9 March, 2022
Episode 11 — It’s about time we see design through a new lens
Join host Nigel Prentice as he sits down with Kareem Collie, IBM User Experience Design Lead, who talks with us about growing up and finding his voice as a designer through experiences that took him around the world, academia, and into corporate America, and how those pivotal life events shaped his perspective as a designer today. Kareem also deep dives into The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, an anthology of stories touching on design practice, scholarship, activism, and more, co-edited with several influential black design leaders.
Bringing your identity into your career
“The transition to engaging design is just a transition into engaging culture.”
On The Black Experience in Design
Transcripts are edited for readability and clarity.
Nigel Prentice: Hello, my name is Nigel Prentice, and I am a Design Director at IBM. And, I would like to welcome you to the It’s About Time podcast. The podcast coming from the Racial Equity in Design work at IBM. I want to introduce you to one of my friends, Mr. Kareem Collie. How you doing, brother?
Kareem Collie: I’m doing very well. Thank you.
Nigel Prentice: Very good. I can’t wait to get into it. Kareem is our User Experience Design Lead here at IBM in one of our consulting practices. You know, as I think about that title, Kareem, it really doesn’t do justice. We’re going to get into that and understand exactly why in a second, as we uncover what your background is and where you’re coming from, and the impact that you’ve been having on the practice of design inside and outside of IBM. So, I can’t wait to get to that. But first, as I like to do, I want to hear a bit from our ancestors to get ourselves going.
Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, talked about curiosity with these words, “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” Secondly, this one is touching me as, especially as you and I continue to get to know each other, Kareem.
This one is from Carol Mosely-Braun. She is a politician and attorney out of Chicago, Illinois. She is the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in the United States. And she said, “Defining myself as opposed to being defined by others is one of the most difficult challenges I face.” So I take that second one really, as a provocation; it’s not simply some wisdom from folks who’ve come ahead of us.
I think it’s also reflective of this existential work that we’re all on. This path that we all find ourselves on. And by all, I really mean humanity. And in our context, as we talk about racial equity and design on this podcast, you know, this idea of existing and having space to exist within, I think, is especially poignant as we talk about race and the profession of design.
So, let’s get into it. Kareem, let’s get into your background a bit. You know, tell me if you would, where you’re from, and we’ll go from there.
Kareem Collie: I am in Southern California, about 45 minutes east of L.A., proper. And, I’ve been here for about four and a half years, since 2017. But I absolutely do not claim Southern California. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, where I grew up, born and bred in Brooklyn, and sort of planted myself here from there. I grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, East Flatbush, Coney Island all over Brooklyn. And, yeah, that’s where I hail from.
Nigel Prentice: It’s funny you say you absolutely do not claim Cali. Come on, man. Cali. Cali’s been good to you, right? You’re still there?
Kareem Collie: I— you know, it has been good to me. I won’t lie. The other day I was on a call, and I had the window open, and folks were talking about how cold it was where they were. And they were like, where are those birds? Where are those birds chirping? Where’s that sound come from? And it was my window. So no, I won’t lie, there are definitely some benefits to it. But I find it really hard. Like, you know —
I was a senior art director at Viacom back in 2012. I was going back and forth a lot between New York and Los Angeles, and I remember standing at a window at one of the hotels I was staying. I was like — I would never live here. And, yeah, but here I am. So, it still hasn’t really processed. I will be honest, my youngest child, my son, who is three now and will be four in April, was born here. So, I guess I have to claim it to some extent. But I’m still working on it.
Nigel Prentice: Got it. Got it. Understood. I understood. Bi-coastal at this point for you. It sounds like — I’m sure you’ve got family back home, and let’s talk about that a little bit. What was life like in Brooklyn back in the day? What was the upbringing like? What was the vibe? What was the sensibility that you remember growing up?
Kareem Collie: Oh man! Wow, that’s a fantastic question. So, Brooklyn was — so I’ll be straight. I’ll be straight up. I grew up in like, what one might call the P.J.’s. So, in East New York, Brooklyn, jumping off of the three train at Van Siclen, and I’m listening to the Fat Boys and, you know, Heavy D — I know I’m skipping around a bit in terms of epics, right? Or periods of music, but hip hop was, was big and it was, a huge flavor of what I remember my childhood being. You know, playing with Transformers, with my friends in front of the building and, playing— what we used to call it— manhunt, around the block. It was great. It — you know, it was a great upbringing.
My family was always really thoughtful and supportive. I was always into making and creating things, and they were always supportive on that end. I felt like I had a good childhood coming up out there. So, yeah. Yeah, it was, it was good. It felt good. A lot of family, a lot of friends, and it really cemented, you know, that sense of New York as home.
Nigel Prentice: That sounds cool. To be honest, I may have put in a cassette tape or two to record the Fat Boys directly off the radio myself, back in the day. And it always strikes me when — New Yorkers, y’all have this sort of way of geo-locating yourself by the exit or the station, you know, from the train.
You know what I mean? Because you know, the avenues or the streets kind of have this interesting, like culture— oh, you’re downtown. No, I’m uptown. No, I’m, you know, this, that, and you can — I don’t know all the names, but you — people can identify you by where you get on and off various trains.
From the south, I grew up in Houston — it’s really cool to hear that culture kind of reflected in how you talk about place and time.
Kareem Collie: A hundred percent. I mean, I used to feel like you would need a visa to go from Brooklyn to Queens. You know, I remember thinking — like I would meet a young lady and like, “man, she’s awesome.” And then I learned that she’s from Queens. I’m like, “ah, I can’t, I can’t do that.” Cause it was just these barriers that we put up, culturally. I mean, but those barriers also were from block to block, at times. You know, some of that was what made it interesting. Some of that is what made it a little treacherous at times, but, you know, coming from there, I feel comfortable and confident going into most environments.
And just to wrap up with the Fat Boys, they actually lived down the block from me, on Van Sicklen. So, that was one of the reasons why they popped into mind, I think. I used to run into them quite a lot.
Nigel Prentice: Fat Boys — shout out to old school hip hop and the groups that just organically lived around the way from you, if you’re from NYC. Then you ended up attending an HBCU, and I am really interested to hear about that experience. What was the draw for you? My sense of it is that you were very, you know, sort of enlightened as, as a young scholar, even before university, and likely had a lot of options in front of you.
I think it’s really cool that you were able to attend an HBCU and continue on with your academic and career down the road. I’m just curious about what informed that thought process, what role your family might’ve played, or even high school?
Kareem Collie: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I’m glad you mentioned high school because I think that’s one of the — one of the — sort of platforms that really helped me see what the possibilities were. I was — I was really fortunate. I ended up going to one of the magnet schools in Brooklyn, New York City. I think there are five of them, and the one that I went to was Brooklyn Tech — Brooklyn Technical High School.
Like I said, I was always into making, and art, and so forth. And I went to Brooklyn Tech because they had one of the few architectural programs, like pre-college architectural programs, in the city. I thought that architecture might be the direction I would want to go, career-wise. It seemed sensible from the sense of like, you know, me being interested in making and planning. I didn’t know what design was, but I knew architecture was. I knew that that was a place where you take your creativity and you apply it to something else.
And so, went the Brooklyn Tech. As a magnet school, you know, everyone is going to college, everyone is thinking about what’s happening next. That was the goal of those schools. To get you in there, get you prepared, and get you out. That was also the time of A Different World. And I don’t know if folks remember A Different World. I think A Different World was — watching that show made it very clear what my next step was after college. I mean, after high school. With the combination of A Different World, a combination of being at a school that was very focused on helping students to move on to that next stage in their life, you know, it was easy— going to Howard was sort of like little Brooklyn. It was a pretty easy transition going from there to Howard. They had a solid architecture program when I applied. And so, I got in and, then, I went to Howard University, which was absolutely amazing. You know, they were calling it, “The Mecca” at the time, and it really felt that way.
I mean, you’re in this environment where you’re around people of color, but they’re coming from all over the country, all over the world. Right. You’re getting folks coming from the continent, from the islands. You know, when you’re coming out of New York City, you think you know what Black folk are, right? But then you go to someplace like Howard University, and then you get folks from Mississippi, from Texas, from California, from Colorado, and all the places in between. And then you see them converge, and you just get all these different flavors. It was really, really eye-opening. Then it was in “Chocolate City,” which was what they were calling D.C. at the time, pre-gentrification and, you know, just all of those things together—listening to go-go music and being in that environment. Then Howard being this magnet during homecoming — it was a fantastic experience.
I ultimately transferred from Howard University because the program that I was in, the architecture program— I learned what design was while I was in — or visual design while I was in the architectural program. And I decided that I wanted to shift gears.
I went into the fine arts school and studied what they were calling at the time, “New Media,” because you know, the internet and the computers, and so forth where we’re just starting to be used for digital design. But then that program was —it had gotten, consolidated into the liberal arts school. And, you know, at that point, I was like, I’m going to leave here, and I’m going to go dig in and focus on design, but I’m going to do it back in New York where I think that there are going to be more opportunities to bridge into that career.
After about two and a half years at Howard, I ended up not registering again and ultimately transferred two years later— after I figured out how to pay for it, or after I figured out how to give them money for it. I still don’t think I’ve finished paying for it and found myself at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Nigel Prentice: Okay. Very, very interesting path there. It reminds me of, you know, some of the paths or some of the conversations I have with folks either that are still in school or early in their career. That you can’t really predict what’s going to come; therefore, you know, try to absolutely max out — or as my family use to say, maximize whatever system and situation you find yourself in because it always is going to set you up for success no matter whatever is next.
Interesting that you talk about “The Mecca” from Hillman to Howard. It sounded like you really enjoyed that. Was there any culture shock at all? I know that there is a— you know, on a map, the distance might not look very far compared to someone who looks at like the scale of a California or Texas, but the cultural distance, if you will, between a Brooklyn and a D.C. might be pretty large. That’s what I’m curious about.
Nigel Prentice: Did it seem like a culture shock at all, or you just reveling in it, and you actually loved it?
Kareem Collie: I just loved it. You know, I used to dance for like — back in the days — I was one of those hip hop kids. I remember one homecoming where I saw Lauren Hill. I saw this young lady on the — on the yard that we were calling it at the time. And I was like, “she looks amazing.” So, I went — we started talking, you’ve got, you know— and I was like, “yeah, she was awesome.” And, and I remember, about 10 minutes later, she gets on stage and just destroys the stage.
You know, not literally, of course, but Lauren Hill. Then she gets off the stage, and I was — I think I was in a circle battling some folks. And afterward, I went and got her autograph. Cause like I said, she killed it. You know, she wrote this really nice little ditty on the back about me being an awesome dancer.
It was one of those places where you were just confronted with all of the wonderful things that our culture was dishing out to us at the time. I mean, this was in the mid — the early to mid-nineties. Honestly, I don’t know where else I would have wanted to be at that time.
You know, I didn’t finish at Howard University, but I feel like I got my certificate in growing up there. And moving from — you know that little kid who graduated, to someone who was looking forward to the next stages of life.
Nigel Prentice: Man, it’s awesome. Sort of chapters of our life, if you will.
Very cool story. I don’t know of anybody that’s got a Lauren Hill note just for them. So, yeah, man. And then did the transfer, to study sort of with intentionality, this idea of design at Pratt. What was the Pratt experience like?
Kareem Collie: The Pratt experience was great. You know, by the time I’d gotten to Pratt, I was a little bit more mature and really ready to sit down — cause I was all over the place. Like I said, I was dancing, but not just on the dance floor—that was what life was to me. But when I got to Pratt, I really was able to just sit down and focus on my craft, and I truly loved the experience.
Now, in terms of culture shock, that was probably more of a culture shock, right? Like, you know, in my backyard. Right. Being from Brooklyn, being from New York. Literally, Pratt Institute is maybe six blocks from where my high school was: it’s on the same street. It was a bit of a culture shock going from Howard University to Pratt, where I went from being like the majority on campus to there was only really two of us in my class. And this one cat, Chicon, who actually became one of my very good friends, and at times, the person pushing me most.
So, it was a really great experience. It was a bit more of a culture shock than Howard was, even though it was, like I said, in my backyard. But I got a lot out of it. And a lot of that came from focus, right? Focus on the craft, focus on, you know, like I said, I had a smaller group of friends that we were just focused on becoming amazing designers. And the teachers there were supportive and, really looking to, you know, help you get to the next level. I had a lot of really good experiences with my professors there.
Nigel Prentice: Right, and I love how these threads are starting to come together. This early experience with artists who are making music, some even in your neighborhood that we talked about, then your connection to architecture. Which, in my mind, is this expression of the creative plus the pragmatic. You know, got to build something that stands and functions, but you have the liberties to make it sort of beautiful and experiential.
Then you have the culture there at Howard. This lived culture that can’t be duplicated. Now it feels like what you’re describing is that your relationship to design is maturing. I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit. If I understand correctly, your work there, and maybe even at NYU where you would later study and work, sort of developed, in my mind, this sort of critique of culture.
How did you begin to use design in order to see your place in the world and be that critique of culture that you began the study?
Kareem Collie: Yeah. I love that, bringing it back to that defining myself statement from earlier. Right. I think that with design —I think that I was very much into words and didn’t know that until I really started to play around with typography. And I say words cause I’m just thinking about what is the difference between going from art to design and bringing in the written language or these ideas that are maybe more critical or maybe more philosophical. I don’t know. Bringing it to the canvas along with the — so, a lot of the work that I was doing, while I was at Howard University when I switched over digital art or new media was focused on a lot of illustration work. But once I got into using words a bit more, I think I started to play a little bit more with my ideas, my lens on the world.
I was doing a lot of poetry at the time. You know, there was all these slam poets happening. Again, it was just really great. I think of this period in African American culture that the early nineties to the late 20s up, right, was this period of — I might even say it was a bit of a Renaissance happening around like culture, art, sort of appreciation of the culture. And so, I was just a part of that whole period. So, there are a lot of slam poetry things happening. I was doing a lot of writing. I was biking around a lot, and I guess I just always have been a very curious person. And so, I’m starting to see more.
As a designer, you’re being asked to really translate what’s happening out in culture, in the culture around you, into these statements that amplify aspects of it. If you’re being told to design a poster for Shakespeare but make it contemporary, how do you do that without looking at the world around you? As you’re looking at the world, the only way to translate that world into — or interpret that world into something that can amplify what you’re looking — what you’re trying to communicate is to then critique it, right.
There’s a critical sort of lens that you’re consistently bringing as you’re trying to define or interpret the world so that then you can appropriately communicate that world back out. So, I think I started to do that, but I started to do that on steroids. Very much digging into my ability as an illustrator, with digital, and digital art, Photoshop, and FreeHand, I think at the time. Not even— I think it was FreeHand Macromedia I was using more so than Illustrator to communicate these interesting visual statements. Then as you’re looking at the world around you, you begin to pick up on interesting, nuanced things that need to be discussed or need to be talked about. When you’re in your twenties, you’re really awakening to this world around you.
If you’re lucky, you’re awakening with a critical lens versus just sitting down, digesting it all. I think I was lucky to be awakening to this world around me with this critical lens, but also with these tools to help me think through and express some of those ideas.
Nigel Prentice: Such an interesting time, and I love how you — you’re talking through the soundtrack of the golden age of hip hop. And it wasn’t just hip hop itself because we had Martin, we had Russell Simmons with Def Comedy Jam, and then he had that slam poetry show as well. I feel like that’s the era you’re talking about, right?
Kareem Collie: A thousand percent. There was so much material circulating around Black culture, Black popular culture, that it was just hard to not draw from that. As a creative, it was just — and like I said, I used to dance, so I was really in the music. I was really in the movement, and I was a visual artist. I was just all up in there. If there was a club or a dance floor, or a really fantastic gallery showing I was going to probably — you’ll probably see me there.
Nigel Prentice: And this is what I love about design and designers is that we oftentimes, just like an artist, pull inspiration from that, which is sort of rotating in our universe around us. So, I’d like to get into that a little bit because you sort of make this transition into your career and, working for USA networks eventually, several media companies, you’ve got all these sorts of international clients, and you’re an accomplished designer, Kareem. You’ve expertly traversed your career. You clearly driving value, but I want to peel back a few layers.
You know, what was it like having come from Brooklyn, having been in the culture with lived experiences, gone to “The Mecca” in “Chocolate City,” and become educated at Pratt as a formerly trained designer, then graduate school as well. Now we’re out in the industry, and from our studies, we know that that point you made early on about being one of only two or three or one of only two or 3% on a campus and an industry.
What’s it like being Black moving through your career? Is it something that had been, you know, present? And what I mean by that is had you sort of had to deal with that in any particular way coming through your career, or did it even matter? I’m curious what your thoughts are on that?
Kareem Collie: Yeah. Well, first, I really appreciate this idea of me expertly traversing my career. I’m going to write that down because I have not felt that way. I felt like I’ve been at times a ship on water and other times, throwing out life preservers, but you know, I’ve made it. I made it to where I am right now. And I’ve had some really fantastic milestones that helped me arrive here.
Nigel Prentice: Art director. Global brands like Pfizer and others. You don’t get those titles in those accounts just because, you know what I’m saying? So, I appreciate your humility, but I just want to let the people know who they’re dealing with when they’re listening to Mr. Kareem here. But yeah, go for it.
Kareem Collie: I’m going to step back quickly, if you don’t mind, to my junior high school. This helped me describe my feeling about this experience. So, coming out of Brooklyn, I went to this junior high school called Anne Sullivan, and I remember it was one of those bused — we talk about busing, and that was one of those schools that I was bused to. And I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, probably until like right now.
In that school, I remember I had five very good friends. One was another brother. One was this kid named Chuck, who was Chinese, and we would hang out, and he showed me how to use chopsticks, and that’s where I learned. Another guy he was Russian. And then another one was, I want to say his name was — I forget this other cat’s name, but this cat was Hispanic. And so, I had this crew that was really cultural multiracial.
And then I went to Brooklyn Tech. in that school, there’s a strong community of like African Americans. But oddly enough, talk about segmented. You go to the lunchroom, and it was like Black, White, Hispanic, Asian. And that was kind of how the lunchroom was divided. And then Howard University and then Pratt. And so, I had this — I don’t know. I don’t know a very fluid understanding of like myself and a number of different types of spaces. So, I was always fairly comfortable in my skin where I was.
I think what really dawned on me though, when I was at Deutsch Inc, back in 2000, I think maybe 2000 or 2001, I was working at Deutsche. I was a junior art director there. I was maybe one of two other Black art directors in a company of; I would say, maybe like 200, which I found super fascinating. They kept trying to put me on these on these accounts that were like the Black demographic accounts. I found it odd. I didn’t understand the need to be in a specifically Black demographic account. We all drink the same, you know, like Grand Marnier, I remember one of the accounts. I was like, what — why do I have — how am I specifically approaching this account?
How might I think about this universally? I remember that was when I really first started to think about my role in these businesses. And the very thin line between, where I felt comfortable, where I didn’t feel comfortable.
I don’t know if that answers your question. But that was sort of the start of my engagement with, I think, the question that you’re asking.
Nigel Prentice: Right. Right. I think that’s something that’s interesting to sort of touch on because many of us, you know, who have this lived experience of being, not from the mainstream, have to deal with that one way or the other. You know, some people just ignore it, and that’s fine.
It’s not an issue. You know, race is not an issue that enters into some people’s sort of daily existence. They don’t need to explore it, think about it, move past it, accept it, or anything because it’s just not an actor in their life. And attempting to make this connection to the book you’re involved with that is, in the process of being published right now and find the roots of that a little bit.
Did you come to any insights about that account or other accounts? Were you asked to work on brands that had no sort of clear connection to your cultural background? Or did you find a theme over time that you found they did rely on you to articulate some sort of cultural dimension because you’re Black?
Kareem Collie: Yeah, I never really looked at — never really approached it as a challenge that I was being confronted with. Rather an opportunity for me to just bring another point of view. Like I said, it was clear to me that this was a space or a conversation that I was engaging at that time.
This idea of, okay, you are a Black person, you can potentially bring Black perspectives to this. I think for me, I always wanted to bring a unique perspective, and it not be about it being a Black perspective or a White perspective; rather, here’s a perspective from a Black guy that is unique.
Whether you take that as something coming from a Black guy, or you just take it as a unique perspective, I knew whatever I was bringing to the table was being brought from my lived experience, and it was going to be additive. I think that that’s how I tended to approach the work that I was doing and approach this idea of diversity.
Right. We talk about being inclusive and being diverse. You know, a lot of these folks never battled three dudes on a dance floor before. Right. Or one of these cats grew up in the projects part of hide and seek was in the dark basements, where the incinerators were, you know. But I also, you know, didn’t play hide and seek in some green forest somewhere. Right.
I think that I was just bringing a unique perspective that I thought that could be helpful to different stories that needed to be told. And as a designer, as a visual designer, I was going to tell it the way that I was interpreting it. With that critical eye that I was talking about, which was my critical eye.
I will say that where I think I was much more intentional about being a Black person was when I was teaching. I started teaching at Pratt Institute back in 2006, and in that space, I am not just am I teaching, but I’m also a New Yorker, and we had a lot of international students. I was really bringing my perspective about the environment that they were in and really asking questions of my students. Also, being very empathetic to students who were students of color. I remember every once in a while, I find myself at lunch with a student or having coffee with students just as I’m trying to help them think through how they’re engaging some of the materials and, oftentimes, it was a student of color. So yeah, it definitely was there as something that I was aware of, but I didn’t always let it drive me.
Last thing I would say to that is that as a designer, I also really approached my career with how designing myself. A lot of my career over the last 20 years have been about crafting this sort of Kareem individual. Not even my design craft. I did a lot of traveling. I backpacked a lot, you know. I was doing this— I do these martial arts called Capoeira. So, I found myself in Brazil, you know, just learning culture, trying to learn Portuguese. And even how I dress — really trying to be intentional about this person that I was — that I’m becoming.
And I think that’s also a part of what we’re talking about. that presentation. that sort of defining oneself, has been about defining me as the Kareem I want to be versus some random label about design.
Nigel Prentice: I love it, man. I love it. I’m just really struck about how present you are right now in this moment describing it, but also how present you must have been at each of those steps when you just showed up with your authentic self-working on those accounts, being the professor.
And, you know, it takes a lot of — oh, I don’t know how to quite express it, but that is unique. It’s unique for folks to just not be censored and to feel free to do and make and create an experience like you have. Maybe that’s why you’ve had such a sort of wide-ranging career that has landed you at a technology company who’s reinventing itself like IBM, around hybrid cloud and A.I. as well as the media companies that you’ve been on, as well as all these other areas of inquiry, which takes me to the book.
And I’d love for you to talk about the book a bit, The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression, & Reflection. If you wouldn’t mind talk about your role in that book a little bit, maybe it’s genesis; I would love to hear more.
Kareem Collie: Yeah. Wow, the book. In 2020 when everything was going down and, you know, folks are burning down the house. I was on the AIGA’s design steering committee, and someone reached out because I had gotten some work published on the journal that they had, this piece around like Obama and media.
And, they were like, “hey, maybe you should reach out to Kareem.” Kareem can help you with this query that you have. They wanted to create a special issue for Black design educators. Just a special issue of this journal that was driven by the design educator’s community for the AIGA.
And so, I was like, “yeah, let’s try to do this”. Let’s figure it out. I took it back to the committee, and then, it just wasn’t moving forward. So, this person, Anne H. Berry, who is the managing editor for the book— so she and I started reaching out to a bunch of other folks. In the end, it became six of us working on this project. And what it turned out to be was more than just a book that was looking at the experience of Black design educators but rather, what is the Black experience in design, generally? So, it was myself, and Jennifer Rittner, Lesley-Ann Noel, Kelly Walters, and Penina. I didn’t get Penina’s last name —
Nigel Prentice: Acayo Laker.
Kareem Collie: Yes, thank you. Thank you. You know, we sat down, throughout that summer and into fall, just thinking about what this might be, sort of constructing a series of themes that we want to touch on. In the book, we touch on design education. We touched on just design practice, design scholarship, Afrofuturism, activism. We were like, let’s just go across the spectrum of where we are in the design industry because we were all out there in the world and the way we were connected to a lot of folks. And so, we were like, well, why don’t we just start calling folks up and see if they will be interested in contributing to this book?
And then each of us would take, you know, a couple of sections and curate and edit; that’s basically how I got started. The sections that I worked on, design practice as well as design activism and advocacy, with Penina — that was sort of like how everything has started in my role in doing that was both curating and collaborating.
I wrote the forward and collaborative on the forward for activism. And then I reached out to folks in my community and my network, and then some folks from the community and network of the other editors and figured out who would be interested in writing what. In the end, got some really amazing folks to contribute.
For example, I was at an AIGA conference back in 2020, and this really amazing designer came up, Jon Key. Yeah, I remember looking at him like, “man, I would love to meet this cat and just talk to him a little bit.” And so, when we got into the book design, I was like, hey, should we reach out to Jon Key, and then it turns out that Jennifer Rittner, who at the time was working at SVA, was his advisee because he decided to go back and get his MFA, and he was writing a book. She connected me to him. We worked on pulling together this idea around this essay called, The Four Pillars. And then, you know, that came together really nicely.
Then I was connected to a couple of folks, some friends of mine, Ian Spalter and other Darhill Crooks — folks who are really doing some amazing stuff right now. Ian’s at Instagram. Darhil is at Apple right now, and then they connected to another cat named Dantley Davis. I just had a round table with them, just discussing their experience growing up, just similar to what we are doing right now.
Took that and then sort of crafted that into like a little essay, kind of a conversational essay. So, it was a lot of collaboration, a lot of networking, and just pulling folks in to tell their stories. We have about 60 different essays in here telling stories, having folks talk about how they see the world, how they are critiquing the world, their theories, how they’re thinking about education.
Really, one of my favorite ones that I helped put together was by Chris Rudd. He’s an activist, a community organizer, who was at the d. school with me, at Stanford. He is now teaching design at I.T. He’s teaching this course on the politics of desire, but his reading list was crazy, and I was talking to him about it, so we ended up doing an essay specifically on his reading lists and the intention behind each of the books and each of the texts that he has the students read. So, it was a really organic process, and we have some really amazing stories and ideas in this book.
Nigel Prentice: What’s something that jumped out that surprised you? I love to hear something that you weren’t expecting.
Kareem Collie: A fun one was by Quinlin Messenger. Quinlin wanted to write this piece about intersectionality because of his very diverse background, racially. We just riffing on it, and it ended up being this — it almost feels like going back to what we’re talking about, like slam poetry in a way. He sorts of like rift off of this notion of lyrics. Again, this was a kind of a collaborative piece, and he was telling me what he was thinking about. I was like, well, “why, how about this?” And, and so it was just one of those pieces that was like a call and response that built it. But he breaks down into this really, sort of poetic collage of his background and how that background has influenced how he sees himself as a steward right now, and how he’s an architect, and how he’s a steward in this design world and what that meant to him. Just like going through that process really made me appreciate my entire experience of design.
I see this book as something that I helped to design, more so than something that I helped write. It was very much about interviewing and finding those little nuggets and then helping to bring those nuggets out into this very rich story or rich statement.
And, every time that happened, it was amazing. Another that I really love is Vann Graves called, Another Brick in the Wall, and it’s about our need to credential ourselves, as Black folks, trying to make it in the world. And he said something that I thought, you know, continues to stand out to me today is we credential ourselves. We do all this stuff just to be accepted. Right. Wherein if you were, maybe a White person, a White man, White woman, these things that you’ve done make you exceptional. And, and that was really profound to me, this notion of all that we have to do just to be accepted into these spaces.
Nigel Prentice: Such profound thoughts indeed. And I can’t wait to read more of those stories. I’ve got my book on order, by the way. I see that it just went live, just launched. So, congratulations! As we record this, it’s in the first week of February 2022. So, for those of you out there who are looking for your next best book to get your hands on, this is the one. The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression, & Reflection. Highly anticipated, can’t wait to get it here at the house.
I’d love to hear some advice from you. Let’s say there is a Black professional who’s in one of our parallel fields. Let’s say they’re in psychology and knows how to do human-centered research, or they’re in anthropology or sociology and know how to get at a human insight and synthesize multiple sorts of data points like a qualitative user research might do.
Those are just a couple examples of people who don’t have a design degree but certainly have the chops, the skill coming from parallel fields to come into design and might be able to do some fantastic things. What advice would you have for that person as they look to accelerate themselves into this new space over here?
Kareem Collie: Yeah, so I think that, over the last ten years, the definition of design has expanded exponentially, and I think it’s going to continue expanding. I have this thought that, like, everything is designed, right. I mean, for the most part, there are things that happen unintentionally, but the infrastructure for what we are dealing with culturally is designing, right. Whether it be the constitution or our laws, or, you know, the fact that when we get up in the morning, we look at the weather to figure out what we’re going to wear; we’re constantly designing. That is part of what we do as human beings, and the more we are trying to understand the inner workings of all of these systems that we’ve been putting together; the more expansive this idea of design is going to be — actually feel like — I actually feel like aspects of design should move out of the art department into the humanities. That’s just one thing I would like to say. And that was some of the work that I was doing when I was in academia.
I’m saying that to say that folks who are working in psychology or anthropology, or what have you — the transition to engaging in design is just a transition into engaging culture in a more specific way or within a slightly different orientation than let’s say — as a psychologist, you’re helping someone understand themselves. Whereas here, you’re helping an organization, a company, or user communicate or support some of their needs.
As design expands, which it has dramatically, I think we’re continuously going to be redefining it. I thoroughly believe that in the next decade to two decades, that design is going to look different educationally and will find itself to be a bit more open to some of these other disciplines, or maybe even the reverse, where some of these other disciplines are open to engaging and design-oriented practices, especially from research and a cultural sort of anthropological standpoint.
Nigel Prentice: Design is what we do as part of the human condition. A little bit of what you said, I love that. Let’s fast forward a little bit. Let’s say one of your children comes to you, and they’re about to enter high school, or maybe they’re in that undergrad, early college age, somewhere in that sort of formative space.
And they say, “hey dad, listen; I do want to be a designer, just like you. What, dad, should I expect?” And Kareem, as a father turning around and looking at your young son or daughter knowing that you’ve been a steward of this profession for all these years, what do you turn around and say to your child? And what advice would you give them?
Wow. I’m going to extend what I was saying a second ago. I feel like it’s going to be a conversation that I couldn’t have with them right now because I think that the industry and how design is being looked at in a decade and a half, or maybe a decade from now, is going to be different.
You probably need a Futurist to answer this question, right. Someone who can project out what the design industry is going to look like in a decade and to answer that question. But let’s say if they were this age now, they were in high school now, I would ask, “well, what kind of designer are you thinking of being and why?” It can come from a variety of different interests, whether it be interest in people, interest in systems, interest in, you know, aesthetics.
I would definitely have them go to a school, especially in undergrad, not a design school. I don’t think I would have to go to a Pratt. I think I would have them go to a university where they are getting a more holistic understanding of culture so that they can ultimately bring that larger, more holistic understanding to their practice. Pratt did me well, don’t get me twisted, and I’m sure that they’re advancing some of these ideas because it’s very clear that we need to go a little bigger than sort of just having really beautiful typography, but really understanding culture, understanding people. I would say, “hey, you need to go to a university. I think that will get you the best bang for your buck.“
Nigel Prentice: In a lot of ways, listen, I’m going to take that advice. A holistic understanding of culture. How can that not be a cornerstone piece of thinking in order to develop the best empathy for a person or a group or a persona as you endeavor to design for them? I love where you went with that and shots fired. Therefore, maybe a design school isn’t the best place for you to be the best designer you can be. Love that provocation as well. I love it. I love it.
Listen, man. What we’ve listened to today, in you, Kareem, is a person who was living his best life. Listen, with the courage and the curiosity you’ve had to study martial arts, Capoeira, in Brazil with Brazilians, to interview and be a curator of the intense conversations about being Black in design and what that design experience is and get published. A goal that a lot of folks have. Well, you’ve taken those steps. You’ve done those things. Those are already accomplishments you have. And you know, you’re just getting started here at IBM. So clearly, you’re going to take your career into new places once again.
And so that to me is didactic and instructive for me to always be courageous, curious, and boldly move into these next steps of my career. And I really appreciate the conversation, man. I’m inspired by you and your work, and I cannot wait to see what’s next.
So, thank you, Kareem, for joining me. And I can’t wait to see the next work that we get to work on together. And, again, thanks for the conversation.
Kareem Collie: Ah, thank you. This has been amazing. You know, after just wrapping up my year at IBM this past January, it was good to finally be meeting you. We should have had this conversation a year ago, but I’m glad that we’re having it now. And I’m looking forward to continuing to have these sorts of conversations, more in-depth conversations with you, moving forward.
Nigel Prentice: Thank you for listening to It’s about time. I’d like to thank Alisha Moore, our producer, and David Avila, our audio engineer. And thanks to the entire Racial Equity in Design workstream here at IBM for making this possible. Everyone, be safe and be well.