happen. AIGA eventually hired this diversity and inclusion fellow I think who worked with the task force for a while. This guy named Obed Figueroa, he left and then people just started dropping off the task force left and right.

I left in 2017, not too long after Julie left the organization. And it’s funny you mentioned Jacinda. I brought Jacinda in.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh okay.

Maurice Cherry:
So I had met Jacinda prior to AIGA through, I had heard about the work she was doing with the Organization of Black Designers and with this studio out in Cleveland called GoMedia. They were putting together this event called Weapons of Mass Creation Fest every year. And Jacinda was on their ass about how come you all do this every year in Black ass Cleveland and ain’t no Black people there, how is that? What is that? She was getting on them about it. That’s when I first learned about her, and then she knew about the stuff I was doing with AIGA, and I was like, “Well, you should join. I feel like you can take what you’re doing on this local level and really amplify it.” This is before I knew how much they would tie our hands to do anything. Everything had to go through a particular AIGA conduit. This woman that worked there…I’ll say it, she was racist. She was racist, hands down. I’m not going to say allegedly. She was racist.

We would mention stuff to her. And the thing was us, the people of color on the task force, put this together. We put two and two together and I was like, wait a minute, why is she telling you one thing and telling me another thing? And she’d send us these random emails that looked like a ransom note because she would copy and paste from all these different places, and it just pissed a lot of people off because it was like we can do more individually than being part of this task force with this organization, because you won’t let us say anything through AIGA. We can’t do anything. We couldn’t even get an Instagram profile. The Design Journeys and all that stuff, we would recommend people, they would never push that stuff through. A lot of us left after that.

I know Jacinda was chair for a while. I know she left. And I think the only person that might still be around, because after I left, I know Douglas Davis has been on the show before, he also teaches at City Tech. He was doing stuff with them. This woman out of DC, Phim Her was doing stuff. George Garrastegui who’s in New York was doing things, and Carlos Estrada who’s out of AIGA Detroit.

I want to say Carlos might be the last surviving member of the task force. Because I don’t think George is doing anything with them. I don’t think Pam is doing anything. I know Jacinda’s does not. I want to say Carlos is the last person standing. But the way that AIGA internally eroded that task force from within, I mean it was like an ulcer just eating away at everyone’s motivation. We were trying to do surveys and we were trying to do all sorts of things and everything would just get, nope, shot down, don’t want to do it, can’t do this, this, this, that and third.

And I was lucky to have Revision Path and still fall on that. And they did one or two features about Revision Path, but then people would say, “Well how come you have Maurice doing Revision Path and doing 28 Days of the Web and AIGA isn’t doing something like that?” And I was like, you got to talk to them about that. I don’t know nothing about how to get things on the website. It was a pain to get anything on the website because it had to go through another channel and it was a mess. It was an absolute mess. And what I left, and I rescinded my membership I want to say in 2017, 2018, I still sort of kept tabs with the organization, or rather I should say the organization kept tabs with me. Because they would would keep hitting me up about stuff and different chapters would hit me up and I’m like, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to mess with you.”

It got to the point, especially with my local chapter, with AIGA Atlanta, I literally had to go to them and say, “Keep my name out your mouth. I know you are using me, you’re dropping my name to get other people in here. You’re dropping my name about stuff. It’s coming back to me. Keep my name out your fucking mouth.” And to this day they don’t. I mean, it’s whatever. But I say all that to say Benny came on 2019, 2020 ish. And I had him on the show. We talked about the importance of him coming on as the first Black person in the organization’s hundred year history. I know there was a lot that he tried to do. The pandemic I think also just threw a wrench in a lot of things. And I’m not using that as an excuse, but I don’t know what AIGA is going to do now. Because like I said, by the time this airs, news would’ve went out that Benny is no longer the executive director. I don’t know who else they’re bringing in.

And as you’ve said, and as I know, D&I through AIGA is only as strong as whomever the executive director is that’s championing for it. Without them being the person at the top to say, “We’re doing X, Y, Z,” nothing really happens. And I’ve been on the nominating committee for the board. So I see how the board operates, I know how that operates. And they do hold a lot of power. They can oust an ED. They’ve done it before. So I don’t know. AIGA is, look, if you are a designer and you hear the sound of my voice and you are actively paying dues to AIGA, and I’m not saying don’t do this, but I’m saying really take a hard look at what the organization provides for you as a modern designer.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say modern because for a long time AIGA did not acknowledge UX. They didn’t acknowledge product design. And the reality is a lot of working designers now that work for tech companies or other places are UX designers. They are product designers. They’re experience designers. There are other designers that’s not just visual or web. I feel like the organization has started to acknowledge that a bit through some events. But what is the value of an AIGA membership to the modern designer? If you didn’t go to design school and picked up everything you know from YouTube or courses or a bootcamp or something and you’re working as a mid-level product designer at a tech company, what importance is AIGA going to be you? How is it really helping you as a career professional outside of just saying you’re a member?

I mean, I could be a member of the Subway Sub Club, but that don’t mean anything to the random, you know what I’m saying?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m comparing this to RGD in Canada. If you’re an RGD member and you’re an RGD registered designer, that means something to companies because they found a way to really get themselves a part of the business community. I don’t think being an AIGA designer, now saying you’re a member of AIGA really means anything when you try to get a job or you’re talking to clients as a freelancer, I don’t think that means anything. It probably means something on a more local level depending on the visibility of the chapter.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
But as a whole, what does it mean? So I’m not telling people to give up their memberships. I am asking them to take a hard look at the money that they’re paying and see, is it really worth it?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I mean, Canada, I’ve been contemplating moving to Canada mainly because of how the design community is looked at up there. I actually like the idea of registering as a graphic designer. I like that classification that Canada does because it seems like it has a more of a value added perk to you as a working professional and signifies that, hey, you know what you’re doing and you’re the real deal and that we’re going to help you with that.

I mean, for a whole host of reasons it’ll be like pulling teeth through I don’t know what in the US to do something like that. I don’t look upon AIGA in the same light as I did 20 years ago. I don’t look at it as like, oh, they’re going to help me. Because honestly, in my career, has AIGA ever got me a job? No. Has AIGA ever really connected me to any of the superstars within AIGA? No. I’ve met some in passing through meetings and workshops, but no one’s ever really vested any interest in trying to talk to me more than just, “Hey, how you doing?”

I’ve actually been kind of shunned by some folks in AIGA. A lot of the events that I used to go to, every time I would kind of step in, I’d always get this look like, what are you doing here? Even when I went into the headquarters, last time I went to the headquarters for something, I forgot what it was. I mean, the staff there was looking at me, and they were younger than me, I mean, looking at me like who’s this Black man in here? What you doing?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m just like, ooh. So tell students that, I tell them AIGA is a good resource to find information. That’s what I look at AIGA as of right now. Just an information tool. I still think AIGA is very good in terms of the business information they have on there. It’s great. I don’t need to get in, I don’t need to talk to anybody about that. I can just pull off the information, look at the resources and stuff like that. Cool. You’re a great library for that. But for the true socialization and the true advancement for designers, as I’m seeing now as I guess I fall into the seasoned category now, I don’t see them doing anything about seasoned professionals. It’s more like you don’t exist. We’re only focused on designers up to 30.

I try to tell students it’s a good resource for that information. But as a member, really think about the value that you may get out of it. You go to some initial events to see how you think about it and see if you see any concrete pros and cons is going to help you personally from that experience. And being the fact that the national headquarters is the New York City chapter is a double edged sword, because the New York City chapter honestly to me is dead as a doornail. They don’t do much. They didn’t do much before Covid, they don’t do much now. And it’s like, so if you join that, what is it really helping? And I hate saying that to folks, but I don’t want them to go through the experience I’ve went through, especially when there’s other organizations that I see. Yeah, they’re more of a specific design orientation like Society of Publication Designers.

They seem a lot more active and a lot more forward thinking on what they’re trying to do and who they showcase and how they extend stuff. I’m really thinking about joining them. I’m kind of gun shy because I’m like, do I really want to join another organization at almost $300 a year? I don’t know. I don’t know. And then walk away feeling unsatisfied. I mean, because I could do something else with that money. It is tempting, at least what I see in the presence of what they do, they’re [inaudible 01:01:18] above more stuff than what AIGA does. AIGA’s big focus is their conference. And I think that’s just a money driver. I think it’s fair for folks to start questioning the value of it. And if it’s not of value, then it’s time to either create something brand new or maybe just dissolve it completely and rethink this whole process from scratch.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because, yeah, you’re right. You’re right. I don’t have anything to add. No notes. 10 out of 10, right?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What gets you truly excited about what you do?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s different nowadays. I’m approaching I guess 30 some odd years, 32 years working. Because I started working as a sophomore in college. What gets me excited now about what I do is not so much, I’m not driven by the money anymore, which is kind of backwards to say. But I actually just like trying to educate people about what design really is in terms of a strategic path. I think too many people see design as just make me something pretty. And I’m like, no, it’s a lot more deeper than that. It’s about a strategic path on how you can make your company’s voice sing. And I like doing that. I get more excited about doing work for not-for-profits because they’re doing some really good work, a lot of them. But when you come across them you’re like, oh my god, what is this?

There’s no thought, no rhyme and reason. They look mismanaged when the organizations really aren’t. They have a plan, they know what they’re doing. It’s just the only thing is their front facing is not as organized as their internal specter. And that stuff is what gets me excited today is doing a lot of not-for-profit, dare I say pro bono work where taking away, I mean, yeah, I do non-profit work at a discounted rate, but pro bono stuff, you take away the money thing and you just focus on just creating to help them just for the altruistic nature. I don’t know, I just get a very different feeling. It just really inspires me because it’s like I’m helping you become better, to help you take yourself to another level that you deserve to be at.

And that I find in this aspect of my career is what truly motivates me today. If folks are willing, I like telling them about design and how it helps and what it can do, which is why I like teaching. And I think design education is paramount both for clients and students. Because I think as a designer, I think it’s our responsibility to also educate our clients about the power of design and what it truly is. But teaching, I feel like with all the experience and everything that I’ve gained over these 30 years, I feel I’ve been very fortunate and blessed. My career’s gone through so many different curves. It’s nowhere where I initially started seeing myself, where I envisioned there’s going to be some high powered VP of design at some mega billionaire company where I’m jetting from country to country and stuff like that. That doesn’t appeal to me and stuff. What appeals to me is just passing forward this design legacy to beginnings designers and so that they have a better experience than what I have had in my beginning journeys and stuff. And so that’s what excites me today.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like now? I mean, you’re at this point in your career where you have really seen design through all these different changes. Of course you mentioned being a design educator. What does success look like?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I would say immediately, right off the top of the head, some of the successes I like is when some of my former students have landed jobs that they really wanted and they come back and say they actually really value what I’ve done and help push them to be better than what they were when they were studying. They say, “Well yeah, you’re a little bit of a hard ass, but I get why you did that. It’s got me where I am today.” And we still keep in touch. They’ll contact me about industry advice, to just basically to have an air. That’s a success to me. But overall, I just find success in that, if I can actually just help someone, an organization, just put their message out a little more clearer. That they feel better about themselves, that I feel is a success to me. That’s how I’m counting that. Is how well does my knowledge or how does my help make them feel better about what they’re doing and stuff like that.

To me, I feel that’s more of a success I count today. I’m not discarding money. I still [inaudible 01:06:44] money, but I’m not driven by that, and that’s a fleeting success. Because I’ve been there when it’s been coming in like buckets and then when it’s dust, [inaudible 01:06:55] desert, it is more of the untangible successes that I think is great because that’s what’s lasting. So if I can help somebody else, they will remember that, and that just helps propel them. So while the name may not be there, the root of that help grows forever. I mean who doesn’t want that? That’s eternal. That’s great. And I find that success. Yeah, that’s how I’d answer that. If that’s clear. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
I think so. Yeah. Now this might be a harder question to answer, but I’ll ask it.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Uh oh.

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m actually asking myself that now. I’ve been toying with the idea of in about five years, which I’ll be 60, which I still can’t get my head wrapped around. God, I got to take a breath on that one. In five years I still want to be a practicing designer, but I want to see myself pull back. I want to see where I’m doing design more at a leisurely pace. I see myself still teaching part-time but in a different scenario where I’m really seriously contemplating on starting my master’s next year to be able to teach at any institution. Because you need a master’s to move around outside of where I’m teaching at community college. And I’m 75% sure, I think I may actually move from being an in-house designer and going back to a full-time studio. I’m thinking in five years I may want to resurrect a physical entity of Straight Design, which it probably will not be called Straight Design because I’m thinking about rebranding myself completely.

But that’s sort of where I see, I don’t see myself ever retiring. Because people say, “Well okay, five years you’d be 60, then there’s 65. What about retirement?” I can’t do retirement. I have some friends who are retired early, they look bored as crap, and I can’t do that. And the thing is, I still feel design. I still get very much invigorated when I see great design. I still keep my nose to what’s happening in the industry as fast as it’s changing. And I’m also very interested in that, I’m hoping within the next five years that I can actually transition into a field that kind of peaks my curiosity, and that’s motion graphics. Whether or not to get a full-time gig for that, but to be able to offer that as a service. And to be honest, just to be selfish, I just think it looks cool.

I’ve done a little bit of motion graphics now and it’s intriguing, it’s fascinating and it’s fun. It’s fun doing that to take this static idea and bringing it into a motion life,, is something that I’d like to do more of, especially since I see that as the way design will start changing as we move from the platform of the basic augmented and virtual reality platforms we have now, which is clearly in its cell phase. I can’t even call it embryo, it’s still in the cell. That doing something, and I can’t say I’m a big fan of social media, it has its place, but I like the premise of how you, not necessarily the still aspect of social media, how Instagram originally started that it was all photos. Now it’s all videos. So you might as well just say TikTok.

That aspect of promoting stuff from a brand ad perspective is fascinating to me, because that’s where you can apply the motion graphics to that. It’s high hopes, but I kind of see myself doing more of that in five years. So like I said, I’m dabbling a little bit right now with it, that I’m trying to incorporate a little bit more into my full-time job. To feel comfortable enough to be able to offer that to clientele. That’s about as far as I can see what I think myself for five years, because in just the last five years I’ve gone through such a major transition professionally and personally that I’ve learned I’m not trying to forecast anymore, because tomorrow could be very different right then and there. So five years could be a very, very long way aways, and many different things go. But that’s kind of where I see my vision board for five years might be.

And that could change next week too. Because I have become very sort of transitory, I’ve been very flexible about, oh, where we’re going to go. I don’t know. Let’s see where the journey takes us kind of thing. Because at this point I don’t feel I need to prove anything to anybody. I don’t need to prove anything to myself. I actually just want to enjoy myself and I just want to contribute with, especially more so in terms of, wow, as I’m listening to myself in my head as I’m thinking about this, that Lord help me, do I want to actually become more of a social activist? I don’t know. I’d like to actually as these issues are popping up more and more in society, as a global society because you can’t really say we’re stuck in our own little neighborhoods anymore. But I want to do my part and help on that kind of scale.

In some part that also too is in that projection for the next five years. Maybe it’s a lofty idea, but it’s something that’s kind of sparking some initial interest now that I want to see how that, once I plant these seeds where it may grow within five years. But that’s where I see still doing the stuff and just hopefully still looking as young as I do now for five years. And just hoping my kids are, because they seem to, my son’s on this creative journey that I hope he’s successful in what he’s doing, and helping guide him as much as I can. As well as my daughter who is still trying to find herself. But she has a really strong creative base, even though she keeps trying to deny it. To make certain that they, like I said, my son makes certain that his career path is as solid as it can be, and to really try and guide my daughter because by that time she’ll be going to college. Kind of push her to be a creative too. So yeah, that’s what I see.

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
They can find me on my website str8tdesignllc.com. But the domain is not spelled as you would say straight, it’s S-T-R, the number eight, the letter T, designllc.com, had to play off of that because somebody took the domain Str8t Design. They could find me there. They could also find me on Instagram as Str8t Design spelled as you just say it on Instagram. That’s generally my main two points where you can find me, because my social media presence really is contained to just Instagram. I no longer use Twitter and I don’t really use anything else. I just use Instagram and my basic website.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Andrew Bass, wow. I mean, I knew that this was going to be a great conversation, but this was a conversation and a history lesson and a therapy session. This was so much wrapped into one. I mean, first of all, I just want to thank you for just the work that you’ve done. I mean a lot of what you’ve done in terms of just educating and then also even the work with AIGA has really kind of set the platform for me to even do what I do here with Revision Path. Like you were one of the first people that I interviewed back before this was all a podcast and everything. And to see that you’re still continuing to do this work throughout the years, that you can really speak truth to history about how things have went and how technology has changed design and everything. I hope folks get a chance to really listen to both parts of this episode, of these episodes, I should say, to really get the full breadth of what it is that you bring to the design community. And I hope to see you honored one day. I mean, through AIGA, maybe we’ll see, I don’t know, but I think what you’ve brought to the design industry is indispensable. And I just want to thank you so much for sharing that perspective here with our audience. So thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I thank you for that and I thank you for interviewing me. It was a really cool talk, great to listen and listen to hearing myself talk. And actually it was very therapeutic to actually share some of the agony going through some of this and just trying to lay groundwork for future folks, trying to lessen the burdens that they’re going to have to face. And the fact that in 2022, coming into 2023, that this is still going to have to go on is sort of mind numbing to me. But it’s still very much the fight to happen. I may not have as much fire in this fight as I used to because I’ve taken a reprieve and taken a step back because it does kind of wear you down a bit. But I’m kind of been refreshing myself to like, you know what? Let’s throw my hat back in this one last time.

It won’t be with AIGA, it’ll be actually doing through some other things, because forget them. It’s time to go to other means out there, and actually just basically ourselves. Because I still have floating in my head, even though we’ve had OBD, no, yeah, OBD, which has had mixed results, I still feel very much that if this is going to change, that we have to do it for ourselves. Completely independent and self sustained.

Maurice Cherry:
A hundred percent, a hundred percent. I believe that. Again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No problem. Thank you.

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Andrew Bass Jr.

We’re ending off the month talking to one of the unsung trailblazers for diversity in the design community — Andrew Bass Jr. Longtime fans of Revision Path will recognize Andrew as one of our early profiles back in 2013, and it was great to finally have him on the podcast to talk about his story and his work.

In the first part of this two-part interview, Andrew talks about his design consultancy Straight Design, and shared his story of growing up in Brooklyn and falling in love with graphic design. He also spoke about attending Pratt Institute, the battle scars he received working in print media and gave me a look at his career as a designer throughout the 90s.

Make sure you tune in next week for Part 2!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I’m Andrew Bass and I am essentially design strategist, educator, art director, graphic designer. Day job I work as a art and production manager at an association called RIMS, handling their member publication. And I, on the side, I also have my freelance consultancy, Straight Design LLC, where I take on various different clients, focusing a little bit more on the small business side and not for profit as well as I’m an adjunct lecturer at City Tech or the full name New York City College of Technology where I teach Design Thinking, Design Studio.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far? We’re kind of near the end of the year. When you look back, how would you say the year has been?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s actually been, in perspective has been pretty good. I’m employed so that’s good.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m getting transitioning more from my basic print background into more digital design, which is actually good, where I also trying to kind of squeak my way into doing a little bit more motion graphics. But it’s actually been going pretty well as I’m been focused more on my full-time job in teaching and a little pulled back away from Straight Design due to family thing, personal issues. So I went through a divorce, had to sell the house and all this during COVID.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. But 2022, has been compared to 2021 and definitely 2020, it’s been great. In the grand scheme of things, I really can’t complain about stuff, but it’s been going pretty well and I’m just trying to gear myself up to get, for 2023 to get a little bit back into focusing a little bit more on Straight Design and what that next evolution’s going to be for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I feel like the last few years for a lot of people have been this sort of, I don’t know, period of trying to just gets get acclimated to the way of the world now and especially now that it seems like capitalism is trying to push us out of COVID in a way that everyone’s really trying to think, oh well for next year I need to try to get back out there more. I need to try to do more, try to resume what life was like prior to all of this, you know?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I mean I will say for myself, and I’m still wrestling with quote, and I hate all these trend words that they keep coming out with, but quote “the new normal” because I now officially work from home and will be working from home for the next several years for my full-time job, saddle that with Straight Design, which is also still from home. The only time I actually go out for design is when I teach. Learning how to marry all that in one residence, basically my home without losing my mind and still maintaining that creative inspiration, is extremely hard and I’m still trying to formulate plans as to how to tackle it because I’m on what plan A.2 Now or something like that. Because I’ve gone through the 26 alphabet and gone through 1 through 10. So I’m on my third iteration of how to make this all go down seamlessly.

I think COVID just also put a pause on so many things that I think it is really hard to get, jumpstart ourselves back into, okay, this is how we did business, this is how we talk to each other, this is how we do stuff. And from the design aspect, I definitely have seen it become stagnated where I really feel that face to face has actually hurt a little bit of, at least my design process. In talking with both coworkers and clients that without that sort of personal face to face stuff, reading each other’s body language, playing off the vibes and stuff like that, that it has kind of stiffened a little bit of the creativity. I understand why everybody’s trying to say, “Okay, how do I get back into this normal life before COVID?”

Some of it I think is self-induced because for whole host of thing reasons 2020 was, I say from 2020, 2021 was a real big pot of let’s stir everybody, let’s scramble everybody’s brain with so much crazy misinformation about so many things. From the pandemic to politics to just how life is going to be to the state of the world and all that, that I think it really kind of, if I could say mind fucked us a bit that we still haven’t really kind of gotten out of it. But the thing is we need to, and the thing is, even during COVID, life doesn’t stop, you just have to adapt and figure a new way to do things.

And it’s slowly coming, it’s slowly coming. And I think as more and more folks get out that haze things will kind of lock back into place and pretty much kind of sync up as to how things were beforehand with just new processes, that’s all. It’s just going to be new processes. So it sort of forced the change for a lot of things. And we all know humans don’t like change very much. So it’s a shock to everyone’s system and I think it’s starting now to seep in and okay, this is what we’re going to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I mean you’re absolutely right. It’s been something I think a lot of us have just had to get comfortable with the constant pivots, whether it’s lockdowns or work from home or hybrid. And that’s we’re just talking about on a work kind of level. I mean personal level, there’s people that have lost loved ones, there’s people that have gotten COVID multiple times, they have long COVID, like there’s a lot that has really come out. And it’s continuing to happen, I would say even with the vaccines and such, there’s still just a lot that’s going on right now.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s something we just got to have to learn to live with and navigate that as anything else.

Maurice Cherry:
And we have to do it unfortunately on the individual level because I don’t think that structures have really been set up for us to do it on a societal level yet.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No, that it’s been misstep from day one and once it’s been misstepped, it’s very hard to start building that foundation and so that momentum is lost. So it is very much individually, which will be the success rate on that is going to be a wide range of stuff. Because some folks will do better, others will do worse. And the only thing is we just got to try and support one another when we can. I mean that’s lofty goals. Let’s hope that we all can do that and I think that’ll help things a little bit better. But yeah, it’s very much a matter of now it also kind of shows how fleeting life is and how, I mean a nanosecond, how things can shift and you have to either be ready to jump in and adapt or you just stay in that place and just cease to exist.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s lighten the conversation up because people probably tuned in didn’t expect us to be going all deep about COVID and stuff. Let’s lighten it up and talk about your design consultancy, Straight Design, which you’ve ran now for 15 years. Tell me about that. How did it start?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It wasn’t even planned, it just kind of happened because I will freely admit it started because of my arrogance. I was working in a time and a company and I was going to have the opportunity to start teaching as an adjunct and I just kind of took for granted that because we had such a relaxed work schedule there that oh I could teach classes during the day and come in four days a week and not just one day. This was before anyone ever did any sort of remote stuff. And I didn’t bother to tell my editor-in-chief that I had done this. And so basically I was tasked with, “Look, if you drop the teaching gig now or teach at night or you just got to leave the job,” it’s essentially you’re making, you accepted two jobs and this is your first job.

And I kind of refused. At that point, subconsciously I was kind of done with where I was working at. I had been there for a few years and there was a lot of changes. The company was going through a merger, I should say an acquisition. And things were changing in my department. My staff, they had had me actually cut my staff and so I was the only one working on the magazine at the time and through budget cuts. And I kind of just used that as an excuse subconsciously to of exit out. And so when I did that I realized, oh what am I going to do for money? So I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have to kind of freelance.” And I took some time to just kind of coast a little bit, get my head together and I was approached by a client to submit a proposal for developing a magazine prototype as well as what it would be to produce this magazine on a monthly basis.

And it was a magazine based in the Netherlands based on financial technology, which I had was completely unfamiliar with that subject. But I submitted my proposal and I was awarded the gig and that gave me the impetus to, okay, let me start Straight Design. Now at the time it was called AD Bass Designs until I changed the name later on. And that started the ball rolling for Straight Design and they were very good [inaudible 00:15:06] and it morphed from just doing the magazine and the production to doing event materials to promotional collateral and it spurred adding to my clientele roster.

And so I was running that in a physical studio in Manhattan for a good number of years, at least like five years in there. And then the recession of 2008 hit, as well as everybody else, I started losing some clients because they were cutting back on money, but I was still doing pretty well with that. But then once my big client sort of went away because the owner of that company didn’t realize what the financial investment was in starting up a magazine because a magazine doesn’t really break even for at least five to seven years. And the owner was like, “Whoa, this is taking too long.” And so they kind of pulled back on it, still kept all the event stuff and the event materials and stuff but just wasn’t doing the magazine.

I started losing clientele a bit because of the economic situation and at the time I was married and both my wife then and me were self-employed and with, we just had our daughter and I was like, “Okay, somebody’s going to have to go back inside because health insurance was as much as my mortgage.” And I was like this is killing my savings quick. And that’s when I had just made the transition to go back in-house. But I still kept Straight Design as my freelance consultancy so that I would basically do the projects that I still were very interested in on the side, but I didn’t have to worry about hunting down and bringing in clientele while maintaining my whole household. And I’ve kept that way from since 2012, I think. Yeah. From 2012 to now. Where I’m now thinking about eventually I might resurrect Straight Design in a more full-time capacity in the next several years. But that’s how I started it. It was really just a fluke.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s so interesting. Hearing you talk about how you started that reminds me of how I started my studio. It’s so funny that you said it was out of arrogance. Because I feel like I started in the same way. I was a senior designer working AT&T. I mean I was completely self-taught. I just felt like, oh I got this, I got this. And I mean I was working there in AT&T, for at least back then, I can’t speak to how it is now. This was 2008 when I quit. But it was very much a production house. It was all on the assembly line basically. You got packet with all your stuff that you needed to design and you did it in Photoshop and you sliced it up in Dreamweaver and coded. There was no love or soul into it because you had to crank it out and eight hours or less essentially.

And so you’re just doing this on a constant loop. And I was like I could do this better myself. And I just quit and started my own studio. I really felt like, yeah, I could do this, I got this. But yeah, it’s interesting because even when I started, I had a different name for my business. I started it out, it was called 318 Media because I wanted to, one, it was after my birthday and then two, I just wanted to have a cool kind of funky name. I ended up changing it later because there were other three blank blank media companies in Atlanta. There was a three, I know there was a 352 Media, there was a 360 Media and people were getting us confused and so we had to have a standoff, okay, somebody’s got to change.

And I was like, “I’ll change mine,” because I had a weird spelling for it too because I don’t know, I thought it was cool to have the number three, the word 18, but then I had to keep explaining it to people and then forms wouldn’t take a business thing that started with a number. It was a whole bunch of things.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I just changed it to Lunch in 2014, 2015 and completely rebranded the company. So it made more sense after I did all of that. And I even found business increased once that happened because one, people weren’t getting us confused with other companies. And then I had all these kind of gimmicks around lunch. My business card was one of those plastic key tag things where like CVS or whatever.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was like that was what the business card was. And every time I met with a client I’d mark off a little circle on the back.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh that’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’d be like, “Oh, if you get a certain number, you get a free whatever.” I could play all these little gimmicks into it and it was fun.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve thought about going back to freelancing now, especially since I am not working and the job market is trash, I’m thinking about it. So I get what you mean about always having it in your back pocket in a way is something that’s just your own thing, you know?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, I mean it was great experience, still is a great experience. It was a great experience having the actual physical space, dealing with clients coming into the office, going to presentations and stuff like that. Contracting freelancers to work on projects and something like that. But it was also a good experience in understanding that New York City does not small business. They don’t like freelancers. Unless you are a huge company, the state is just going to rob you blind.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And it’s really hard. It was harder than I really imagined to run a business in New York City and New York state because New York City is its own entity and then you have to deal with New York state as well and then you got the feds so you get triple hit.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It was very, very interesting. And I would probably not open up a business in New York City again. I would go to a different state. I’m starting to understand some of the reasons why some companies open up in particular states. Just from the business point of view, it makes a lot of sense. But it was a good experience I have to say. And it actually did very well, even to my surprise because I didn’t expect to do so well starting off. I thought I was going to have to kind of struggle a bit, but things just rolled in really nicely and I was like oh. And I knew that wasn’t going to last. I just didn’t know it was going to hit sooner than it did. But it was a great experience and it just helped strengthen how I do my consultancy now when I freelance and stuff, that I got a little bit better practice with clientele because I really don’t like that side of doing a business. I really just want to create.

And I was always trying to find, I said if I was going to do Straight Design as a company company again where there’s just more than me, I need to find somebody who’s this, who’s good on the business side that doesn’t mind doing all the numbers and the paperwork and stuff like that. Because now that stuff really does consume a lot of time and it really showed being a creative takes a lot. We all know being a creative takes a lot of our energy. But when that’s split with doing this sort of the other side of our brain, the more logical side sometimes how that can disrupt things now and it’s hard to get back into that creative flow after you’ve been dealing with invoices and setting out proposals and responding to RFPs and tracking down those clients that are a little late in their paying and then taxes. That, yeah. We don’t like taxes but that, that’s woo those quarterlies.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
[inaudible 00:22:50] on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
You are preaching to the choir on that one. I know exactly what you mean.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. So it was a great experience and I try to pass that information to students now and always have incorporated a little bit of business sense in my teachings with students so that they’re better prepared for that. Because I never got that when I was in school. There was business not considered part of the curriculum. It was about technique and creating and stuff. Not like, “Okay now you got to make a living, how are you going to survive?” But it was a great experience. I mean it still is a great experience but what it is now is that I can pick and choose what I really want to work on.

And I really tend to working on not for profits or trying to help businesses get their start and really understanding how important the strategy of design is. And not so much get sidetracked by all the nice shiny bells and whistles, but to really understand how this design strategy is going to help them propel their company’s message to ensure they are successful in interacting with their consumer, their customer base and stuff. And I kind of like that. And that working full time and doing the consultancy on the side, that enables me to do that a little bit more without having to worry about the slow times and stuff like that. So it has worked out pretty well for right now. Although like I said before, I’m thinking of the next evolution that’s probably going to happen within the next year.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean you mentioned nonprofits and sort of smaller businesses that you really like to work with. What does your creative process look like when you’re starting on a project?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Generally when I’m first starting on a project, this is assuming I’ve been awarded a project, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Okay. Because then there’s another process on trying to get that project. Once I’ve gotten a project, I really try to just hone in and identify what is the problem that they’re facing, what is it that they really need to happen? And in that, once I’ve kind of locked that solid, that kind of helps me figure out my focus on what I need to sort of really understand about them, their audience, what they’re actually trying to put out there. Whether it’s some sort of service, whether it’s about the face of their company. And I really try to learn as much as I can about them to sort of really put myself in their shoes and trying to put myself in the shoes of who they’re trying to reach so that way I can talk in the same tone, the same voice. And that usually that’s a lot of my discovery time.

I always tell my clients that I need a good, I give myself about four weeks of discovery time to go through stuff to understand, to talk to people, to be able to really understand the gist and the spirit of what this is and who they claim their audience is to see if it actually matches up before I ever begin thinking about creative solutions. And then once I’ve done that, that’s when I just go back to them and kind of confer my findings, where I sort of send back to them, for lack of, a creative brief, just letting them know, “Okay, this is of where I think this is at.” And just to get them the co-sign, “Yeah, this is what we see for ourselves, this is what we see our audience, this is where we definitely agree with this is what’s happening, this is the sentiment.” And then that’s when I start getting into my creative process where start trying to now understand the competitors, see what they’ve done, see what this company’s done and what works well.

Because sometimes companies don’t realize they have some good stuff, it’s just maybe not executed well or thought out correctly. And so I try to see what is good. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel unless it’s necessary. And see, like I said, see what works, what doesn’t work and then start beginning to put those pieces together and start developing my own of creative point of view as to how I think the project should go and what’s going to be best for their purposes moving forward. Which again, that’s another big chunk of my time that depending on the scope of the project, definitely is at least a month for, I like telling folks weeks versus months because it seems shorter in weeks than months. Math. I tell them it’s usually about four to six weeks I’m going to start doing creative development if it’s a kind of small base project, small to medium side.

And that allows me to actually kind of run through a lot of my ideas because in all transparency, as a creative I also build in cushion time for myself with that. Because I’m not starting on that project right off the bat. I’m a procrastinator and I probably should not be putting this out on air, but I’m a procrastinator and sometimes it takes a while for me to jumpstart to get in things because deadlines really drive my juices. I don’t know why that is, but at least about a week or so I kind of just kind of float through the project in the development phase. Kind of looking at things inspiring myself before I realize, oh man, okay, I got to get my stuff going in into gear.

And then once I’m in gear though, I’m going through it. I’m flying through it to build up my mock so that way I can present to the clientele. And I walk them through the whole process and I explain, I kind of educate them about the aspect of design and why I have done exactly what I’ve done, the choices I’ve made from all the elements. So that they have a better understanding that this is not just about making things look nice and that colors, type, images just seems like random choices when no, there’s a calculated reason for the choices on this and what the desired result is expected from it because of these choices.

And then it’s a matter of, I don’t usually have not gotten from clients an extensive back and forth on things. It’s been a pretty quick, “Yeah, we like this choice, we’ve got these few little changes and then that’s it.” And then the end of the process is where I now start finalizing everything up. And that usually is the quickest part of the process because all the stuff I build up is to high fidelity in terms of the conceptuals. And so that way all I’m doing is just tweaking some things unless it completely requires a rethought and which we never want to do there. And luckily I’ve only had one or two of those and that’s an earlier part of my career because that’s embarrassing. Go back to the drawing board to because you completely did not catch what was going on. And then from there it’s just providing the materials to the clienteles and following up with them.

Now that’s one of the things that I think sometimes as designers, creators we don’t do is that we don’t follow up to say, “Okay, hey, how did things go six months out? How did everything happen? Are you satisfied? What’s going on?” To try and maintain and build those networks and those relationships so that it becomes a longstanding client base. But also I think it’s just good practiceship or businessmanship to follow up with your clients, make certain what you provided to them is doing what they needed to be done and that they’re satisfied and that it’s helping them. So, that actually tells you how well you’ve done yourself. But that’s [inaudible 00:30:48] my process. I hope I didn’t drone on that.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I mean I think that end part definitely is good because then it also means that you can possibly get repeat clients.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Repeat work from the same client. I mean that’s always good. I know back when I was doing my studio, I would have clients I do work for and then I would follow up and if they needed things on a more regular basis, eventually that graduated to becoming a retainer. And then that’s guaranteed monthly income, which we all love that. That’s great.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And referrals. Current clients can refer you to people, so you get new clients.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Let’s kind of dive a little bit into your personal story. I think folks now can kind of hear the New York accent.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh my god.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about growing up there.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
You mean my Brooklyn accent? Yeah. Well I mean I’m born and raised in New York, specifically Brooklyn. Because people ask me, oh where I’m from, I say, “I’m from Brooklyn. I’m Brooklynese.” Because yes, people from Brooklyn, we have Brooklyn is a culture. Other folks realizing, or at least old Brooklyn now, because yes, I’m going to say Brooklyn is not quite the same as it used to be. So old school Brooklyn. Yeah, I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, now during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Crack era and blackout from 1977. So Bed-Stuy was rough. It was not for the week of heart. And me growing up as the nerd, because I’ve always been a nerd, always been the tallest dude out of everybody, very quiet, reserved. So I was the art kid. And so naturally I was bullied growing up and for me to deal with that, I always used to just draw. Now I would just go into my notebooks and draw these fantasy worlds just to escape from all the crap that I was growing up with.

Because I also, my dad was an alcoholic. When I was younger it wasn’t as bad as it was when I got older, but when he did drink, it was not a pleasant environment. So coupled that with the knuckleheads in my neighborhood who were bugging me and my brother, I retreated to my drawing. Now I just went in there and I just started drawing worlds to just escape for a few hours and stuff. It was great therapy for me. Unfortunately, as I think back, a lot of the scenes that I would was drawing were conflicts. It was like war, space invasions, shooting. I was just blowing up shit. If you talk to a therapist, that means that’s a manifestation of what’s going on out there. And I’m like, but I had fun.

And with the drawing that actually got me interested in do people do this? And so I started looking deeper into cartoons cause I love cartoons and how they were drawn. I was like, oh people do this. When I found out as a kid, folks actually do. Because I don’t know what I was thinking as a kid, I just thought they magically appeared. I didn’t know you actually had to do that. And that fascinated me because I was like, “Ooh, maybe one day I can draw some cartoons.” And that shifted my invasion drawings into drawing characters and doing little mini cartoons. And to date myself, I used to do these little flip books where you draw them on the edge of the paper and you just flip them. And then-

Maurice Cherry:
I remember flip books. Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
We all did that back then. It was just so cool. And people loved when I did it at my school and they’re like, “Ah, do one for me, do one for me.” And I started getting a little reputation for Andrew’s, “He’s the animator, he makes these cartoons that move,” and it was pretty cool. And I was like, oh, maybe one day I could do this for a living. But as I started growing up, I got into graffiti because the introverted kid started breaking out his shell a little bit. And I was fascinated with graffiti. Little did I know, that was my first introduction to design, specifically graphic design. Because what folks don’t seem to realize back then graffiti was just that was vandalism, got to get those kids. And I don’t advocate now at 55 to ever go paint up on people’s property. That is having been a property owner, I’m going to beat you up if you write on my property.

But it was beautiful work to see the letters, the formation of these characters and then the letters of the characters, and then actually the figurines you put into the pieces in the murals. Which all based off of the smurfs, Vaughn Bodē’s work, I forgot the character name with the mushroom head. Or at that time it was the, because that was the beginning of the hiphop culture. And I say hiphop purposely now because hip hop culture was the trifecta of MCing. Notice I say MCing and not rapping. MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Graffiti was the visual expression of all this, where breakdancing was the physical manifestation of the movement, and MCing was the verbalization of it. And there’s a distinct difference between MCing and rapping. Now, again, dating myself because we rappers today are not MCs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no, no. I would venture to say rappers today are barely rappers.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Bingo. But that’s got me into graffiti. And I just fell in love with how you create your own letters and create these characters into these stylized formations. And then the color, when I had my black book with the markers, it was Pantone markers. Little did I know Pantone would actually be so much a part of my life. But those Pantone markers with the smell, I love those smell of those markers. It was pure alcohol now. Yeah, pure alcohol. And they soaked through everything, but they left beautiful pieces. And that was actually my very first foray into being an artist and drawing and in design. And from that point on, I knew I wanted to do something creatively for the rest of my life. Now I just didn’t know what now.

And I went through different phases as I went from high school where I went to Brooklyn Tech, which was, and still is a very specialized high school that focuses on math and science. But they had an industrial design program in there and a little bit of arts. And so I took that because I suck at math, I love science, but I’m not a scientist. And so I did industrial design, which was very much equated to let’s say package design, product design and architecture, which did interest me. And for a time I was like, maybe I’ll do be an architect. But I really liked more the spontaneous creativity in design oriented projects.

So when I left Brooklyn Tech, I applied, was thinking about college and I applied to Pratt, I applied to City Tech. At the time, City Tech back then was called New York City Technical College. That’s what it was called back then. And those are the only two schools I applied to because I didn’t know of any other schools. And also because my mother told me I was either going to go to Pratt or City Tech because they’re in Brooklyn. And so that way I’m close to home. So my mother was very much the SuperMax warden growing up. So I looked at both. I applied to both. I got into both.

I went through, I first focused on going to Pratt, but I couldn’t afford that bill. I was like, “Ooh, that’s too much money.” And I didn’t really have a true portfolio back then. I just had my black book and some work from high school. Because like I said, Brooklyn Tech was not based, was not an art school. So I didn’t know anything about building a portfolio, what’s needed or anything like that. So I just had little trinkets. So I went to City Tech or New York City Technical College at that time.

And that’s where I really started learning what it is to be in the creative industry. And I knew right then and there, yeah, this is the choice I want to do. I definitely want to be in the creative industry. Now I got to decide, is it advertising, is it this thing called graphic design? Is it this thing being an illustrator? Because a couple of my professors were pushing me to be an illustrator now. And they were like, “You just have this natural tone. You should be an illustrator.” I just didn’t like sitting in those classes for six hours drawing stuff. I was like, are you kidding me? That’s like, this is boring me. It did. It wasn’t as fun to me. And I did a year at City Tech and then I transferred, especially at the encouragement of one of my professors because I was all A’s, I got 4.0 for that first year.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
All my projects just didn’t feel like it was a challenge to me. Even though at the professor who I’m revering right now, her name is Dorothy Hayes, she’s passed on.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve heard of her. She’s been mentioned on the shows by a lot of people. Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Dorothy Hayes at the time when I was a student of hers, I could not stand her. She was too hard. I was like, she was always on my. Always, always Bass. Because she always called me Bass. Never call me Andrew. “Bass, Bass, you could do better. You could do better. Where’s your work, I want to see your work.” But looking back, I mean that really forged who I am and I’m forever thankful to her, and a few other professors I met. By the way, which they were all Black. I was lucky. I had quite a few Black professors in my design education.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Which was unheard of. That’s why I was saying that was destined to be and stuff. And so I transferred to Pratt and that’s where shit got real ,when I went to Pratt.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about it. How was it?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It was challenging. I wanted the challenge. I got challenged. It was like I almost dropped out at my, what was it, sophomore year? Well actually not, it was my transfer year. Yeah. Because when I transferred over, some of my credits transferred over, some did. Because Pratt had a foundation year that they required everybody to take. So I had a mix of classes that were from the foundation class and then classes that were able to be transferred over. It was a completely different environment. And we’re talking about 1986. Pratt was intense. The workload was nothing I had experienced at any school. It was weekly. It was a lot to manage. I mean many projects very much about understanding and defending the basis of your projects, which I hadn’t understand before that. I thought it was just about, oh, how do you make this stuff pretty. And then that’s where I first learned, no, it’s about why are you doing this and for who is it for? Basically what is your thinking behind this?

And that tripped me up because I was like, “Oh that seemed like a lot.” As well as at that same time, there was a lot of things going into my, not childhood, but at my home with my focuses at that point now. My dad definitely was heavy into his alcoholism. And so going to Pratt was a good and a bad experience. Good in the fact is that the work was intense. It forced me to double down and really get involved in understanding the nature of the work that I’m building. Because the very coming from four A’s to where I just thought I automatically get that coming in the Pratt. And then the end of that first transfer year, I realized, now granted also too, I was doing a little more partying that transfer year. Because I was like, “Ah, I got this. This is easy.” That’s when my GPA went from 4.0, dropped down to 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dip.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh it’s a major dip. And couple of my teachers came to me, professors came to me and said, “Look, hey. You can do the work. What is going on? You’re not applying yourself.” And that’s when I woke up and said, “Okay Andrew, you forget this partying, you can party after you graduate. Let’s get on the ball.” And I worked my house off to try and get my grades back up. And it was never back to 4.0. I graduated what? 3.0. I worked it back up. But that one year did that much damage to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. And so the other good things with that was the, I’d have to say, with the intensity of the work, it was also the way the professors tried to instill some of the actual business dynamics into how you build a creative, but also how to be a creative. It wasn’t extensive, it was snippets. It was, what was her, it was my copywriting professor, Lorraine McNeil, who also happened to be Black. She was a Black woman. She would occasionally mention about the business aspect and what would be expected out of there. It wasn’t a full fledged business kind of introduction, that didn’t exist when I was going to school. But she did try to put some nuggets out there because I found out about business and stuff on my own.

Now that was the other good thing about Pratt is that they had an extensive library. And that’s where I really got a lot of my supplemental education was in that library. I was in the library too much. They had so many books I couldn’t keep my hands off those books. The bad aspects of Pratt was that I felt very isolated as a Black student. Pratt was predominantly white and there were students who basically came from more affluent families. There was a contingent of students of color on there. A lot of them stayed on the dorms because they were not basically from New York, they were from other states.

So I didn’t have that kind of connection because the folks who were in the dorms, they had their own clique. They focused more, a little too much more on partying than education. I always called the edutainment and I’m like, “I already saw the effect of partying on my grades. I was like, nah man, I got to get serious because we want to get a job. We got this is going to be our career.” The isolation was very detrimental to me in that aspect because I didn’t have a vacuum. I had, I didn’t really have folks I can confer with about how their education was going, how classes were, how projects were, to bounce off ideas with somebody else is to, what do you think about this? And something like that.

The other thing is too, I thought the teachers, the white teachers, I thought they were very sort of offhand with the students of color. They seemed very apt to help the white students but not so eager to help the Black and Latino students. It was kind of like, “You can figure this out on your own. I’ll just give you this little nugget and let’s see what’s going on.” But then you see them confer very regularly with the white students after class, off premises. They would extend numbers to them. I’m like, “Huh, how come we don’t get that?” The only professors actually did do that were the professors who happened to be of color. I had three of them. I had Richard Perry who was an English teacher, Dwight Johnson, who was one of my design teachers who also actually gave me my first freelance gig. Lorraine McNeil, who was my copywriter teacher.

Those were the three professors that I had through my years at Pratt that did offer me help, is particularly Dwight Johnson. Now he’s the one that really, in the beginning years, I modeled myself after him. Now he gave me first freelance job. I just personally and professionally, I styled myself after him because I just thought he was on point. I was like, “I want to be like him.” So Pratt overall, if I had to choose today, I would not necessarily go to Pratt. There’s so many other schools out here that are actually pretty good and cheaper that I probably would’ve went to. But that’s how Pratt was. There’s really not much to say about City Tech because at that time City Tech had a reputation of being a super high school. It was just a continuation. And then, I mean having worked at City Tech now and working at City Tech now I will say they definitely have changed that, which is for the better.

But back then it was really classified as just an extension of high school and folks acted the same way. So it was good to get that sort of foundation in City Tech. And actually meeting a few professors there, Dorothy Hayes, Joel Mason, Robert Holden, they were actually good teachers that kind of helped me build a real portfolio, so that when I, they applied to Pratt again to transfer over, my portfolio was much more readily accepted now that I had a portfolio. But yeah, that’s how my experiences, I don’t look too fondly on my college years. It was kind of rough on instances that I wish I had more camaraderie among some of my fellow classmates and a little bit more, actually not a little bit, a lot more help from my professors. It just wasn’t really there. May have changed now, I don’t know how Pratt is at this moment now, other than I know it’s highly expensive. But yeah, that’s how my experience was there.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduate from Pratt. Tell me what your early career is like, because I want to also just kind of put this in a timeframe here. I mean you’re studying design at a time when personal computers were not really part of design.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No. No.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’d love to kind of hear what was your early career like once you graduated?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I have to say, I think my early part of my career probably was the most fun part of my career. Where I think I chalk it up to youth where, I mean there was no holds barred. I thought I could do anything. I was like I was ready for every stuff and it was pre-computer. So I was pretty good with my hands in doing that. Because in the beginning, in my beginning career, we did everything by hand. So we did boards, type was done through a, we’d send it to our type setting department or you would send it out to type setting companies and they would run off, what was that called? A linograph, I think it was called linograph. Basically it was just a sheet of paper that had the type set on there and you would cut that up, paste it on the board, with rubber cement. It was very hands on. That was where you would get your-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Letraset is that what you mean? Letraset?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No, Letraset was for the, if you’re doing display type.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But the actual body copy, the that text, if you tried putting that on Letraset, you would kill yourself. It would be tedious and oh so time consuming. So that was set by a machine that just ran off, sort of like photo paper you can kind of say it and you would just cut it down to size as you need.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s linotype.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Yeah, linotype. That’s it. Not linograph, linotype. The Letraset really is for display type. If you want to do custom things and stuff like that. Especially like logos. If you were going to do logo stuff. Oh yeah, that’s what I was going to say back then, that’s where you would actually get your battle scars because by cutting all that stuff with the X-Acto blade or an actual razor blade, it was no way you were not going to cut your hand. And getting cut with X-Acto blade is better than getting cut by a razor blade. Because hoo, those razors are deep. But that was just par for the course. Your hands, your fingers would be all scarred up. You don’t see them so much now in my hands, but there’s one or two spots that you still see where I have some heavy cuts.

But that’s how we actually did stuff by putting them on board, gluing down the type. The images we would actually have to send out to a stat house and they would take basically what was a full scale image or a film. It’d be like they would send you a negative and you would send that negative to the printer. You would put down sort of a for all intents and purposes, like a Xerox copy of what it is, just to get them in position, placing everything down with tracing paper to cover everything up, do some inking when you needed to do some things. And that was a lot of pen and ink work, which I think is solely missed from today’s work. Folks are so reliant on digital that they don’t know how to create stuff by hand anymore. And there is a beautiful nuance between hand created stuff and digital stuff.

Digital can be too clean. Even the stuff that try to simulate manmade stuff, it still has a cleanness about it that doesn’t exist in handmade stuff. And all that would take us some serious time. So if you wasted time, if say, “Okay, I’m not going to work on this today.” You lost 24 hours that can really impact your deadline. Now, unlike today where everything is like, “Okay, well I’m not going to work on this right now, I’ll do it tomorrow.” You don’t lose that kind of time because digital is so quick, it’s so instantaneous. But working there, my very first thought was I had gotten an internship at a small ad agency out of the result of, at that time I was the president of the Black Student Union at Pratt and I was all about business.

So I was looking at the Black Student Union as a way to start linking us up with job opportunities to various different agencies and studios in New York City so that we can get a head start on the other students, ie our white students who easily have these connections and get into stuff. But folks were not looking for us. So I was determined to try and get us a jump start. And one of the agencies who participated in that program, I was awarded the internship, which was a whole story because essentially folks didn’t participate. There was only a few folks that actually came out and participated, which really disappointed me on that. And I got it because my portfolio was the best out of it and folks had issues with that. But I’m like, “If you don’t apply, you can’t complain.”

And so I worked there for the summer of 1989. So once I graduated they offered me a full-time job. So I worked there for the summer and I was doing, it was an ad agency, but I was doing a lot more design work and I was the defacto art director because I was the art department because the agency was, it was a Black owned agency, it was just the principal and two other people in there. Excuse me. And it was a good experience because I was able to do my first photo shoots, meet these photographers, do [inaudible 00:55:03], set up model stuff. I had to battle folks because folks were like, “You sure you’re the art director? You seem a little young.” And I was like, “Well yeah, I am young but I am it.”

The only thing that kind of saved my grace a bit where people gave people a little pause at time was that, yeah, I towered everybody. I was six, was I 6’6 then when I graduated? I was either between 6’4 or 6’6, because I don’t think I reached my peak until around 23, 24. And so I towered over everybody. So my height kind of gave me some more credence and credibility and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But I always had a baby face. I still sort of do have a baby face. I mean it’s getting a little older. And so folks questioned that. But once I started doing the work, they were like, “Okay, no, you seem to know what you’re doing.” Because I kind of learned it as I went because if I didn’t know something, I was determined to go find out how to do it. And that’s where, I mean, because that was pre-internet. So again, I hit up libraries now. I mean there was so much information out there that people just don’t realize if you just get up and look for it, there’s a world at your fingertips. And I would just find out information on the rare occasions that I’d actually just ask people in the industry, I’m like, “You don’t don’t know me, but can I just ask you a question?” And folks were surprisingly helpful. So I did that and I was pretty much given leeway to do stuff, which is not usually the case.

I don’t know why that actually occurred. I consider myself lucky in a lot of the places I was employed at, I was given a lot of leeway. I was given the autonomy to like, you are the leader, create your stuff. Now I don’t know if it was the aspect of how I carried myself, how I did my work, because I always felt I was nervous. I was a nervous wreck. I’m like, “Do I really know what I’m doing? I don’t know.” I was always doubting myself in my head, but I would not let that show, I would not let that be known to anybody. And so for those three months, everything was still done by hand. No, the only computers in there were for the administrative views. And I will freely admit I use that computer to play my video games. Because I’ve been on video games since Atari 2600. Even though Atari was crap, I had CalecoVision, but that’s a side note.

So we were still doing stuff by hand and I was doing some long hours. There was no, okay, it’s 5:00, everybody go home. No, I would stay until about 11:00 at night, 12:00 at night. And the owner would just give me the key to the place and say, “Just lock up when you need to.” Which I thought was, wow. Again, I seemed to endear confidence to people that they gave me this responsibility and I never broke that trust on that responsibility. So from there, after about three months, like I said, again, being a young creative, I was a little too cocky and I was like, “You know what? I’m tired of this. I can get me another job like that.” And so I quit. I was like, I wanted to do something else.

And that’s when I realized, no Andrew, that’s not how it works. It’s like I got a hard dose of reality. It was like that I need to get my ego in check. And I was out of work for a good number of months. Back then you found your jobs through the classified ads in the paper, which I know today everybody would be like, “What’s a newspaper? What’s a classified ad?” But it’s equivalent to a job listing online. And I found a listing for an associate art director at this publishing company. And I said, “Oh, okay, that’s a different genre. Let’s kind of see how that is.” Submitted my resume, they called me in for an interview and I got a surprise because when I came in for the interview, that’s when I learned that the magazine was for an adult. It was an adult magazine, it was an adult publishing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And I was like, okay, this is interesting. But then when they actually specified what market in the adult publishing, it was a gay lifestyle magazine, I was like, “Oh, this is 1989.” And that was in the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Black kid from Bed-Stuy, there was a lot of stigma to the gay community and stuff like that. My concern was like, “Well okay, this X-rated stuff, can I get a job after this if I take this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That was my main concern. And so did very well in the interview. It was interesting when they said this, I’ll share with everybody, in 1989, the starting salary at that position was $22,000. I thought that was a lot of money back then and it was a lot of money because it supported me very well. Went back home, had a conversation with my mom, like, “Hey I went to this job, it looked pretty good. What do you think?” And she was like, “Are you there to do what you earned your degree in?” I said, “Yes.” “What are they paying you?” I told her the salary. It’s like, “So what is the problem?” I said, “There’s no problem. It’s just if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be do not supposed to be doing, but if you’re doing what you’ve been, you’ve got your degree on and this is your career. What’s the issue? It’s your starting point. Now it doesn’t mean that’s your end point.” And with talking to my mom, I was like, “You know what, that makes sense.”

And so after that conversation, it again, coincidentally I got a call from the art director that I met. She offered me the job now and I was like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll take it, I’ll see you.” And I started working, I stayed there five years. And so I rose from associate art director to an art director for monthly magazines. And yes, they were all towards the gay market. I learned quite a lot. I learned that if you are a good designer, you can design for any market. It’s about understanding your market and understanding what you’re doing for, what are you doing in that project to address your market. And the benefit of doing that magazine was that it wasn’t a straight just pictorial kind of magazine. It had lifestyle. So they had editorial in there and it was, unless you know what the magazine was, it could have just been in any mainstream magazine.

At the time The Advocate and Out were two magazines in the gay market that just kind of came out and they were getting a lot of shine. They were the number ones and they were beautifully done magazines. They were beautifully designed. And I kind of used that as my inspiration to model, to sort do my lifestyle stuff as, which was very successful. And it helped me transition from there to my next gig, which was at Essence Communications. But in those five years, that’s when I started. We transitioned about a year. Yeah, I think it was about a year after I started transitioning into computers. The Mac.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
In 1991, I believe. Because that was the other premise I stayed with. Well I wanted to take the opportunity too is that they had said they were going to make that transition from doing stuff production wise with the mechanical boards to move into doing the work electronically. Now that they were going to use Mac. I’m sorry, that wasn’t in 1991. That was 1990.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, it was 1990 because I started in ’89 and then I think in the spring of 1990, that’s when they started introducing the Mac, gave us courses. We went out there and myself and my other coworker who was the other associate art director on the magazine I was working on, we just blew it out. We were at class and then we would come back to the office and take what we had in class to apply it and continue it. Learning and doing stuff and seeing how things work when we were back in the office. And our art director at the time was like, “That’s great because you’re going to help me learn this because I don’t get what’s going on.” And he was older than us and stuff like that. But it was fun. And it made things go so much faster. And now we are doing our own type setting.

We now scanning images so we now can place them into our documents. We actually have the live files where we actually start learning how to photo retouch, photo calibrate how to type, how to create special print techniques like masking, fit colors, all this stuff that. The bad side of that was it actually, with the advent of the Mac, it eliminated whole industries. We lost type houses. Those faded out because now people could do it themselves. We lost a lot of production folks who actually, if you didn’t actually do the boards yourself, you could hire people to do it. No, just create and then give the directions to them, to losing some of the business with the photostat houses, those closed out. And those closed out [inaudible 01:04:52] within one year after the Apple came onto the market. Changed the whole face of downtown Manhattan, which used to be all type setting printers and photostat houses. By 1991 it was virtually a ghost town from those businesses. They had gone.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
They had transitioned to something else. So some of the photostat houses turned into scanning places. So they could scan some original art now because illustration, especially big pieces. Because at that time a lot of the illustrators still did the work by hand. They didn’t do digital work and some of these pieces were pretty big. They couldn’t fit your normal day tabletop scan because all this stuff back then was pricey as heck. Tabletop scanner poly was like next to a $1,000. That was a lot of money. So it was cheaper just to send it out and get a $50 scan now and you just get that scan to you and you can put it on. But that changed the where you no longer now had your battle scars so your fingers were saved, you didn’t have to cut up your fingers anymore. And it also kept from getting blood on the boards. Because that was always interesting when we got blood on the boards. Because you had to wipe that out. Otherwise that’s in the actual, when they shoot it. Now it’s just clean.

And now at this point though, our role shifted as creatives because so much stuff relied on us. We actually had to know how to operate this Mac inside and out. Especially when if there was a problem with the Mac. Yeah, we had IT, quote “IT department”, but thankfully the Mac was and still is very sort of self-sufficient. So when things go down it’s kind of easy to figure out what’s going on to get it back up. But that usually relied to us. In the beginning we had a service that would come in and fix that stuff, but eventually the owner was like, “Look, you guys are working on this. Do you know how to do this because we’re cutting this.” But it actually opened up more doors on the creative side.

I mean, yes, we lost a lot of industry and a lot of people had to adapt, some folks didn’t because of the manual nature of design at that point. A lot of them were older generations. So they did not want to learn how to use the computers and learned these programs, very much today. It’s a generational thing. The older generation just was like, “I can’t change. I learned all this. How am I going to, I don’t want to sit down and learn this whole new program and this contraption to do this.” And that’s where a lot of folks didn’t make that transition. They either had to leave the industry and do something else or just completely retire.

And like I said, that changed the shape of downtown Manhattan because it also changed the printers. And a lot of those started consolidating and shrinking down to what we see today. But it also sped up our creative process. So if we had an idea, we could actually instantaneously see how it works. Where at that time it was QuarkXpress, that was the defacto thing. There was no creative cloud. Adobe was this brand new company battling with Macromedia, battling with, what was the other one? Oh, Publisher. Yes. QuarkXpress had to battle Microsoft Publisher back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember Microsoft Publisher.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, we had not Illustrator, but it was freehand and Photoshop was Photoshop. That never disappeared. And so you had to buy all these individually. So back then being a designer was expensive.

Maurice Cherry:
Expensive. Mm-hmm.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Because the Macs themselves were these god awful paper weights. Because the face of the Apple, I mean at the time it looks sleek, but looking at it now, it’s like, oh man, that’s [inaudible 01:09:16].

Maurice Cherry:
It was a big rectangle kind of thing, right?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was like the screen and the CPU were all in one.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yes, that version. Yes, they had that. The screen was probably no more than maybe 13 inches, which seemed big at the time. And then they transitioned to having the monitor separate from the tower because everything was a tower back then. And that’s where the screen started getting bigger and stuff. But it’s still, it cost a lot of money and everything was on a disc. Nothing was cloud-based. Because the internet didn’t come into play until 1985. Is that correct?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the cloud wasn’t a thing back then. Everything was-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, the cloud didn’t exist.

Maurice Cherry:
Everything was floppy discs. And then the floppy discs gave way to those smaller hard discs.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Floppy to the ZIP to actually floppy to the Quest, to the ZIP to the dat. Thank God we didn’t have to do the dat much. And then there was something in between. It was a hybrid of a ZIP and the Quest, is that right? I forgot the technology in it. But it went through some iterations in the span of five years. Now each year was something new, which was expensive. It was crap. I mean it didn’t come out of my pocket, but it was expensive. But you had to adapt to each of those technologies and stuff.

Basically if you kind of damaged your CDs, there was no way to get a backup. If your machines got corrupted, the disc got corrupted and corrupted meaning by, just scratched the back of that disc because somebody did not put it up properly. It’s done. That would mean you have to spend another $1,000 to go buy some brand new disc of one program. Same with type, you have to do same with type, all that stuff. But it did enable to have more creative tools at hand. So if you had an idea, you could still do it by hand, but now you could translate it, do your sketch and translate it onto the computer where you can actually do different variations in the same day where it may have taken us a few days to do iterations of one idea.

And that sped up a lot of stuff and it was kind of cool. It expanded our imaginations. It put more responsibility on us, which I liked because I liked being in control and knowing what’s going on with the Mac and the program so that way I could troubleshoot myself. Because at that time I was thinking, okay, this is going to be helpful for one day when I want to start freelancing and get my own materials or when one day I have my own studio. Because back then I thought about my end goals. I had this studio, get this whole staff and become a small to midsize kind of well known studio. And that’s pretty much the early days. It was very much unexplored. So anything and everything was open and it was just, if you were into adventure, it was an adventure. You were so curious to see what the next thing was going to be.

Whereas today I’m like, “Look, slow down. Yeah, there’s too much stuff coming out. I just learned this, now you got something new. No, no, no, no, that’s not happening. That’s too fast.” As well as I think today, technology’s great, but I think it also makes people stupider, people put more faith on the tech versus their thinking and they’re not sort of, they’re relying too much on the machine and not relying on themselves. Because the machine is just a tool. And in the early days we did see that. It was just a tool. That’s all we looked at. It was like, unless we had our thoughts together before we went to the machine, we’d be wasting our time. Because you’re just fiddling around just getting lost in this virtual world. Today it seems to be the reverse. People don’t mind fiddling on there and they spend so many hours that basically are futile, they just waste stuff.

But that’s how the early days were. It was a really a fun exploratory, I don’t want to say Wild, Wild West, but it kind of was a Wild, Wild West. And then when the net came on board, because I remember fully using the internet in ’95, but we actually did have the internet. The company was called a Mavety Media. I think that came, we had that online around 1993 because I left Mavety Media in 1995. So yeah, I think it had just started. And at that time I think it was all, everything was AOL or Netscape. And the net just was, oh, we just went bonkers with that. It was just like, oh, I can get this right now. Even though that was on dial up. So that was taking a long time. Dial up, I don’t miss at all. You could not do any high files with that or anything like that. It just was too slow. But that’s what the early days were like. It was kind of cool.

Maurice Cherry:
When I give presentations sometimes I’ll tell people how in the early days of the web you had a fast lane and a slow lane. The fast lane was like if you had 56K and the slow lane was 28.8. I love that you’re talking about all of this because I feel like this is something which is definitely not talked about in this current age of design. Everything is done in the cloud, on the web, on a PC or a Mac so quickly. Sometimes even just on mobile devices. I see what people do designing on just mobile devices. And I’m like, “This blows my mind.” Because I was in high school in the ’90s when a lot of this technology was coming out. And to your point, as you were mentioning, these things were changing rapidly, as the technology was changing, there were no sort of monopolies like an Adobe, like we’re talking about now. But there was Adobe, there was Macromedia, there were other sorts of products. There was Quark. You had to try to figure out which one you wanted to do.

It was all extremely expensive and there really was no, I want to say there was no learning curve, but you learned by having to actually get in there and work it or go through those huge big, thick instruction manuals. Because there’s no-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s no YouTube video, there’s no class you can go to that’s going to teach you how to do this. You got to read that 1,000 page manual and figure out how to type set these columns and how to do all this stuff. I mean, to your point about the Wild, Wild West, it really was a time when I think innovation was happening at a speed where people were really just trying to catch up.

You had these different options. Like you said, you could do Quark, you could do Adobe, you could do Macromedia. And a lot of jobs sometimes even when you applied to them wanted you to know one more than the other. It wasn’t so much about whether or not I think you had the skill, but more so whether you knew the program. And I think that’s something which technology has definitely changed a lot. It’s less about the skills and more about, “Do you know how to use Figma? Do you know how to use Sketch?” And it’s like, “But I’m a designer.” And they’re like, “Well we really well we use Figma. So do you know how to use that?” It’s so different now.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I mean back then when I was looking at stuff, when I was doing job searches, when I was moving from space to space, the thing that did start happening was that they wanted you to know this insane amount of programs. I think they just listed these programs because that’s what was out. And they were like, we want you to know everything. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s impossible. You can’t know all this stuff.” And it was very much, I don’t think they really wanted skill set, but just to say, “Okay, well we have somebody who knows this,” regardless of whether or not they actually know how to use it. I could have just went into the program one time just to look at it, oh, I know this program now.

That kind of impeded some people as they looked for jobs back then because it was like, “Look, I don’t know this stuff. I’m not going to put this down and then get busted when they give me this.” And like, “Hey, we need this full fledged project done in this, by this time,” and you don’t even know what you’re doing with it. I mean, granted, there were some people who did do that and coasted by until they got found out later on. But by then they could kind of sweet talk it through and then others shamelessly got blasted. I remember that back then. But yeah, it’s where it went from it was like more, “Okay, what is your true skill set and experience that you’ve actually shown a pattern of this,” versus, “Here’s our laundry list. Just let us know you’ve done this.”

I still kind of see that today though. And whenever there’s some new tech out, I do see some of these listings out here. It’s like, “Hey, do you know this?” I’m like, “Okay, that just came out last week. How are people going to know this?” But I mean I think that’s going to stick forever that’s going to be there. Because any new tech that comes out, I think people in the who post these jobs, I don’t think they’re really the ones that, and we all know it’s HR departments, and so the HR departments don’t really know what people do in their day to day stuff. So I think they just put all the trendy stuff in there just to cover their bases.

But I do miss some of that from back in the day. And it was kind of cool. And I mean, there is some new stuff like that today, particularly in terms of web and video that I see some parallels that I’m like, “Ooh, that’s intriguing.” But now with a seasoned book, I’m like, “Wow, that’s kind overwhelming.” I kind of feel overwhelmed at times. Like, oh, I don’t know if I’m going to learn all that. Yeah. But it would be cool. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right. Yeah.

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