I’ve had about as unorthodox, and untraditional a journey as anyone. I’m originally from Baltimore, but grew up mostly in Atlanta. I come from a family of musically inclined and super-talented people, but I was the nerd who liked computers, math, and science. I was homeschooled from 5th grade on, after encountering some deep-seated racism as a student, and if I’m being completely honest partially due to the fact that I was/am a bit of an oddball. I credit Steve Jobs with helping me get my first job at the age of 18, opening the first Apple Store in Atlanta, by way of an email I sent him. Alongside being a designer, I’ve been a teacher (funny thing about this was I taught at a college, but technically hadn’t finished my high school degree, yet), consultant, computer/network tech, salesperson, businessman, speaker. Pretty much anything you name, I’ve probably done it.
How did you first get interested in design?
It’s an interesting story, I think (probably not really). I was originally sure that my life’s path was leading me towards sports journalism. When I was about 15, I spent hours, if not days, creating a newsletter full of custom written content on the state of the NBA and NFL—about 5 or 6 original articles of my own making. One day, I went to open the file, but it had corrupted, never to be recovered and losing all of my hard work in the process … also killing me, just a little, on the inside. That day, I told myself, “Never again”, and went on a mission to learn everything I could about computers. In my learnings I came across a website that offered me the chance to make my own website, I jumped on the chance, from there I just went down the rabbit hole, and started learning anything I could about web technologies, the Adobe Suite of Apps, and design as a general practice.
Tell me about the work you've done?
My focus as a designer has been heavily on branding and understanding how to build experiences that people can identify with. To that end, my work has centered a lot on learning about and creating connections with people. The better I know someone, the better I can create with them. So a lot of what I’ve done has been in brand development and UX strategies. I’ve also co-owned a screenprinting and apparel brand, by the name of Rogue Squirrel, that I ran for seven years (2007–2014) with my partners, and now I work for a company in Maryland by the name of Unleashed Technologies, as a front-end developer and UX designer. I’m also heavily involved with AIGA and am president of the Baltimore chapter.
What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?
Well, Rogue Squirrel is a huge moment of pride for me because it was a company that I, along with my partners, built from the ground up during a pretty terrible recession. We started as 4 guys chipping in $25 per paycheck to help it sustain early on, to running our own studio where we were doing our own design work, as well as merchandising and brand development for other companies/organizations throughout the DC, Maryland and Virginia area. It wasn’t easy, but we persevered, and executed a plan that allowed us to be relatively successful … not to mention we were pretty popular, in our own indie way.
What have been your biggest struggles of your career?
I think the biggest struggle for me has been finding the right fit for myself. Because of the unorthodox trajectory of my career, along with the variety of work I’ve done, I’ve found it’s sometimes difficult to find opportunities that align with all that I can bring to the table. Though I will say where I am now, I have a lot of opportunities to build my niche and take ownership in many different ways, so I’ve been able to show my flexibility more than I may have in a lot of other organizations.
What are you doing that's special that sets you apart from your peers?
Hmm, I don’t know that I do anything that special, besides try hard. Amongst my Rogue Squirrel partners, there was a nickname that I had gained which was, “All-Pro Joe”. The nickname came because we used to play basketball weekly, and I’m super-competitive, so when we’d play I was the guy playing like it was game 7 of the NBA Finals. They said it in a teasing manner, but I embraced it, because that’s who I am. I’m probably not that great at anything I do, but I give my all, and when I get it right I don’t think there are many that are better because of that mentality. Staying with the basketball references, my favorite basketball player is Manu Ginobili, and one of the reasons is because he had a similar mentality, and I remember watching him as a kid and respecting the hell out of his game because of it. He’d do whatever it took to help the team win, one game he might be shooting 2 of 10 from the field, but you knew at the end of the game he was going to make the pass, take the charge, or even hit the 3 to get the team to win, and he’d give his all to make it happen. I tried to model my play on the court as his mentality, but it’s definitely something I’ve kept as a working model outside of sports.
What have your experience been as a person of color in the design industry?
You know, overall it’s not been bad. I think the one thing is that it’s sometimes tough to find the self-efficacy to be fully confident. I say this because I will often look at the “Our Team” pages of different design firms and very rarely do I see people who look like me, but at the same time, I see some of these same places talk about the need for diversity. While I don’t let that hinder me from trying, or putting myself out there there’s still that little voice in the back of my head that is asking, “Will I be a ‘cultural fit’? Do I really have a chance?”. I think it’s more a burden of exorcising the demons that come with a history of misperceptions, and underrepresentation that weighs on you. It’s this tiring feeling of having to educate people on those feelings, without them taking it as an attack because you feel like there are limited opportunities and you don’t want to be seen as the “angry black guy” when all you’re trying to do is share your perspective and grow like anyone else.
What are your biggest motivators?
I’m stubborn, so even though there’s that self-efficacy issue, I’m an anti-traditionalist, so I see those things as an opportunity to make a new path. So that tends to motivate me, finding a way to break through where there sometimes doesn’t feel like there’s a path to follow.
How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?
They’ve been rather supportive, they know my drive, and dedication, so I think they can’t help but respect it.
What do you love most about working in design?
It’s a practice of constant learning, whether it’s about other industries, or other people, you’re always learning something new, and it’s ever-changing. Additionally, I like to say that “design is my therapy,” because before I knew how to fully express myself as an individual, I learned how to help others express themselves through the lens of design. Which in-turn helped me understand myself.
What would you like to see changed about the design field?
I think I’d like to see design and designers become more strategic. I feel like we’re in a really great time to be designers, however I feel like a good bit of us don’t understand how to use our abilities in more ways than just as visual creators, which limits the profession as a whole. Because there are people out there who may not be great visual designers, but can build ideas and plans that are equally, if not more, valuable that the visual aspect. Problem is we often think if we’re not creating the thing, then we’re no longer designing, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?
I think there needs to be more outreach, and access. Most of these people don’t even know what design is, much less how they may align within the profession. So simply having awareness can be a huge benefit.There are plenty of kids out there who love drawing, coming up with abstract ideas and solutions to problems, but they often don’t value those qualities because they don’t know that they’re useful.
From an access standpoint, it’s expensive to be a designer, software, computers, tools, etc. all cost money; so for someone who is of limited means even if they have the awareness, it’s tough to gain access because money gets in the way. I think there needs to be more focus on how we provide that access, because I think that awareness is something we all understand, and talk about in design circles. But rarely do I hear much talk about how we provide better access as a whole.
What are you working on right now, either for work or for yourself?
So I can’t really talk too much about what I’m doing in my day job (NDAs, and such), however without going into too much detail, I’m working on some UX strategies for clients to help them capture more leads for their services, along with design compositions for a new brand. Outside of my day job, through AIGA Baltimore I’m working hard to connect people within Baltimore to more access to professional and community development opportunities. Personally, I’m working on a building a brand with my daughter (7), something that she and I can share in, and use as a way to both document the time we spend together, as well as build an empathetic, self-starter, and strategic mindset. I have a lot of things I’m working on, to be honest, but those are the main things.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you think you'll stay in design?
5 or 10 years, ooh I don’t know. I’m pretty certain I’ll be designing in one way or the other, mainly because I think everything has a tinge of design within it. That said, I could see myself building my own design practice that brings together all of my passions for UX, branding, strategy, community, and teaching. Whether it’ll be as part of a company, or my own team thing is the big unknown. I do have a longer-term goal to help provide mental health services to underrepresented communities. I think that’s something that there’s too much stigma against in minority communities especially, however, I think it’s one of the biggest health issues we have in our country, especially in those communities. As I said, design is my therapy, so ultimately I want to design a way to help others take more control of their mental health, for the betterment of our mutual communities.
What advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds who are in design or hoping to get into it?
Design is everywhere, and because of that you can always find a way to design, so don’t let lack of representation, or access, be the thing that kills your drive. If you don’t see the thing you want, get involved with making the change you want. Whether that be by getting involved with your local AIGA chapter, which I’m a huge proponent of, or some other way, there’s more than one way to design. In the famous words of Dory, “just keep swimming”.