I’ve always wanted to be a designer.
I grew up drawing and painting (traditional artist) and knew I wanted to be able to do that for the rest of my life. I was good. I still am, I think. When I was 9 years old my mother gave me an art school test booklet she saw on TV. It had a turtle or pirate character and a couple other exercises to test your ability.
Like so many other talented young black artists in my neighborhood, I mimicked the examples, found different pencils to replicate the shading and ended up with exact replications of the tests. Then, I drew a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (Leonardo for those who know the deal) in a perfect pose to top it off.
My mother smiled. My father laughed and said he knew I had the talent. I felt like a hero, bragged to my friends and anyone who would listen and waited as my mother sent off the test to see if I…you know, I don’t even remember what I would’ve received. Maybe it was to get additional training or get into that Art School. Anyway, I waited. Finally, a few weeks later a letter came back.
I was positive I aced it. My friends knew I aced it. The whole neighborhood knew I aced it. Art School here I come? Uhhmm No.
My mother read what it said and I remember seeing her face turn from excitement to that familiar acceptance. She showed me the letter about how I was good, ‘talented’ even, but not good enough. My mom looked at me and sighed. “Keep your head high Cedrick. Don’t give up, keep trying to get better.”
I won’t insult any of you with the stereotypical story path of overcoming adversity and being gracious in the face of insults because this isn’t that type of story.
What follows is something different. Because this is the essay you’ve been waiting for.
As my mother left to go to work, I sat in the living room studying my work vs. the samples they sent back, struggling to find the differences.
My father, my hero, looked at me while I read my first of many rejection letters. He sipped his coffee and told me,
“You know, no matter what you do, you will never be good enough in their eyes. Accept it now. Don’t let anyone lie to you and say it’s different. To get what you want baby, you have to be better than advertised.” My mom was Martin Luther King. My dad was Marcus Garvey. ✊🏾 Hell, he gave me Manchild in The Promised Land to read when I was in the 8th grade.
To this day, I’ve never asked my father what he meant. Being a person of color means you don’t need to. I just said ‘yes sir’, crumpled up the test and went to Linwood to play basketball.
My design career started when I was 9.
A Challenging Path
Since then my path has been an educational, fortunate and outwardly successful one. My path includes starting my own skateboard business at 19, being an art director in the NBA, working in higher education, director of creative marketing in video games, children’s book author, and founder of several businesses and entrepreneurial ventures.
At every stop I’ve encountered some sort of cartoonish resistance. You know that kind of over-the-top nonsense I’m talking about. Some of you may be going thru it yourself right now. Hang in there.
I’m no different than you. I’m not better than you. What I’ve learned along the way has made me who I am today. I’m better than what I advertise myself to be and that is my secret.
What does that mean?
To win the game, I realized very early that I had to get much better at playing the game. I’ve had to be of two minds to be moderately successful in our industry.
- Accept that I wouldn’t be accepted.
- Be amazing at several things other than just design.
In addition to working on my design craftsmanship, I am a student of branding, UX design, game design, complex design systems and building for diverse audiences. I exist in very diverse circles. I take my responsibility as a leader very seriously and try to work hard at helping others. I research any of my suggested solutions because I know that the odds are pretty high my statements will be dismissed and sometimes met with hostility.
But to supplement that effort in design, I worked equally as hard on my professional skills.
Phone calls. Agendas for calls. Emails. Emotional IQ. Improving my poker face. Learning new software. Improving my networking skills. Time management. Being confident in live presentations. Seeking out better designers and professionals and asking them to help me improve. Understanding chain of command in organizations.
That is the key. I understand the challenges and use other avenues to get to my goals.
I’ve heard many advise younger designers that you have to work ‘three times as hard’ if you are a person of color to get ahead.” While that’s 100% true, I argue that there is something more important. Personal Organization and mastering a way to tell your story, your identity, your journey on your terms.
Some fail not because they are not great designers, but because they failed to get themselves organized and ended up letting someone else tell their success story. That rarely works out. Success as a person of color is often viewed as a threat and usually given the appropriate countermeasures to neutralize the threat. I know this. I’ve lived this. I want to help others overcome this.
I care because I’m still there.
I ask that we collectively as a design industry stop acting brand new. Everyday, designers of color are constantly forced to endure the humiliation of being told they are not qualified, usually by people who are not qualified. It is a sad ritual of sorts. Please stop pretending you are not aware that this happens.
Even with all I’ve accomplished, I am told constantly that I don’t know anything. I’m making things up as I go along, I’m winging it or some other half thought-out countermeasure. After 20 years of this stuff my only response is…
Look to yourself. Design is personal. So improve your person.
The burden of proof we carry is a tough one. Accept it for what it is. When you look at things that way you may see that you have had the power to be better all along.
Work on yourself, your typography game, your design craft and most importantly, put yourself in a position to be better than advertised.
Find me online @cedfunches or on Linkedin. If I can assist in any way, I will. In 2017, I’m not interested in endless speaking circuit engagements or the ever-time-wasting “diversity panels” foolishness. (Don’t even ask.) However, I am interested in actually doing something to add to a solution. Currently I’m looking for diverse talent at Vox Media, Inc. #WhatPipelineProblem
If you are tired of the excuses, get at me. Let’s show the industry how it’s done. Hit me up. I’m looking forward to meeting, connecting with and helping grow diverse talent from all backgrounds and races. I’ll help you all be better than advertised.