Taurean Jones is a Senior UX Designer based in Seattle Washington, with over 13 years of experience in graphic design, web design, design education, and UX Design. Taurean has built next generation business intelligence, data science, internet of things, and machine learning applications. Currently, he is working in Amazon Web Services artificial intelligence group as a design lead for an application called Amazon Lex.
A child of textures and vivid colors
I am from Princeton, West Virgina, but I spent a considerable amount of my childhood years in a small coal mining town 30 minutes south of there. West Virgina has a lot of wilderness, and as a child, I was very curious and spent a lot of time playing and exploring with my younger brother. The textures and vivid colors from my upbringing often spilled over into my artwork later in life.
How did you first get interested in design?
I consider both my grandmother and mother as artists. I have only seen my mom draw a couple of times in my life, but she is very talented. My grandmother was always making elaborate quilts when I was a child. When my grandmother saw my fascination with what she was doing, she would encourage creativity by asking me to draw her pictures. Until this day I do not know if I was a child prodigy illustrator or if she was an ordinary overly optimistic grandparent and impressed with everything I made. Regardless, it worked. She fanned my flame, and by middle school, I was the most talented illustrator in school.
It was not until high school that I stumbled upon a communication arts elective course that would alter my direction from pursuing a professional art career. I am forever grateful for Mr. Bay, my high school design instructor. He tirelessly tried to teach me vector drawing programs, which were extremely challenging at the time. So challenging that I considered staying in art until a job shadowing assignment in high school landed me a position at a graphic design company. At this company, I remember watching a designer make elaborate compositions and place copy on pictures. My immediate question after his demo was, "They pay you to do this?" After that day I turned down an athletic scholarship to a good school which did not have a design program and decided to study Graphic Design at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.
Tell me about the work you've done?
I started my design career as a Graphic and Web designer in higher education. I created various media-related communications ranging from collegiate sports media guides, posters, web communications, to environmental graphics. I shifted from visual/web design work to being a graduate teaching, research associate, and student at The Ohio State University for several years. I taught courses on design thinking and published a thesis on a methodology for creating route planning applications in complex environments. I ultimately received an MFA in Interaction Design, and soon after graduate school, I started my career at Microsoft. At Microsoft, I worked in their cloud and enterprise division for five years building next generation business intelligence, data science, internet of things, and machine learning applications.
What are you working on right now, either for work or yourself?
Currently, I am a Senior UX Designer for Amazon Web Services. I am the design lead for a service called Amazon Lex, which uses deep learning technologies from Amazon Alexa to enable any mobile, IoT developer, to quickly build sophisticated, natural language, voice/text conversational chatbots.
What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?
Years ago when I was a designer in the athletics department at The Ohio State University, I had the rare opportunity to design a plaque that sits at the entrance of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. Jesse was a hero of mine growing up in West Virginia. Like Jesse, I was a collegiate track and field athlete and pledged the same fraternity. As a young man, I was consumed by his accolades and community activism and aspired to do similar work. It is rare that you get to design anything that personifies your heroes.
Another accomplishment that I am proud of is that I have over 8 Microsoft patent awards with some still being filed. They are all extremely technical in definition and range from "Contextual Zoom" to "Job Authoring with Data Preview." What I am most proud of is not the awards, but the persistence I had while innovating in an incredibly complex space.
What are you doing that's special that sets you apart from your peers.
User Experience Design (UX) is extremely multidisciplinary. UX Designers come from psychology, architecture, art, and even engineering. All of them find their way to solving very different consumer and enterprise problems. Specifically, in the enterprise design space, you will find more technically inclined designers and fewer from artist/ illustration backgrounds. Having a background in art has given me an advantage. Once I learned the vernacular of the space, I was able to see complex data problems from a uniquely human perspective. Additionally, my illustration background had given me an edge when marketing, branding opportunities for the product arise. Also, I embrace continuing education, and being a life learner has set me apart from my peers. I am currently taking a Front-End Web Development course so that I can continue to close the gap between design and engineering in my projects.
What have your experiences been as a person of color in the design industry?
I found the barrier to entry to design in tech as a black designer very high. I always equate it to what I call the Jackie Robinson effect. Jackie changed baseball forever in 1947, by breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. Arguably, he could not have made it by being just good at hitting he had to be good at everything. Similarly, I felt that I had to be better than the average non-minority candidate to be a designer in tech.
Strangely, once I crossed those barriers, discrimination was less than other areas of design and more results driven. I thrived in design in tech because I felt that unlike any other industry, I was more in command of my destiny from my hard work. I honestly believe that I am propelled forward by my work ethic today, and not held back by the color of my skin. My only setback today in design is finding mentors. There are few people of color in tech or design, so it can be difficult to find mentors that look like you and have had similar experiences.
What are your biggest motivators?
A family member has a poster that she has had framed in her house for years. It is a huge list of black inventors/designers. When I used to look through the list of names and inventions in my youth, it always struck me as strange that their contributions seemed lost in time. Therefore, I am motivated to design and innovate in the industry in such a way that it will be impossible to be forgotten. Whether it is my work in artificial intelligence or some new problem I am yet to solve in the future, that history will be unable to hide my innovations as a black designer.
Additionally, I am the oldest of all my cousins. As I progress in my career, they often ask questions and are curious about what I am doing. I hope that through our conversations that they feel empowered to be whatever they want to be. And one day they might be engineers, doctors, lawyers, or very well designers, just because I showed them that it is possible.
How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?
I think my Grandmother and Father have no clue what I do. They always ask very broad questions about my career, and I try to distill it down so that it can be understood. I am sure they just repeat parts of it out of context to friends for bragging rights. There is likely someone in my grandmother's town who thinks I created the computer. Other members of my family get it, and will often make references to software that they use either personally or at work that they wish that I could fix to make their life easier.
What do you love most about working in design?
What I love most about design is that you are directly impacting the lives of everyday people. As a designer, you have the unique opportunity to better someone else's life. You are often an invisible force shaping the consumer landscape. However, by having great power, there is also a great responsibility. Your lack of awareness of the problem that is to be solved or message that needs communicating can cause people a lot of pain.
What would you like to see changed about the design field?
I would love to see more CEO's that are designers. I do think that designers have such a unique perspective and can guide companies to produce at higher standards of quality and consumer satisfaction. Additionally, I also wish there were more black people in design. I still cannot figure out why there are so few black design professionals.
How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?
I believe underrepresented populations have limited knowledge of the design community, the power of good design in communicating messages, or how a career in design can be profitable. I believe design can be more assertive in educating about these opportunities.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you tink you'll stay in design?
I aspire to be a Partner Director of Design in a mid to large sized tech company. Additionally, I see myself as an adjunct design instructor and running a community program for teaching art and design to underrepresented youths.
What advice would you give to folks from a similar background who are in design or hoping to get into it?
There were many professions that I considered. Once, I wanted to get an MBA and work in business; I even contemplated working in law. I might have failed at or been mediocre at those professions. Without a doubt, design was what I was meant to pursue and what became my greatest passion. Therefore, my advice to someone coming from my background or in design already is to keep at it until your great design taste matches the quality of your work. If you stay with it, ambition will ultimately land you the right opportunities and a great career in design.