Episode 19

Omari A Souza — Fostering Community and shifting the canon.

Omari Souza is a first-generation American of Jamaican descent, raised in the Bronx, NY. Before working at Texas State University, Omari gained work experience with companies such as VIBE magazine, Buffalo News, CBS Radio, and Case Western Reserve University. He received his BFA in Digital Media from Cleveland Institute of Art and his MFA in Design from Kent State University. Omari’s research explores the idea of perceptions, and how visual narratives influence culture, how we view ourselves and others around us.

We discuss not only the shift in design education but also how he started the State of Black Design conference. He created a forum for black designers to discuss and share personal perspectives and is helping to forester communities that are satisfying the various needs of diversity within the industry.

Get your notes app ready during this episode, there are people mentioned that you’ll want to check out on your own.

————

Mentions

————

Credits

————

Like what you just heard? Support the process and rate us on Apple Podcasts :) 

About the Works in Process Podcast:

A podcast series by George Garrastegui, Jr. — designer, educator, and creative catalyst. Works In Process is a collection of discussions that exploring and demystify the creative process. I interview individuals to gain more insight into the ways they work and the projects they produce.

Transcript
Omari Souza:

It's not enough to say that I can't readily pick this up in Barnes and Noble. So I'm not going to teach it. It's like no, no, no, you don't necessarily have to find a design book that shows African influences on design. But you could potentially find a book on African art that that circulates around the same time period that makes a correlation. Or you could find a textbook that does design based criticism, because those might not teach you how to better turn the letters or fixture rags and paragraphs, but it does talk critically about, you know, the very practice that we're choosing. So if the only thing that these professors are focusing on teaching these small tools in order to get students jobs, then the thing of asking is what makes this any different than a trade school.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Welcome to work on process, the podcast that asks the hows and whys behind creative work. Take a ride with me, designer and educator George garrison. As I learned from my guest, there's no one way to being a creative, but endless possibilities fueled by passion, determination, and of course process.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And that's this episode's guest Omari Souza. Omari is a first generation American of Jamaican descent, raised in Bronx, New York. Before working at Texas State University, Omari gained work experience with companies such as vibe magazine, the buffalo news, CBS Radio, and Case Western Reserve University. He received his BFA in digital media from Cleveland Institute of Art, and his MFA in design from Kent State University. A more his research explores the idea of perceptions and how visual narratives influence culture, and how we view ourselves and the others around us. I reached out to him not only to discuss the shift in design education, but also how we started the state of black design conference, we get into our Creator forum for designers to discuss and share perspectives, and how they're fostering communities that are not competing, but satisfying the various needs of diversity within the industry. Don't forget to have your Notes app ready during this episode. There are people mentioned here that you may want to check out on your own. Hope you enjoy it.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Hey, Omari, it's wonderful to get you on the works and process podcast. Welcome.

Omari Souza:

Thank you. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

So I know I want to dig into understanding not only your patented design, but also your push for challenging landscape, you know about who we talk about in the field more, but before we do that, let's do something fun. I have a series of this or that questions, and then I'm gonna have a series of word associations. Are you ready? Oh, okay. Cool. Coffee or tea?

Omari Souza:

Tea,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

toast or bagel?

Omari Souza:

toast?

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Yankees or Mets?

Omari Souza:

I'm not really a baseball fan. But I gotta go with the Bronx. Yankees Yankees all day.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Texas or Pennsylvania,

Omari Souza:

Texas.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Teaching or research

Omari Souza:

on man. It's a tough one. Probably research. I love teaching, but I love research.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

So the first thing you think of when you hear these words,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

creativity,

Omari Souza:

life,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

determination,

Omari Souza:

progress,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

business,

Omari Souza:

sense.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

failure,

Omari Souza:

dystopia,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

community,

Omari Souza:

family,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

education,

Omari Souza:

wealth,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

mistakes,

Omari Souza:

learning

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

skills,

Omari Souza:

tempered

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

history,

Omari Souza:

knowledge,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

opportunity,

Omari Souza:

operation,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

accessibility,

Omari Souza:

open

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

future,

Omari Souza:

tomorrow.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And last but not least, process

Omari Souza:

systems.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Now a little bit of a use the beginning of the episode to kind of get a little bit more into who you are and what your come up is into, you know, the design in our industry. So I call this origin stories. And so where'd you grew up? And were you considered creative or artsy, as a kid,

Omari Souza:

I grew up in New York City. I grew up in New York, the majority of my entire life, born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx, co op city section to be specific. I was always a creative kid. My mom was an artist. She was a graphic designer when she was in college and dropped out when she was pregnant with me. But while I was growing up, she would draw I would draw with her and we will have discussions about what she put out there. I also had an older cousin Neville was like my idol. He was 10 years my senior, amazing Illustrator. He went to demon College in Buffalo, New York, where he double majored in illustration and graphic design. So I kind of followed in his footsteps. I'm nowhere near as good of an illustrator as he is probably not as good as a graphic designer is us either, but you know, I tried.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Is that just in your head? Are you being just humble? No, I think my cousin's amazing. Do you think family played a larger role for you becoming a designer or kind of school,

Omari Souza:

family, I think realistically where you grew up, and the lessons they teach you and the things they expose you to kind of help you build a sense of identity. And for my family members, specifically my mom and my cousin, probably more so my cousin and my mom like their sketches, and there are work was their way of self expression. My mother specifically isn't a woman of many words. She doesn't speak very often. But her illustrations and sketches were pretty expressive. And in a lot of ways, seeing them and then drawing and showing her my drawings was my way of communicating with her on a on a level that I felt that we couldn't be with words. And with my cousin, it was kind of my way of attempting to impress him, because I was always so impressed by what he was doing. So if I could do something at an age that he couldn't do it, I felt like I was making good enough progress. So in a way, family motivated me far more than school Dude,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

it's great to have those structures and the idea that there's something that Bond's you know, you and your mom, but also you and your cousin, and having almost that unspoken, ability to speak in a creative way, versus maybe having to actually speak, you know, with words. And I think that's some of the things that we do as creatives were able to give emotion, and kind of speak in ways that other people maybe just are not attuned to. So that seems like an awesome story to be able to have that with your mom as a graphic designer who did not finish her degree because did she get her degree?

Omari Souza:

No, she did not. The funny thing is, so this last event that I did, like design, past, present, or future, we did this fundraising efforts to try to raise funding in terms of scholarships for students. I recently spoke with my Dean, and I told him that I wanted to name the scholarship after my mother. And I told her, when I graduated with my first degree, I gave it to my mother and told her that it was my gift to her because she wasn't able to finish hers. So my undergraduate degree is her degree. And now I told her, I wanted to name a scholarship after her so that if there are other students that you know, are having difficulty finishing, and they need that assistance, that there'll be something there for them as well. So she did not get to finish her degree, unfortunately, but our son is attempting to make efforts so that other people in the same situation will be able to,

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

that's amazing gratulations I mean, to be able to do that, and to be able to work with university to do that. And now your mom's name is going to be attributed to design, and the supporting of the youth coming up so big on you. That's, that's amazing. Congratulations on that. Thank you. I appreciate that. So with all of that, what was your first creative job and kind of how did you stumble into it?

Omari Souza:

When I was in middle school, it wasn't an official job. My cousin knebel graduated from college ended up getting a job at the buffalo news, he would send me the creative briefs that he would have at the buffalo news. And then it would be my homework to actually complete them. I think that if I did a good job, he would give me like a small stipend or something like that. It didn't go to publication that was more just like a teaching situation. But he would give me like these professional briefs and then asked me to come up with a proposal. Once I came up with a proposal, you'd asked me to do the artwork to lay it out, and then send it to him. And then he would send me what he did, and then talk about the difference. I ended up eventually interning for the buffalo news, which is one of my first and biggest internships. I also interned for vibe magazine as well. And those are two of my first, I guess positions, because of Neville is always pushing you. He is I'm currently writing a book, I actually reached out to him to see if he'd be willing to do some of the illustration work for him. So he's more than a cousin. He's like a big brother, mentor, if I'm from out of line, father figure as well.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Now, it seems amazing. And I think sometimes we we need those people in our lives to be able to either bring us up or to show us what's possible. Those are those things. And, you know, sometimes it is creative in the artsy sense, it seems like your family is, or it's just support, right? It's just the ability to, to have somebody on your side, somebody who believes in you, especially in a creative field where a lot of people from families of color, they don't really understand this as a career, as much they understand things that for them, make money, get us out of our current situation and help and support in different ways. And for me, I think sometimes the ability for us to use our brains and a skill in a different way, is not as much valued and I'm glad to hear that, you know, kind of you've been growing up with this kind of support seems like your whole life.

Omari Souza:

Yeah, yeah, I've been really fortunate. So you know, we

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

kind of run in the same circles, we share connections, and unfortunately, you know, we've never met until the events at the end of like a tumultuous 2020 right and and you did this thing called a state of black design. But before we get into that, and obviously things that subsequently maybe even were the impetus for that. I want to talk about your thesis and your thesis I can state is called chasing vertical diversity and recognition in the field of graphic design, right, and it focuses on the investigation to gain a better understanding of why the design field has failed to attract African American students. One, an amazing topic and so interesting that I haven't yet to download The PDF yet but I'm, I'm going to because I think you know this crosses over not necessarily just African Americans but a lot of bipoc students and just like what the ability for people for access to understand what this is. But can you discuss finding this topic and how you first noticed that this was a theme

Omari Souza:

that came from experience and I think it's an experience that a lot of color go through when they decide to jump into this field. When I attended my undergraduate college I went to to plead Institute of Art, which is a college on which is a campus of Case Western Reserve University. When I attended the institution, my freshman year, first semester, I was one of five black students. By the following semester, I was one of four. And then my time I graduated, I was the only graduating male in the College of my graduating class, within a five year program, there was one other female Her name was Taylor. For me, there was this consistent feeling of isolation. And in difficulty with navigating that space, there were a number of microaggressions I had to deal with, especially considering for many of my classmates, who came from, you know, more rural sections of Ohio, I was essentially the first black person they met. So I ended up in a situation where I was unpacking not just, you know, my supplies to get to school when I was in my classes, so to complete assignments, but also unpacking how my colleagues viewed people of color. And whether they felt uncomfortable with me, because I was a person of color where they feared me because I was a person of color, or, you know, there was just a common distrust that they had at me, these were all things that I had to navigate. And there were things that I had to deal with that other students didn't have to whatever it was being stopped by security more frequently, and things of that nature. When I got into the professional field, it was kind of more of the same. There weren't many other people of color, and it perpetually felt like lack of safe spaces. And it was it was really infuriating for a long time period, because you didn't just have to be good at what you did you you had to be near perfect, because if you made a mistake, because you were one of the only you're representing an entire community, not just yourself. And if you're in a space where there's a natural distrust for your community, the mistakes that you may make with a bigger or smaller wouldn't be as readily forgiveness, someone else's. So it was this perpetual type rope. So by the time I got to graduate school, Kent State felt like a more welcoming space. And a lot of the professor's wanted to explore this idea of me being the only one in my past experience. I wasn't the only one in graduate school. And it was just a natural progression in terms of my experiences and people that I spoke with

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

listening to that, I just want to maybe ask a follow up in the sense of going to that undergrad institution and having the weight on your shoulders of being, you know, one of five, one of three, and in the only male. How similar or different was that to maybe growing up in New York, and maybe how diverse it is, was there a similar experience or kind of a different experience?

Omari Souza:

Man, it was a culture shock. Growing up in New York, the community was extremely diverse. You know, where I live, there were a lot of Jamaicans, but when my grandmother lived, it was a huge Hispanic community. If I went into Manhattan, you'd be able to see a mixture of everybody, you know, especially if you wanted to play a pickup game of basketball, there was no, I've never seen this before, or I don't necessarily know how to interact with these types of people, because you know, they were part of your community, for me to then go to a space where a lot of my colleagues are coming from these modular spaces where they've never seen, you know, a Hispanic community, they've never seen a black community. And their only exposure to these things are negative images that they see depicted on TV. It's extremely difficult. It's terrifying, in all honesty, because, you know, it's not just what they've seen, in my mind, anything outside of New York City is rosewood or Mississippi. And that was that was my perception for a long time. I always knew that I was black in New York, but I never felt otherwise in New York. And it was it wasn't until I left New York and I was the only one that beginning to feel like the proverbial other sort of set in. And it was it was really difficult. James Baldwin has this quote that he talks about growing up watching cowboy films and rooting for the cowboys and then getting to a point where he realizes that he's rooting for the Cowboys, but he's actually the Indian leaving New York I felt like the Indian I didn't feel like I was a cowboy anymore. And it was it was it was tough. It was a tough five years.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

I mean, I think you put it really succinctly in the idea that in New York you know you're black but you don't feel different versus when you go somewhere else the differences outweigh those things and and it almost makes it apparently clear that you are not the same because yeah, growing up as a New Yorker as well you know you're you're proud of your culture you're proud of your your street your block your borough, right, but you know me Everybody coexists. And if you were growing up in a loving households, you know, to respect and to love the food and the culture, and you go with your friends and you be like, I'm gonna go to my boys house who makes this and you know, our grandparents gonna, you know, kind of welcomed me in. And this whole sense of idea, especially, because growing up in larger families, possibly, but then going out there and not having that same reception, obviously, you know, that it's gonna be there. But the reality of the actual experience, I can see being very daunting. So that kind of goes back, right. So I wanted to get an understanding of just kind of the theme, and this thesis and the impetus for why this is something that makes sense to you. And now go to the in September, I think it was September of 2020. We're almost at the end of a global pandemic, a crazy social justice and racial awakening, we're dealing with the ramifications of police violence, on, you know, the murders of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, amongst others. It's unfortunate that they're even amongst others, right to even say that, you know, I watched on YouTube, the state of black design, but I can only explain it to as a viewer, not as an organizer. Can you explain a little bit to the listeners what this event was?

Omari Souza:

So right after the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of anxiety nationwide, there were a lot of people that both a lot of hurt a lot of pain, there were a lot of students in our program that wanted to do something in relation to this, whether it was you know, how can design be used as a mechanism to to create dialogue around this particular problem. A lot of my faculty, fellow faculty members also had interested in interested in doing something and the main thing that I was worried about when considering a potential event was bringing other people into a space where they were being questioned about the black experience and being questioned about how to make you know, spaces safer for them. And rather, what I wanted to do was create a platform to allow black creatives, black designers to to kind of speak freely about the things that they wanted to speak freely about and and, and allow an audience to respond to that versus placing them on a stage for the audience to bombard them with questions at an already difficult time period. There were a number of people that I met over the years that I thought were amazing Marie Sherry, I interviewed for my thesis and Been a long longtime fan of revision path Teresa Moses, I met at a huge conference and I always thought she was amazing and the work that she does she doesn't necessarily accepted when I tell her but I feel like she's the monitor Emory devils. You know there were Lauren Williams larry king who was one of my thesis advisors. Antoinette who is amazing Becca mark on so many people are when that came and whenever reached out to them and had these conversations and were more than willing to share their experiences and talk about things they wanted to talk about in the discussions before we came up with questions or anything like that a lot of us huddled together to kind of you know, discuss what what is it that you want to get off of your chest in this time period? How do you want to react to this moment, and that's where a lot of the questions came from. That was really me wanting to build a safe space to allow people to to speak especially considering there were a lot of black designers who felt that larger organizations didn't adequately make room for us. So it was revolutionary in the sense that not only were we responding to something that was happening in the moment, but we were also responding to the fact that you know, we are attempting to make room for ourselves in this industry that hasn't made room for us there are there are numerous conferences that prior to that point you would look at and there wouldn't be many if any black people speaking on the lineup. So for this one and for where are the black designers and for black ignite to have the success that it had within the 20s money was was amazing. It showed that there is actually an audience for it and people that want to hear the voice

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

it's so true one I want to say that the idea that you're making space for your guests to just talk about things right not really having the pressure of presenting their take on this new found XYZ you know, while they're still kind of grappling with how to respond to systems and a country that kind of is is turning a blind eye I think is is really poignant and not putting more due pressure on like, you know, I think you probably had maybe at most, let's say 20 different people on the stages and things like that to just like talk and almost you know, I don't want to say vent, but I want to say just express that. their opinions and their points of views on things that need to be addressed, you know, as a black community as people of color as talking about systems that maybe weren't made for them and and how they would like to see this shift start to happen. And I think for me, that's how I started to take it as almost just kind of this is a way for us to just share our perspectives. And I'm glad you mentioned, you know, we that everybody kind just huddled and kind of like came together to kind of find what we want to speak about. Because I think that was the most important factor of just watching their viewership is to see all the people on the panels, talk about this stuff and realize that some of these people have been doing it for a long time. Like, I know, Teresa, I know Antoinette, I know a couple those people who are, you know, Jennifer white Johnson, and some of those people have thankfully been on my podcast as well. But some of them don't get the acclaim or whatever, just because of who they are, where there are, what type of design they're working on, right, which doesn't seem to be, quote, unquote, as elevated as other types of design. And I really applaud you for just allowing that space to happen. Now, with all of the stuff happening with that, as a designer, and educator, what things do you know, at the moment that we've learned so far, and what are we struggling with still,

Omari Souza:

I don't know me personally, I feel like everything moves too slow. But I think part of the problem that I'm noticing from our professional practice, both professional practice from academic professorial standpoint is curriculum being one of the biggest things that you know, are moving too slow, having to be moving too slow, then could be revamped. And a lot of ways, there are a lot of institutions that have this desire to do something different, and to make safer spaces for people of color. And they don't realize that sometimes one of the things that are the most unsafe for them, is a curriculum that's being taught. I've talked several times about the idea of decolonizing design, and then making space to include the history of other communities. And realistically, there are a lot of people that a lot of professors that don't find it necessary, or are intimidated by the idea of doing so even when there are other institutions that are actually attempting to expand the dialogue around what the curriculum looks like. The Smithsonian recently did an exhibit I'm gonna say, came out, not super recent last year called a to be Africa, the Bauhaus that talks about the West African influences on the Bauhaus school which you know, most graphic design institutions leverage for for for their curriculum. And still, there are a lot of institutions that have it be felt ways in which they can include some of these cultural backgrounds into what's being taught in the classroom. But from a representation standpoint, and even from a safety standpoint, for black students, that will go a long way, if they can begin to see themselves in the curriculum being taught. I think there are a lot of older professors, some of which are children of the civil rights movement, or predate the civil rights movement, they're still teaching currently, and a lot of them, you know, have been doing things for their way for the last few decades. So now, considering that the population of students that are coming to these institutions are browner than they have been for the for the past few decades prior, the curriculum isn't really adapting quickly enough to make room for them. In many ways, it's almost as if they want to kind of keep things as a status quo, because it would be too much work, or would make too much people feel uncomfortable in order to make it happen. And I feel like that's something that I would say is probably moving slower that I would love to see change

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

the idea in the shift of kind of this westernized canon of just design education coming from, you know, in reality, just one continent. When there's six others in, in the world,

Omari Souza:

each have their own cultural form of expression, each have their own rule sets in terms of how they communicate via written symbols or in glyphs. And in a lot of ways, having understandings of some of these differences would actually expand the room for innovation in terms of classroom practice. And for me, granted, this might be my naivete, but I personally believe that industry is still heavily influenced by academia, if not by what's being done in the classroom, the very fact that were a large percentage of the designers are coming out of these institutions. So if we change how we teach, we then you know, change how the industry practices.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And I mean, I think you mentioned the idea of just decades upon decades of doing something a certain way right and textbooks and bodies of knowledge that come From a lot of these schools come from one central point. And a lot of people use that as like the definitive way of talking about art, aesthetics, creativity, workflow. Now, obviously, it's because there's so many perspectives on that similar thing. So many books, so many written history and, and understandings of those things. Not a counterpoint though, when we're talking about all of these other ways of making understanding influences, like we just talked about quickly, the, you know, the African American masks or aesthetic on the Bauhaus. Those are not as out there. That textbook is maybe one dusty thing in the back of the library versus 17 versions of the same book in the front. How do you think we start to expand that where those things start to become more universal senses of knowledge, right? Because I think, just as on a human level, you have to believe that there wasn't only one continent doing things, and you're going to tell me that things are happening at the same time. And I think how do we start to identify what's happening at the same time in the Renaissance, let's say, in Europe, in Italy, and what's happening in possibly Egypt, Morocco? How do we start to identify those things? Because I think maybe what we're also saying is that there's not a lot of info for those people who've been doing it for so long. To gain extra knowledge.

Omari Souza:

No, I think that makes perfect sense. I think, um, them not having access to design based material that they can then leverage for their teaching. Makes perfect sense. I think for myself, I would think about it in the same way that we teach design problems. One class that teaches a design seminar and framework that I typically tell my students is this x y&z framework, I'm investigating x through y methods to better understand it facilitate See, x is the main thing, it's, it's the main thing that I'm investigating, and z is the main outcome that I want. So as a professor, if my goal is to facilitate a safe space, to facilitate a safe space for students of color to give them the necessary design materials, but also allow them to see themselves within that there's a certain level of investigation that I have to be responsible for as a professor. And if I'm just saying, as an academic, that there is no resources for me, then it's me kind of just being lazy. I'm doing a lot of my own research, and currently pending two books. But that's research that I've decided to do, because I thought it was valuable in the same way that my thesis research could have been on anything, but I researched on something that I felt like could be beneficial for the audience at hand. So while I do get it, no, there is no textbook on this. I don't accept that as a as an excuse. And in reality, how many of our professors that are currently teaching, have self self taught themselves something, you know, whether it's, you know, begun the process of self teaching themselves to UX methods, UX UI methods, begin self teaching themselves how to do create their own typefaces, or hand lettering, things of that nature. So for me, it's it's not a, it's not enough to say that I can't readily pick this up in Barnes and Noble, so I'm not going to teach it. It's like no, no, no, you, you don't necessarily have to find a design book that shows African influences on design, but you could potentially find a book on African art that that circulates around the same time period that that makes a correlation. Or you could find a textbook that does design based criticism, because those might not teach you how to better Kern letters, or fix your rags and your paragraphs. But it does talk critically about, you know, the very practice that we're choosing. So if the only thing that these professors are focusing on are teaching these small tools in order to get students jobs, then the thing I would ask them is what makes us any different than a trade school.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And I think to also add to that is to the fact that people are willing to be self taught and things that they see value in and and thinking about how much value do they see in this additive knowledge, right? If they're not willing to do the extra work, right. And for me, I think it's, it's maybe a disservice to think that, you know, we as educators are experts or right, and I think maybe those people still come from those places where it's, it's no longer being like, if you do this, then we offer then this is diversity. If we do this, this is what it means to be inclusive, maybe, but then some other something else happens in a year and we realize that that's all Bs, right? I think maybe the ability to, you know, use your term, stop being lazy. But But I think there's something to be said about that is the willingness to be okay to learn. And I think that's something that if we're okay with that, Then it's also going to make sure that we impart that on our students where, like, they don't have to be correct. But they have to be willing to be closer to the truth, then maybe further away.

Omari Souza:

Yeah, exactly. And it's funny, there was a, I was talking to some of my colleagues. Right after I did the second line design. And one thing I was talking to them about tests, it actually happens to be Hispanic serving institution, we're predominantly minority school, I'm going to say it's 50% 34% minority, obviously 30 out of the 4% happens to be Hispanic, largely Mexican population. And one thing that I was talking to the my colleagues about was this possibility of performing this investigation on attempting to see what Mexican and Central American aesthetics, how they implement typography, and, you know, the southwestern aesthetic in general, and ways in which we can bring that into the classroom during lectures. And a part of that, within itself is it's me, not only asking other people to do that, for communities of color, but being a professor of color, that's not a part of a particular community. But saying that I would love to do this investigation and bring it into the classroom because I realized that one, it's confirmation that this culture is of value, to be able to say, you know, this is the history behind these particular aesthetics. This is how these aesthetics influenced the, the community that we currently live in. And these are the brands that still leverage some of these motifs in their work, it allows the student to feel seen to feel a sense of cultural pride, and then to bring that going forward in their portfolio into other places. And I feel like that's, that's an amazing thing to give students to show that to them, and then to see to allow them to see like, Man, you know, the these things that I've seen when I visited, you know, my uncles and my aunts, or these things that I've seen in my mother's home, can be a part of my portfolio can can go forward and produce something special for these particular types of businesses, and I can't use these things versus I need to stick to this very swift style aesthetic consistently. If I want to be successful. I'm not I'm not going to see these investigations aren't difficult. And I'm not going to say that it doesn't put you in a position where you have to open yourself up to make mistakes, or to you know, show that you don't know certain things about particular cultures, but at the same point in time, that's how you build trust and intimacy with with other people. That's how you establish safe spaces by being vulnerable by opening yourself up by not being so guarded, and not sticking to what you've done consistently. Just because it's what you've done.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

You know, I also think that there's a moment of the ability, like you said, to have people see other cultures as valuable. Were looking at, you know, an African American educator designer, looking at different cultures, and looking at them versus maybe always, let's say, me as a Latino or Latina, you know, Latin x being like, I need to look at my culture, right? Like, what why, why can't we just be like, this is something to investigate. And because you happen to be in a location right, Texas where you're noticing obviously who your your audience is and what your students are and seeing that there's value in acknowledging the the colors the representation, the dance, the things that that make them, you know, unique and and how do we start to see them in those type of things, right. The other thing I heard is to, quote unquote, make somebody successful, I think there's something that we need to address in, in education, what the hell that means is successful just means I get hired, or successful means I follow a bunch of, you know, Western systems that are okay for other people, right? And I think if we say, hey, you just, you know, you need to get a job, whatever that means. Versus like, well, it needs to look like this minimalist idea that's been coming through the last like three to five years. Because, like we noticed, every high end brand is now just a sans serif typeface clean, and I'm like, we're all just the same thing. Now, nobody even has any kind of representation of uniqueness. It's, it's just sameness. That's,

Omari Souza:

that's the scary thing. I think, um, if you go through this process of running communication audits, and a lot of institutions that teach design down to the way that they articulate the program, some of the portfolio projects that you see, it all looks relatively similar, and it's due to this, you know, desire to to play it safe desire to have these students stick to these particular rule sets, because everyone feels like this is what's going to get them a job. And nobody stands out. You know, nobody stands out, nobody's doing anything differently, and where's the innovation? So I think that's, that's the thing for me having the sense of cultural relativity where you're bringing in these these additional resources, or exposure to to to different ideas is what happens and realistically, that's what made the Bauhaus revolutionary the fact that they were taking influences from so many different places and they were experiment And trying something completely different. They broke the status quo up their time. I think it's time that we do the same

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

you when you think about what you're doing and you know, in September, you're taking, which I think was about a four hour event in the state of black design. And then looking at, in April, you created you know, what, six, seven months later, you said, Let's, let's make this a two day conference, right? Black design, past, present, and future. What is the shift that goes, this can be larger. And look how large this potentially could be odd, there

Omari Souza:

were a number of things. One, the event ended up being far more successful than I thought it was going to be. I was expecting at most maybe having 100 people. And I was expecting that 100 to mainly be Texas State students. And we had about 3600 people that registered for the events. With about 2020 100 people watched live, it was more than 100% increase to what I thought it was going to be initially, which was a lot. Once that happened, I getting feedback from colleagues and members of the administration of my department about asking me what my next plans were next plans happened to be getting emails from people who attended them, telling me how it made them feel, see the events, an email that I want to email, a zoom meeting that I had with Cheryl Miller, where she challenged me, she told me that she felt like having an event where people were simply talking about issues wasn't enough. And if we were going to talk, we should also try to find a way to create some solutions, which resonated with me. And they put me in a position where I needed to think about what impact I was going to have outside of building a safe space after that conversation in my mind wasn't simply enough. So I thought about my thesis, I thought about this idea of scholarships, I thought of this idea of building a pipeline, and thought of adding, you know, a career fair and scholarship as an as an add on to the events. If I could use it as an opportunity to raise funding, as well as feed people emotionally, mentally, I could create a pipeline for students who are attempting to get into graphic design as a practice. And if I can bring sponsors and recruiters, I can use that pipeline to get them into the door positions that they were unable to get into prior. And fortunately, a lot of companies, a lot of folks who watched the state of black design and worked at companies that were interested in recruiting people of color and contacted me looking to establish some of those connections as well. So it was relatively easy for me to find some of those companies and granted some folks went above and beyond my partnerships with companies like IBM was invaluable. They helped me out so much t three materials also PayPal, Adobe Argo, USA, a small studio and a few others went you know, above and beyond just to make sure that this event happened and it was a success.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And definitely it was I feel that that the the 2d event with the structure and the ideas and not wanting to say that corporate sponsorship helped, but it gave it maybe a Polish that just sponsorship funds help with those things, right? You're, you're only one person, obviously you probably have a team of people who were who were there to support you. But it takes more people to be able to pull off something like that. And so to me, it seems like that kind of just continued to push the idea forward. And of course when Showa Miller calls you out, you need to listen, it's one of those things where you need the other people who are looking at like the long game to be able to notice where you fit and how to kind of nudge you in that direction. Like did you think you were gonna accomplish that much after that conversation like did you know where the limit was?

Omari Souza:

I still don't know what the limit is to be honest. I feel like I come up with ideas and I pass ideas by people. Sometimes they intentionally pass ideas by them to try to see if it makes them feel uncomfortable. And what's been scary is a lot of people have been like Okay, go ahead you can do it then that makes me nervous but I somehow managed to pull it off. I mean there there are a lot of things that I would love to continue to do. There are a lot of new things that I'm interested in trying it's just a matter of a getting the funding to to pull them off and be hoping to attract the audience to to make it happen. I know we definitely would love to for the next event have some folks in person. So right now just trying to figure out how we can make that happen.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

To go back to the idea of bringing up this this this idea and then getting a go ahead and then looking at how to pull this off for you. And let's talk about you know, the black design conference. What to you was pulling it I think it

Omari Souza:

was a number of things, I think for one, but the first event, my main concern was being able to allow people to speak freely. But my concern was also the potential of me getting in trouble for allowing people to speak freely. And one thing that I often say to a lot of people is that diversity DNI work is extremely sexy, until it's not until the right person complains about it, then it can easily be a situation of, I'm getting my hand slapped or worse, not necessarily saying that's ever happened to me to say that hasn't, the university has been extremely supportive of me, but I've seen it happen to other people. So realistically, that was a fair of mine. So to be able to pull this off without having that happen was was amazing. The ability to have people of color feel supported, and then also feel seen, it was it was also really important to me, it didn't matter how many people but having a good percentage of the people that were there feel seen was amazing to me. And on even with the first few graphics that we did for the state of black design in September, there were a number of people that I never met before, that even after the event would post the Instagram graphic to their, to their feeds to their Facebook accounts and tag me to it just to tell me, you know how much they appreciate it, and that they felt seen by it, or a lot of black designers that didn't know that there were this many people doing, you know, the amazing things that our speakers were doing. To me, that made me feel really good. Internally, outside of having an idea, I think what makes these events so special is the fact that the people that are involved with them are extremely special, like if it wasn't for Jennifer white Johnson and Teresa Moses, and as Matt Carroll and Aaron Hines and everyone else being the people that they are and doing the amazingness they're doing the field, the event wouldn't be as interesting. And being as genuine as they are, it wouldn't be as interesting. But having people watching me able to watch us and then or watch them more importantly, because I just moderated and feel the way that they felt was was what made it successful to me.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And I think that's a really important, that's why I wanted to ask you, this is what success meant to you. Like, the idea is for people to speak freely. And the idea for people to, you know, feel seen, those are the type of things that you can't put on paper, really, and start to identify like, this is what it means to host an event like this, you know, you need like 17 pages of written word to be able to express that feeling versus like just a data point. And I think that's the difference when you start to do like you said, This dei work that kind of gets messy or different, or or does it follow the same rules, because the rules don't apply to this because the rules were never meant for this, you know, so we need to look at what other quote unquote metrics are valuable to the people putting these types of events together. And once again, I thank you for just hearing that what you consider important is not necessarily what other people do. And what you're able to do is still create events that allow people to, to see the power and the beauty of black designers. And you know, to think about it's not like, a lot of these people were Oh, they're just starting These are people who've been doing design and creativity for years, our heads of companies, big CEOs of big name companies, and unfortunately still people didn't really know those those names for so for taking the time out to be able to expand a lot of people's understanding of just like how diverse the industry actually is. Of course, it should be way more diverse. But the fact that you're doing a job to start to say, these are the people that need to be in your textbooks when we start to write textbooks about this. This is where you start. And how do you think, as an educator, we need to continue to expand this narrative.

Omari Souza:

I think we expand this narrative by beginning this process of engaging with communities outside of the ones that we've normally been used to, I think design has been taught for the last few decades from the top of this ivory tower, we've been expecting everyone to kind of climb this tower to get to us in order to learn the material. And I think it's about time that we climb down off our perch and begin to approach people where they are. And I feel like that's one of the biggest changes that actually needs to happen within the industry. Well not necessarily industry. But in terms of academia as a professor, that's a bit I feel. I think the way that we've traditionally done things may have worked for an older audience for for a different generation. But considering by that we have a new generation of students that are coming in and they're they're more diverse than they've ever been coming into these institutions also means that the practitioners of tomorrow will also be more diverse. So rather than teaching them the way that we've taught other generations of designers that haven't been as diverse isn't really as acceptable as it was before. It. It shouldn't be as acceptable, it should be an opportunity for us to better understand as designers as problem solvers, understanding the demographic that we're now dealing with, and also our approach to give them the best results. And right now, I personally feel that we can't do that by sitting on top of a person expecting people to climb this tower to reach us. And we have to climb down to reach them. So it's not reached them to meet them where they are, there has to be a lot more engagement between academia and, and communities outside of what we've traditionally been taught. And if not, then we're simply taking the lazy route. And that's not a personal attack to anybody in particular. But if as a professor, if you only want to go by what's and makes history of graphic design, versus looking beyond that, to find new spaces of influence, or inspiration for your students, I do feel like it's been problematic. I do feel like it's a bit lazy. If the work that you're producing for your student, it looks like the work that everyone else is doing, then where's the innovation? How are they going to stand out? And how are you going to teach them to think differently than other students from other institutions that are competing for the same positions, we have to challenge ourselves as professors and then that that that self assessment and that self willingness to then be important to the students that we teach.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And he I totally agree, it's not a dig in anybody to, you know, state that we're being lazy. But I also think it sounds like a call to action. It sounds like that's something that we need to actively work on. If we're actually as designers do, focus on the audience at hand, and for us educators are, like you mentioned, diversifying the student body who is coming in, and we can no longer look at that student body and offer them the same solutions as before, because who's actually in the room is not the same as before. So you know, we need to adjust and and to make them feel seen. So as we're kind of finishing up some of this stuff with this ability to really understand and wrap our heads around kind of this, this shift that, you know, has been taken too long, honestly to happen, unfortunately, in just the world of design, education, event planning, whatever you want to go by, what are you still inspired by?

Unknown:

I'm inspired by my friends and the people in my network. As I mentioned earlier, I called Teresa Moses, the Emory Douglas, for a day and it's because of the protest work that she does. in Minneapolis, especially around the death of George Floyd. On the fact that she mass produced t shirts, signs and sweatshirts for community, I was fortunate enough to get a couple copies because she was getting them out to folks for free. So I asked her if she could let it save one for me. I'm going to friend them because I feel like she was making history. I'm inspired by Maurice Cherry was a mentor of mine, who for years, has been putting together this podcast where he's highlighting professors, designers, practitioners of color, and which is an extremely thankless job. But for myself, when I was doing my thesis, I found it, it felt like, you know, I was looking at what conda at a time period where I felt like I couldn't find anybody else who was a designer of color outside of the handful of people that were studying in my institution. At the grad level. I'm inspired by Jennifer White-Johnson in her advocacy for disabled communities and inspired by Bekah Marcum, and the work that she's doing Instagram, in her recent venture, with Maxwell, for an Instagram Designing While Black, I'm inspired by Mitzi, and Where are the black designers, inspired by Lee and Black Ignite, I'm inspired by everybody that wants to make a change. I did an interview for IBM and I talked about a friend of mine named Ophelia, who's also from Jamaica. And she was telling me about her upbringing and the fact that while she was growing up on the island, everyone in her family was required to grab something, whatever they grew was brought to the table and it was kind of this this this tool to kind of instill this sense of community and responsibility to community and I see that with with all of the people that I've mentioned where everybody is growing their respective fruits and then we bring it together for feast. And I think that's the that's the thing that inspires me and makes me not want to stop if I stopped growing and growing, then something is missing from the table and we all are focused right now on feeding the community so we that's that's what inspires me most

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

awesome. I mean, you know, just the the, the ability and the the metaphor of using the body of knowledge as parts to a meal that we're all part of this thing and if something is no longer there, then some part of the meal is is is missing. Thank you for that because I think that is a very powerful statement. So conversely, I think to the original the other question was, what part of the process Do you still struggle with?

Omari Souza:

I still struggle with making connections. I have Have a network of people, but my network is just about so big, I struggle with funding, as every other organizer is trying to put something together. And those are the things that I'm always looking for. Whenever I speak at any events, I'm always letting people know that I'm always open to collaborating or assisting in any way that I can. And I always mean that. But those are those are the areas that I struggle most. I'm still a young professor, I'm only 35. Tomorrow. For me. My list of contacts and connections might not be as extensive as a professor who's been doing it for 10 years, my senior. So those are those are the things that I still struggle with.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Well, early, happy birthday, when this comes out, you'll already be 35. One of the things I want you to think about is also think about you growing up in New York, what advice would you give your younger self entering design and advertising today,

Omari Souza:

I think perseverance, undergrad was really difficult. But I feel like the experiences I had an undergrad prepared me for what it is I'm attempting to do. Now, I don't know if I would have told myself to do anything differently, outside of maybe finding a cheaper university to go to, I think the lessons that I dealt with, I needed to learn because it helped build the muscles necessary to organize the way to email I have to now the discomfort that I felt as being the only one, it's still the discomfort you feel with putting programs like this together, because there still aren't many black professors at my institution. So a lot of this does still fall on me. And even while organizing, it still makes people feel uncomfortable, you still have to respond to particular emails, or field responses from certain students that feel, why is this a black event, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada. So there, there's certain things that I navigate that do remind me of undergrad, the only difference is outside of looking forward to graduation, these events have a quicker return quicker social return for me than than what I did an undergrad. That's what makes it worth it for me.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Now I'm just gonna follow up because just in hearing you respond to that. And I think a lot of people of color who go through this, do you think it's fair, the type of need that maybe society or people put on us to be the ones to facilitate these types of conversations.

Omari Souza:

I don't think it's fair at all. I don't I don't think it's fair. In the slightest bit, I just try not to spend time worrying about it, it just becomes one of those situations where if there's a need, and it's going to get done, someone has to do it. And if it's me, because I care about it. And you know, because I was, you know, someone who could have benefited from someone else doing it when I was a student, then I'll do it. I have two sons. And they're a little boy, so they can be messy. And you know, if there's a sock in the hallway, and I asked one of my sons to pick it up, it becomes a situation where one will say, Well, I didn't leave the sock there. And the question that I'll ask them is doesn't matter. There's a sock on the floor. You live here, this is the space you have to occupy. Pick it up, put it to the side. I'm not going to say that doing it isn't frustrating. It can be extremely frustrating. But if I didn't do it, who else would have

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

agreed? It's just one of those things I wanted to because I in the back of my head, sometimes you have this, this conversation that do we have to be the only ones fighting this fight. And I agree it's on, it's unfair. But at the same time, if we're not the ones doing this, unfortunately, at this moment in time, most likely this conversation is not happening.

Omari Souza:

I think for myself, the thing that I just keep telling myself is the same thing that I mentioned in terms of like bringing boots to the table for the feast itself. If I look at the community that I've been able to foster, and hopefully the people that I continue to build community with, I feel less as if I'm doing it alone and more as if I'm a part of a network of people that are doing particular things. And that's what normally makes it easier for me if I didn't have the Metsys to have there as a Terry's the Jennifer's the backends you know it, and the more Reese's, it would be extremely difficult because I wouldn't be completely isolated. And even though none of them live in the same city as me. Outside of Terrance Moline was another good friend of mine, and runs African American Graphic Designers. I don't know mentally if I'd be able to do it all. Well, not at all don't do what I'm doing in that isolation. So I think that's been beneficial for me as well.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

Well said. So as you mentioned before, you're in the process of painting two books, but there are there anything else that the future holds for Omari?

Omari Souza:

Um, well in August I will be keynoting black ignite this past January I gave a lecture for Silas Monroe's bipoc design history. So if you are interested, you can find that by visiting the website. There will be another state of black design. Right now. We're just trying to finalize dates and then we'll be announcing that going forward.

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

And working more my listeners find out more about you and connect with you via social media.

Omari Souza:

Oh yeah, you guys can follow me on Instagram or you You can find me at a Mari Susan calm. Or I typically post news, I just

George Garrastegui, Jr.:

want to say thank you, it's really great to have this conversation, I really appreciate you digging into more of the emotional connection about not only the reasons you decided to do this, but what it really means to bring community together. And I think that is really important and something that I don't think a lot of people outside of maybe bipoc communities truly understand that it is it is really a bunch of people working together to be able to feed the table. And I really appreciated like I said, that metaphor and that approach to thinking about why all of these things help and support each other rather than compete against each other. And so thank you for allowing us in to what it takes to start to think about putting this stuff what it means to really put yourself into an event like this and take people with you. And also understand that there are other people who can be doing the work with you and not that you have to feel like you're the only one. Thank you again for your time. I really appreciate it. hope it's not too hot there in Texas. Omari. Enjoy the rest of your day. This has been works in process.

Omari Souza:

Thank you guys.

About the Podcast

Show artwork for Works In Process
Works In Process
The hows and whys of creative work

About your host

Profile picture for George Garrastegui

George Garrastegui

George is an educator, designer, advocate, and curator looking to elevate the creative process by shifting the focus to how we work over what we produce.