Episode 331: Alex Pierce
It’s great to be able to look back at the early days of Revision Path and see just how far some designers have come. Take for instance Alex Pierce, one of our first interview guests from 2013. Fast-forward nearly seven years, and Alex has risen to the ranks of associate creative director at Publicis Hawkeye!
Alex talked about his day-to-day work at the Dallas-based outpost of Publicis, and spoke on how he approaches new projects and how his career has grown since starting at the agency over seven years ago. We also discussed the absence of Black people in the creative industry, Alex’s feature in NET Magazine, and what success looks like for him at this stage of his career. Thanks for the updates, Alex!
Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Alex Pierce: Hey, I’m Alex Pierce. I am an associate creative director at Publicis Hawkeye.
Maurice Cherry: Well, first off, congratulations on your recent awards. I was looking at Twitter and I saw you got site of the day from … how do you say? Is it a wards? Because it’s like awwwards. Do you just say awards?
Alex Pierce: I just say A Awards. I don’t know. Maybe there’s some fancy way to say it, like you know how people in France say publicists versus people in America say publicists. So yeah, something like that. So I say A awards.
Maurice Cherry: All right so you got site of the day from A award. You got also site of the day from CSS Design Awards for your recent homepage redesign. So congratulations on that.
Alex Pierce: Thank you very much.
Maurice Cherry: It’s been almost seven years since you’ve been on Revision Path. For people that are listening who are long time fans, listeners of the show, Alex was the last text interview I did before I did my first recorded interview, which was episode one of Revision Path. It sounds like a lot has transpired for you since then. Now you’re … well, you’re still at Publicis, but you’re now an interactive associate creative director. What are some of the responsibilities that you have in your current role?
Alex Pierce: Yeah, so I’m an associate creative director on the digital team. So some of my responsibilities, I’d say, and I remember one of my colleagues and friends, Dan, he’s a creative director, he told me this. He’s at a different point in his life now with his career and he’s given me advice, as an ACD, you’re in kind of a weird limbo, right? So you’re 60% … I would say 50, 60% still kind of hands-on, but then 40% of my time is managing other creatives and their work and their goals and stuff like that. So my current lead or kind of role on my team is I am a design lead. While I work at the agency, our team is kind of device, or not device, but I say device agnostic on a lot of client presentations, so I just automatically say that. No, our team is pretty client agnostic in terms of, we work across all of the agencies, brands, and portfolios, but we do have our own digital clients as well. So, I currently manage the creative for Disney that we have, the piece of Disney work that we have at the agency as well as US figure skating, actually.
Maurice Cherry: Nice.
Alex Pierce: I don’t skate. I don’t skate, but I learned a lot about skating, apparently. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Now, I think when we first talked, you were just a art director, I think.
Alex Pierce: Yes sir.
Maurice Cherry: At Publicis.
Alex Pierce: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: So what’s been sort of the big change between art director and associate creative director? I’m not super familiar with the latter hierarchy as it relates to agencies, but it sounds like you … of course in seven years you’ve leveled up, but what are the differences between those two?
Alex Pierce: Well, yeah, it’s funny, even though I started at Publicis and I’m currently at Publicis, there was a whole period … so I went to Publicis as a mid level art director and I was at Publicis. I left Publicis to go to Hawkeye, I would say in 2012, and I stayed there for a while. Then, not too long after that, we got acquired by Publicis group and then they merged the Publicis Dallas office with the Hawkeye office, which is now Publicis Hawkeye. So, I saw all of my old friends and coworkers again.
Maurice Cherry: Oh wow.
Alex Pierce: Yeah. So it was a little bit of a boomerang kind of situation. They were like, “Oh man, we couldn’t lose you, so we just acquired the whole agency.” They like to make that joke. It’s obviously not true, but yeah. No, I think the difference was really just in terms of responsibility from art director, it’s basically just a mid level position. Senior art director, I think I had leads explained this to me. I would say senior director is more responsibility in terms of being able to be client facing, be able to manage presentations without a creative director in the room if needed, that kind of stuff, being able to be lead design leads on projects. Then, really the big shift from senior art director to associate creative director is really … I’m still figuring out myself. I’ve been in the role for a year and some change now, but I’d say it’s really just basically what I’m doing except now I am in a role of more mentorship and more creative direction, managing the vision and process for projects and accounts, doing scoping, doing hours estimates, that kind of stuff. Some of the more administrative tasks that I didn’t have to worry about as a senior art director, I have to definitely consider more of and then working with the account leads and strategy and being very client facing, that kind of thing.
Maurice Cherry: Now, are you also coming up with strategy or is that left to a more senior creative director?
Alex Pierce: That’s really more, I would say, for that big picture stuff, that’s really more related to, I’d say the group creative director, but even more so we really rely upon our strategy team to kind of help guide that. We actually take that strategy, help enhance it, give our feedback, and then we help interpret it into the creative work, but yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. Yeah, I figured there were certain discrete levels at agencies where you have that kind of division. I’m working ostensibly for a startup and even, I think, if you’re someone who is at the, let’s say like VP level, you find yourself doing not only strategy, but also management and execution, which is probably more on like the individual contributor level. So it’s kind of like the shifting of roles, no matter what your particular title is, so that’s interesting to to see. How do you approach new projects at work?
Alex Pierce: Well, I think how I approach is really, and this is what I like about working on our digital team. It’s definitely a collaborative process. So, it isn’t like everything’s put on the creative team. Everyone has their role to play, so I definitely rely upon account service and project management and strategy to kind of help come to the table with a fully fleshed out, approved brief from the client. Sometimes, depending on the situation, that’s not always the case, just depending on the type of client and the type of timeline and process, but usually we work out with a brief. So, usually start there, give our feedback there, ask any questions, and then really think about timeline roles and responsibilities. Is what they’re saying … Are the deliverables in alignment with the strategy and what the client is asking for, ultimately from a goals and KPI kind of standpoint? That kind of thing.
Maurice Cherry: Now that you have worked at the same company and moved up the ranks as you have, that feels like a real rarity in today’s current creative industry. Even now from what you said earlier, you were at Publicis, you left and went to another company, that company got acquired, and now you’re right back at the same company. I’m curious to know, what has being at Publicis taught you and what makes you continue to stay there?
Alex Pierce: I think, it’s kind of a cliche, but it comes down to the people. An agency isn’t really anything without its people, right? We’re the ones producing the work and the product. I mean that in a more general sense because I don’t mean just in terms of creative, but I also mean in terms of strategy, account service, managing client relationships, all that kind of stuff. I think, as you go across agency, and I had this piece of advice from my creative director, from … and it’s funny because he, actually, this guy, Gary Hawthorne, he’s actually a group creative director at Publicis Hawkeye right now, but he was actually my first boss ever in the industry and he hired me straight out of school as a junior art director at Shaffer Advertising in Fort Worth. He told me this a long time ago, “Don’t ever just leave one agency for another just because they maybe offer you moderately, a little bit more money because I think it’s really just all kind of the same thing.”
Alex Pierce: He didn’t mean that in a cynical way, but it’s just kind of like, be sure you’re leaving for the right reasons. Be sure that you’re leaving to do something different or to really pursue a specific goal because you kind of get that money trap with those golden handcuffs and then you’re just kind of beholden to that and you might be getting more money, but you’re not happy doing what you want to do.
Alex Pierce: Also, I love the people at my agency. I love my team. They’re super talented. I love working with everybody. We’re just kind of like a family. It’s like a home away from home for me, so that really means a lot to me. I think some people … everyone has their off days, and even on my off days, I still … I think about like, “Well, if I’m having a bad day, I’d rather have a bad day with people I like than a bad day with people I don’t like.” That’s kind of why I stayed at Publicis.
Alex Pierce: Then, in terms of Publicis as a agency and kind of things I’ve learned is, frankly, just interpretations of interactive and digital in the context of what I do. It’s interesting, Publicis, I think as a larger agency, their interpretations of digital and interactive versus where I came from. It’s funny, I actually … when I left Publicis to go to work at Hawkeye and I interviewed with the managing director of digital at the time, he still is today, Wes, he interviewed me. I was showing him my stuff and I was showing my web work. I started showing him some banner ads and he was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, no. We don’t do that here. We don’t do banner ads. Can you move that on?” I’m like, “Oh, sorry. Okay.”
Alex Pierce: I think there’s just like this interesting dichotomy, and what I’ve learned is just really thinking bigger picture. Right? So, I really love just UI, UX design, just visual design, interactive design for obvious reasons based off of my portfolio site just redesigned. Working with Publicis, it definitely opens me up to learning more about brand centric kind of work and more strategic, larger, big picture things. So, thinking about the website as a tactic and a larger strategy about talking about this customer journey, right? So, how are we communicating to these people through a variety of different channels? And really kind of opening my mind up to all those different avenues, whether it be display advertising, email marketing, web, that kind of stuff.
Maurice Cherry: How is that different from, say, user centric design?
Alex Pierce: Yeah, user centric design, I’d say, and this is the kind of funny thing because I actually gave a talk about this I think a year ago, at the American Advertising Federation conference for kind of the Midwest or Texas area, Texas and Oklahoma. I forgot, it’s like district 11 or something like that. I think user centric versus brand centric sometimes there is a clash. I think the mistake that people make is that these goals are mutually exclusive. I think if you’re always designing for the user, you’re ultimately designing for those business goals as well. When you think brand centric in a more traditional sense, it’s really more traditional media, that kind of stuff and you kind of think about that one way communication. It’s really all about trying to deliver on the client’s or the brand’s goals and approaching that advertising creative or that digital creative in that context.
Alex Pierce: I think the mistake that we make is, just because … I guess the mistake that we make is, when we look at it from that lens, I think it’s easy to make mistakes or get so myopic and looking inside that bubble. Our job as creatives is to help them look outside of that bubble and really think about their customer and their consumer and the users that use their product or service or brand or whatever. When you’re doing research and learning about those people, you need to open yourself up to learning that, this and product design, I would say. Sometimes just through user testing and interviews and feedback, you learn that people use your product in unexpected and in amazing ways.
Alex Pierce: I actually saw an interview, I think the … Was it the Glitch cofounder? He was talking about why he loved Glitch and just all the cool, crazy shit that people make on the platform in just unexpected kind of ways. That’s kind of where my mind is, strategically, when I think about user centric versus brand centric. Just thinking about the user doesn’t mean being boring. It’s really thinking about the context of, like … and I always think about this and it sounds cynical, so stay with me here. I think about this in the context of, what value does this serve the user with? What value does this give the person whose product you want, the person that you want to use your product or brand or service? If you’re making like this cool crazy idea, ultimately, how does this serve them? Because for people, when we’re alone, by ourselves, using this in the comfort of our home, no one’s watching us, we’re selfish. I want this to benefit me in some way and I don’t want this to be some sort of masturbatory kind of thought experiment from a brand to try and win some awards because awards are cool, but at the end of the day it’s not creative if it doesn’t sell.
Maurice Cherry: It’s an interesting thing about awards. There was a while back on here, I’d say maybe … Oh God, I’m dating myself by saying about a hundred episodes ago, but it literally was about a hundred episodes ago when I was talking about awards and black designers winning awards and what awards actually mean. It’s so interesting now because the conversation around awards in the creative industry … this episode will come out kind of during the … I want to say the end of the awards season, I think, for creatives. When I say creatives, I’m lumping in music, television, films, kind of all into that. So many times we see work that is clearly chasing an award. We’ve all seen a trailer and we’re like, “Oh, they’re trying to win an Oscar.” We’ve all seen the thing that’s like, you can tell they’re trying to chase the clout that this particular award can get. I wonder often, one, what that is in service of. Yes, it’s in service of the award, but just because you get the award doesn’t necessarily mean that opens up a new level of understanding or what have you from that, but I’m just always interested in that because it’s something that we want those awards to validate to other people that the work that we do is worthy. Yet, everyone can’t win an award. So.
Alex Pierce: Yeah, I think for me … I’m going to go on a sidetrack in a little bit, but for … just to speak on that, I think talking internally, it’s like that vicious cycle, right? You hear about specifically an advertising industry where that kind of desire to win awards kind of goes wrong and you hear about campaign fraud, that kind of stuff, with companies and agencies or brands just putting out work and they’re buying a billboard for like one hour in the middle of the night to say that it’s published and to try and win awards and it’s a whole big controversy and you see cons trying to crack down on, in other words, that kind of thing.
Alex Pierce: You ask yourself like, “Well, why is it that people are trying to do this?” I think ultimately it comes down to money, right? I think it comes down to … and I don’t necessarily … I think it’s shady, don’t get me wrong, and it’s not great, but you think about why people enter award shows and I think ultimately it comes down to new business, at least from your thinking about a larger agency picture, why agencies wouldn’t enter into award shows. It’s about demonstrating to clients that we do work that gets noticed and we do work that is validated in the industry and work with us. I think that sounded like a very simplistic kind of surface level of the reason why, and then when you get down to the individual level, right? I think it also just comes down to, I want my work validated. I want people to know that I’m competent at my job. That being said-
Maurice Cherry: It all boils down to validation.
Alex Pierce: Yeah. Yeah. I think when you’re talking about Oscar season and stuff like that … and I have to talk about this, man, but did you see the Irishman?
Maurice Cherry: I have not seen the Irishman. I’ve heard a lot of talk about it, particularly just it’s runtime, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Alex Pierce: Oh my goodness. Oh my God, man. If there’s ever a movie, I felt like, that was chasing something, it was that. You see the memes about it, man. Just people just, “Yeah, it’s five days in and I still haven’t finished that movie.” I’m that guy. To be frank, it’s my fault. Frankly, I’ve … the last two times, I ate a Popeye’s chicken sandwich right before I started watching that movie and then I just kind of passed out and I woke up kind of sweating in the middle, so that’s kind of problematic. Then also I just felt like it was a meandering plot and then that face-aging technology that’s supposed to be all amazing. Robert De Niro did not look like he was in his twenties. I’m sorry. It just looked like they just smoothed Robert De Niro’s face. It look better when he was in his middle age. They were kind of showing the middle age, but anyway, that’s this whole rant. I could talk about that for a while, but we’re not here to talk about Robert De Niro and his smooth face and Irishman, but I just think about, it seems disingenuous.
Alex Pierce: I guess, when you see the ads and you see those ads come out and you see those ads that are clearly awards bait, it just feels disingenuous and it doesn’t feel like they made that creative for the actual end audience. They made it to speak to the judges, right? They make stuff for the judges and not for the people. I say that, like, I’m not some … I’m not the guy. I’m not some guy who’s supposed to be … who has all the answers. So, for anyone who’s listening to this and they’re thinking like, “Who’s this guy? I promise you, I don’t have all the answers.”
Maurice Cherry: Well, I have to butt in here now. We’re both members of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. We are also both current Webby Awards judges.
Alex Pierce: Yes.
Maurice Cherry: We kind of operate, I guess, a little bit on that level, but go ahead. Keep going. Keep going.
Alex Pierce: Yeah. No, you got me. You got me. No. Yeah. I think … and actually, I will … I don’t want to call out a brand but I … because I don’t know what agency did this, but I did something and I was just talking about it. So we had our holiday party last night and I made sure not to drink too much because I knew I had to do this today, but we were just talking about the Webbies and I think I need to actually get my judging entries done today at some point, but I was looking … Last year, I was looking at this one entry and it was for a popular bacon brand. I won’t say who, but it was crazy to me, man, because I looked at this and amazing technology. It was some sort of VR 3D website experience that you’re kind of exploring. It was very black and white and noir and very abstract.
Alex Pierce: Yes, man. I had no idea what was happening in this thing. All I saw was at the beginning because it was like a black label, bacon brand, whatever and I was looking at this. People are probably going to infer what that is, but whatever. I was looking at this and it was like … I’ll say this, the execution was amazing. It was cool, but I just couldn’t give it great marks because, well, one, from a navigation standpoint, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I was just like out exploring this world. I had no idea. I even wrote in the notes, “I have no idea what this has to do with bacon, but I guess this is kind of cool.” I was just thinking in my head like, “What? How did this creative director sell this?” Because I want to talk to him and learn his secrets because this website looked like it cost a million dollars to make and it had nothing to do with the brand whatsoever.
Alex Pierce: So that’s kind of what I was thinking. I’m like, “Who are you making this for? Are you making this for the user? Are you making this for the brand? Are you making this for yourself? What’s the motivation behind that?” That’s kind of where I was getting at. I think, because I think to a certain extent even judges have their limits, right? You’re just like, “Okay, what is this?”
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I need to start looking into what I’m going to, I guess submit as my picks, because I’ve been keeping track of a couple of campaigns and seeing what’s new and what’s interesting and what I feel like are interesting ways that people are using the social media tools that are out here. I see how different people use Instagram and Facebook and Twitter for different implementations, because I think it’s one thing, of course, to use it as intended, but sort of like how you said earlier, people will use these tools in all kinds of different ways. So, who’s using Instagram not just to post pictures, but like to post mini magazines?
Alex Pierce: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Things like that.
Alex Pierce: Did you see the adult swim, the Rick and Morty thing? That was amazing.
Maurice Cherry: No, I didn’t see that. What was it?
Alex Pierce: No, they, for their promo … I think this is last year, but they made their own Rick and Morty adventure experience. So you’re traveling. So, they made a bunch of different Instagram accounts that are all linked to each other and like they’re tagged to each other, so you’re basically traveling the different planets and universes through these Instagram accounts. It was so meticulously well done and I’m like, “How much time did they take to do this?” Because you’re looking at those Instagram grids for each of the profiles and you see the galaxy and you can zoom in to the planet and you can zoom out and go to-
Alex Pierce: You can zoom in to the planet and you can zoom out and go to different and… I’m like, “Man, this took a lot of time.” I don’t know, it’s just like people taking mediums and using them in unconventional ways always just fascinates me.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I’ve been saying that a lot on YouTube also. This kind of, almost choose your own adventures style of, I don’t want to call it videography. I don’t know if that’s really the best way to categorize it, but I’m thinking particularly about this show that I saw, it’s called A Heist With Markiplier. It like starts out with the intro video, Markiplier is trying to break into a bank, and for those who don’t know, Markiplier is a YouTube influencer guy. But he’s trying to break into a bank and then the video is short, maybe like 20, 30 seconds. Then you know how you can have annotations that will pop up on the screen so that you can choose, okay.
Maurice Cherry: Very similar to how Netflix did the Bandersnatch episode in Black Mirror, but it’s all done through YouTube videos. So you select what the right path is and there’s different endings, and I’m like, “That is really an ingenious way to look at how to even do something like this.” Because at least with YouTube you can sort of unlist all the videos so then you can’t really track what the right path is. It’s really interesting way to use the platform, but I think it also speaks to honestly, the disposability of these types of mediums. The fact that you can spin something up that quickly and easily for just that purpose and it can also be gone just that quickly.
Maurice Cherry: Actually, another interesting thing, and this actually might be one of my webipics, so I might be spoiling this, but the same guy Markiplier, him and this other guy Ethan, who’s a YouTuber, are doing this project called [Latin 00:01:45]. I think it’s Latin for one year. They’re going to release a video on YouTube every day for a year, and then once the year is up, they’ll delete everything. They’ve gotten already over a million subscribers, they’re selling March, doing all that sort of stuff. I’m interested to see what they are trying to get out of it. What the end goal is, because they’re both already YouTubers. They already make videos. So making more videos isn’t the point. I don’t know if it’s just a creative exercise.
Maurice Cherry: They’ve sort of implied that it speaks to the ephemerality of life and things like that. I’m interested to see where they go with this because you can tell as you, so I’ve watched all the videos cause I’m a dork. But you can tell that there’s an underlying slightly sinister theme that connects all the videos and I’m wondering if that will play out as the year plays out. I’m just interested to see where it goes from here and it’s those sorts of things that I really like seeing, brands and people take the tools that are given to you and use them in a way that no one would have expected.
Alex Pierce: Yeah. You’ve touched on something interesting, to be clear, I mean I think there’s, when you think about user centric, I also about using the medium as an art form, right? I think like as a creative exercise, so sometimes it’s what separates visual communication in graphic design from more fine art, right? It’s open the fine art aspect being a little bit more open to interpretation and it’s really meant to provoke a dialogue and discussion. It’s really all about the artist’s intentions and thinking and the message they’re trying to communicate. Visual communication touches on some of those subjects. But ultimately the idea is to communicate a clear message that a large group of people can understand. I don’t know, you touched on that, because sometimes entertainment is just entertainment and we don’t need to overthink it that much, but then there’s times when you actually need to service a specific goal.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. I want to go more into your design career, but first let’s take it back to the beginning. Where did you grow up? Was design a big part of your childhood and everything growing up?
Alex Pierce: Absolutely not. No. I think, it was just growing up it was me, my mom and my brother. My uncles played a big influence on my life. Two of my uncles were Army dudes, one Army, one Air Force. I even think when high school they were trying to get me to sign up when I was trying to figure out how am I going to pay for college? They’re like, “Air Force is the way, Army is the way.” I was like, “I do not have the discipline for either, so I’m going to get a student loan.” I think, what actually started me down, this whole path of creative exercise and graphic design is kindergarten. I think about this to this day. I love Garfield. Garfield basically got me to where I am today.
Alex Pierce: If you want to sum it up. Garfield, I love the cartoon Garfield. I was obsessed with it. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom would give me for my birthday, every year I think until maybe I was like a pre-teen or whatever. She would give me a Garfield book every birthday and I just was obsessed with it, I always try and draw Garfield cartoons and stuff like that. Then I got really into drawing and then for the longest time I swear to you I wanted to be a comic book artist. I wanted to be like Jim Lee. I wanted to be like, was it George Perez, I think that’s his last name. Jim Lee’s the one that comes to top of mind always because I loved his style or [Linelle Hue 00:00:27:38].
Alex Pierce: But I think I really obsessed with comic books. I still love comic books, it’s kind of a bad habit. I go through spurts of just buying a whole crap ton of comics, stacks of them. I just spent too much money and my girlfriend makes fun of me for it. But it’s fine, whatever. But I think for me I just love that medium, I love the storytelling, I love the art, the visuals and just the message and just the art form of it. Going through high school, I was in Houston, I grew up in Houston and Westfield High School and then I transferred. I had a, I would say it was a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air moment kind of situation.
Alex Pierce: I didn’t get into a fight at a basketball game and I got transferred. But my family we got help from a family member and we moved out to the Woodlands, which is a more affluent area and it was definitely a different world, right? Not a lot of black people up there in more the suburban area of Houston outside of Houston. But good schools and that kind of thing. I was on all the art classes and I actually got introduced to design from this teacher. God, forgive me, I forgot her name, but in high school she showed, it was like this digital design class or electronic media class or something like that.
Alex Pierce: We go in there and we use MS-DOS to make animations. I remember the first thing I ever did, we had an assignment to use Photoshop and this was old Photoshop, right? We had to use this, what was it like? I had to Photoshop myself into a picture and of course for some reason I chose to Photoshop myself into a Run-DMC album cover. I was obsessed with that after that and I was like, “Well drawing’s cool but I like this too.” I just went down the rabbit hole on that and just designing things. Then a person from SCAD came to the school to talk about all the different programs and of course, the thing I learned and the reason I didn’t get into comic book art man is, drawing comics is freaking hard.
Alex Pierce: If you don’t know this, I have a lot of respect for those guys because basically the program was called sequential art, which is basically just fancy for comics, right? But being able to do character study and drawing the same person from different angles and consistently, that’s very difficult apparently. But they had another program called the Visual Communication and Graphic Design Program. I was like, “What is that?” I learned a little bit more about it, I’m like, “This is really interesting.” Because I love computers, I love the technology of it, I love making things that people see and interact with and I just had really awesome time with it.
Alex Pierce: I decided to pursue that and actually looked at a few schools in the DFW area. I think University of North Texas is like, I don’t know if you knew this, but University of North Texas is one of the top design schools and at least the Southeast or whatever you want to call Texas Central area. At least in Texas it’s the design school to go to. [inaudible 00:30:57] has an amazing design program and it’s a public university. I went there and I just found the program to be not really what… It didn’t really seem like a right fit to me. So I went to actually, UTA and to this day he’s still my mentor, but Robbie McEwen, he was a professor in the design department at the time and I remember he had a Hummer, this huge hammer.
Alex Pierce: He took me and my mom around the campus and to this day I’m trying to think, “Why did he do that?” He took his time, drove us around the campus, he showed us the senior student work and I’m like, “I’m sold.” He’s cool dude, he looks like Santa Claus if you ever meet him in person. He’ll even joke about that himself, he’s an awesome guy, he’s the coolest guy ever. I learned so much from him over the years at that university and I owe a lot of what I am today to that guy because he really took me under his wing and he really taught me about design, about communication, about art versus design, that kind of stuff.
Alex Pierce: I would say, went a little tangent, but that’s my journey from kindergarten, drawing Garfield and reading Garfield comics to going to college, University of Texas at Arlington and getting a official design BFA degree there. Then getting my first job, which how I got my first job was actually very lucky because I graduated in the middle of the recession.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, it sounds like, I mean that’s when you knew that you could do this for a living, I guess at that point, right? When you saw the campus and saw the student projects and everything?
Alex Pierce: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. My mom and bless her, I think… This touches on a larger question and I would love to hear your thoughts on this, but in terms of why we don’t have more black people in the creative design industry. I have my own guesses, but I think it just comes down to opportunity and thinking that, “If I’m going to go to college, I need to go to college to learn a skill that will really make me money.” As a kid I loved animals and my mom was thinking I was going to be on some Dr. Dolittle stuff, right? I’ll be a veterinarian.
Alex Pierce: Because I told her I wanted to be a comic artist at first and she was like, “What?” She’s like, “Well, but you love our dog Hershey, right?” Our dog’s name is Hershey, our childhood dogs names. She’s like, “You love her, you love animals.” I’m like, “Yeah, I love animals but I don’t want to necessarily work with animals.” Then I think she saw, and when I was talking to her about majoring in graphic design, I didn’t go to college not knowing what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do and I was telling her Graphic Design Program and she’s looking at it and she was looking at how a graphic designer could make money. It isn’t necessarily a full on art degree, although I have respect for those people too, for sure. But she saw that and she said, “Oh okay, I’m okay with this. I’m okay with this.”
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Once she could see it, it’s like, “Okay, now I can get it.” To answer, I guess the question, I think that’s part of the answer is that the lack of visibility is why we don’t see more of us in the industry because it’s really a mix of things, right? First of all, it’s complete economics. In order to be really working in the creative industry, you need to know these industry standard tools, these tools are expensive. Folks don’t make a ton of money, so it’s like how are you going to get the money to get access to the tool? Then the time to learn the tool to get good at it, to then get jobs and then get in the industry. So it ends up being this pipeline situation.
Maurice Cherry: It’s lack of resources, lack of professional training. I would say even sometimes accurate information about the industry, getting into it. But also I think it’s a matter of visibility. As you stated before, your parents didn’t really see like, “Oh, this isn’t something that I want you to do because I can’t see you being successful or making money. You’re making a living from it.” Art ends up being treated as a hobby and not a profession and so oftentimes that lack of visibility into seeing the ways that you can get paid from this, is a reason that we’re not in the industry, I think.
Alex Pierce: I want to be very clear, my mother, Marsha, she does support me very much. Because he’s going to listen to this episode and I don’t want her giving me grief. My grandma gave me grief about this, she’s very supportive of me. She actually talks about me a lot to our co-workers. She features me on her timeline, which in my opinion is the biggest award of them all. So thank you mom. I love you. I obviously owe everything to her because I’m existing because of her, so just want to throw that out there. Thank you.
Maurice Cherry: But yeah. That’s probably a big reason into it. I mean, that’s something I’ve discovered honestly from doing the show is that for a lot of folks, they just weren’t exposed to it. They didn’t know that they could do this until much later on in life. After college, after working a few jobs and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I really like design and art and I can focus on this.” Or, “I really like coding and I can focus on that.” That being a part of the creative industry, it’s like the exposure and the visibility to this ends up happening at a time where for us, I think it ends up being just much later in life, than with other places where the viability of that as a profession is a much earlier and easier opportunity.
Maurice Cherry: I mean, as kids we’re all exposed to cartoons, drawing and art and painting at the same time. At least here in America, that’s part of the American primary school system. So how is it that there’s this huge bifurcation of people of one particular race or culture that are over index in the creative industry and then so many others that aren’t? What happens, where does that split happen? So, yeah.
Alex Pierce: Yeah. It’s tough because yeah, to your point, man, I didn’t think it was a thing that people… Intellectually, you know someone made that stuff but you don’t really think about it. Then you get a little bit older and then you just realize, yeah. I actually have Michael Beirut’s book on my desk right now and I’m going through and it’s just like, “Man, I can’t imagine doing anything else but this.” I realize I’m in a position of privilege that maybe people of of the same race as me are not in the same, really or they don’t see that opportunity because of socioeconomic factors or the fact that there hasn’t been exposure or in terms of just education in the arts program, that kind of stuff. Or the fact that, thinking about how to get into that, it might be too late. I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers on that. That’s a larger topic that I’m assured that you are definitely tackling at the AIG level.
Maurice Cherry: Well, I mean it’s one of those answers that just has many layers to it. There’s no simple answer to the question. There’s so many layers as to how that happens, so yeah. Now you said you graduated in the middle of a recession, but you got your first working design gig, working for your school. You were working for University of Texas in Arlington. What was that like?
Alex Pierce: Working for UTA, it was exactly what you think you would be. Now, I mean it was a great job. I think in high school and one of the things that I did in high school as I worked for Kroger, I was a sacker all through high school. As soon as I was old enough to get a job, my mom was like, “You going to Kroger.” Because Kroger was one of the few companies that hired 14 year olds. You have to wear a special name badge to indicate that your managers can’t abuse you. But, I mean you can’t work extra hours and stuff like that. But I worked there and then I just remember thinking, I learned how to deal with people and I guess that I still think about that.
Alex Pierce: I wasn’t a waiter or a server, I didn’t work in the food service industry, but I worked in a different thing that I dealt with people. A lot of different types of people every day and working in that environment, one thing I did learn is, I definitely did not want to work at Kroger during college. I wanted to try and do something that can help hone my skills and learn more about the profession I wanted to get into. Actually before that, I think a little bit of overlap, I actually worked at The Shorthorn, which is the college newspaper and it’s actually a pretty big newspaper, pretty award winning.
Alex Pierce: I was a page designer, a layout artist and then I also did illustration, cartoon editorial illustrations and stuff like that. Obviously it is a school job, so I think I got paid like 90 bucks every two and a half weeks. That was not sustainable for me. So that’s why I looked at getting into the design program. I applied to different departments but they are the ones who finally hired me and really I just managed just vendor relationships and stuff like that and making assets, helping student events, making all the graphics and displays for that.
Alex Pierce: I think my proudest moment was, I got to make a label for a water bottle that they were handing at events. I don’t know if that’s kosher to say today, necessarily making labels for water bottles and the plastic is choking our ocean or something like that. But I think at the time I was like, “Oh, I got to make a little label for a water bottle. That’s cool.” But I think I just got experience with a lot of different types of mediums. I got to work on web work, I got to do email stuff, I got to do website stuff. I got to do packaging and print stuff. It was all just kind of like a generalist initial exposure.
Alex Pierce: That being said, I mean, I was a designer and I didn’t really have any design mentors in that program. I just was really working and getting mentorship and guidance from my actual design teachers and professors in that. When I mentioned Robbie McEwen, which he’s awesome dude. So I was learning that along the way, but I was working in a corporate little office environment. I was in a cubicle way in the back, it was almost like a closet. I shared and office with [inaudible 00:41:52] smell like pancakes, it was really weird. That was definitely in my first [inaudible 00:41:56] into professional design and learning about how my design decisions affect other people.
Maurice Cherry: I’m going to show you a photo, and I want you to first describe this photo to the audience and then I want you to tell me the story behind it and the feedback. So I’m going to show you the photo now if you want to take a look at it.
Alex Pierce: Okay. Oh boy. Yeah. This photo, I’m wearing my Bob’s Burger t-shirt. I am clean shaven for the most part, I didn’t have my beard yet. But it’s like a me of my feature and net magazine. This is like back in 2017, I believe. Yeah. I’m holding just the cover art for the article, the featured article, diversity in design. It’s an article I wrote talking about how to be more inclusive in your design and UX and visual design overall experience for people, audiences, users, that kind of stuff. I’m in my agency’s office and I actually had my co-worker Ale, short for Alejandra.
Alex Pierce: She actually took a photo of me, she’s one of the art directors on my team. She took a photo of me and she actually forced me to do this whole photo shoot. This was one of like 50 photos at different angles. You could actually, in one of the other photos there’s actually a scene of one of our junior art directors at the time, she’s way in the background and she’s rolling her eyes and she’s just very fuzzy and we still make fun of that to this day. But yeah, I was like a really proud moment of me. I bought like 10 issues. I sent a couple to my mom because she had requested them. But yeah, that was a really proud moment for me.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. What was I guess the feedback behind it? As I’m looking at the image and I’ll make sure to include this in the show notes so people can take a look at it too. But it says diversify your design. Five steps to diversify your UX design.
Alex Pierce: Yeah. Do you-
Maurice Cherry: … steps to diversify your UX design?
Alex Pierce: Yeah. Do you mean feedback in terms of what people were saying about it or what I was [crosstalk 00:44:07]?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, about the article and everything. Yeah.
Alex Pierce: Overall, I had a lot of positive feedback. I think the thing was just people… You hear a lot of people getting on their soapbox talking about diversity is important, diversity is important. For me, I’ve always been a very practical person in terms of how I approach things, in terms of how I approach things in my professional and personal life. If you know me in real life, you know if someone were to ask me, “Hey, we’re going to go out to this lunch spot. You want to go?” And my first question, and they know this, is, “What’s the parking situation? Because if the parking situation ain’t good, I’ll see you all later.” I have to think about that.
Alex Pierce: But in this context, for diversifying your design, for me, I wanted to do something that was very practical like, “okay, yeah, I need to be more diverse in how I’m thinking about approaching my work, my creative work, but how do I actually do that? What’s some simple initial steps that I could do?” And like I said, I don’t promise to be the guy who has all the answers, but I just thought this is actually kind of a therapeutic piece for me to do. Because actually, it was funny because how I got into doing that article was I had reached out to NetMag and I was saying, “Hey, I did my Black in History Tumblr site.”
Alex Pierce: And for people who don’t know the Black History thing, I did a Black in History Tumblr, which it’s still up, it’s still live, blackinhistory.tumblr.com. And it was basically about just game changers, figures that have affected everyone’s lives, not just black people’s lives, and they’ve fallen through the cracks. So I just think about an entry that uniquely talks about this person and I put that to them and they’re like, “Man, this is great. We’re going to feature this as a side project of the month.” I’m like, “Oh that’s great.” And they’re like, “Also, hey, our issue’s on diversity. So maybe if you can write a feature about that, you have two weeks.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I’m like, “I’m definitely not turning it down.”
Alex Pierce: But I got advice from my fellow copywriter colleagues and just friends and I interviewed coworkers and colleagues, my bosses to get a really holistic view, because I definitely wanted not only to talk about diversity, but have a little bit of diversity in the thought and opinions about how to approach that from.
Alex Pierce: So I have five different steps. So it’s the first one, just understanding that it’s the right thing to do. I think a lot of people call it PC Culture, and I don’t think it’s PC Culture to think holistically about your audience. I think it’s opening your mind up to the fact that not everyone who uses your product or uses that brand looks exactly like you or lives exactly like you.
Alex Pierce: And then I think it’s just stop being lazy. I think as designers, especially when you’re in the grind, the daily grind of things and stuff like that, it’s easy to get caught up and just go to your go-to sources, that kind of stuff. So just learning to actually force yourself to take a step back and think about, “What am I doing? Am I representing this product the right way? Is this the actual thing I need to show or the say or to write?” et cetera. And then just the other ways to do it through visuals, so advice around photo shoots, video, that kind of stuff. Doing it through copywriting, so using inclusive language and strategy around that.
Alex Pierce: And then UX, obviously there’s a lot of talk lately around accessibility and then just overall thinking around inclusion in your user experience design, and I think that’s been a big conversation these last few years around that. Then just the last thing, selling it to clients, which is sometimes actually surprisingly, well, actually maybe not surprisingly difficult to do, especially if they think it’s a counterintuitive to maybe what they think their audience is or their own envisioning of their goals for the brand.
Maurice Cherry: What do you think is the most important skill that a designer needs to possess these days?
Alex Pierce: God. Man. I think it’s a combination of two things. I would say first and foremost, it’s cliche answer, but empathy. But to get specifically around this, because I had actually a designer reach out to me and ask me, “What’s an important skill set?” And I actually told them this, this guy. I said, “The most important thing you could have this self-awareness actually.”
Alex Pierce: I think self-awareness is always the first step in making some good decisions. I think being self-aware of your position of who you are as a person and how people perceive you, how you present things, how you talk about things, your creative design decisions. I think you take a step back and you objectively look at yourself and you learn about maybe you have some unconscious biases, and I think that’s where the empathy and the self-awareness combine to each other.
Alex Pierce: But I think it’s really more of a soft skill, I would say, but it also lends itself into actual creative skill in my opinion, too.
Maurice Cherry: Now, you mentioned the Black in History on Tumblr. That’s actually when we first talked seven years ago. I think you had just started that project or it had been out for a little while. I don’t recall, but I know that that was a project that you ended up getting a good bit of acclaim from. I think even got a Webby, not an award, but you got a Webby mention.
Alex Pierce: Honoree, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Honoree. That’s the word I’m looking for, Webby Honoree for that. Is there another dream project that you would love to do?
Alex Pierce: I think about this a lot. I think for that it was just something that came up. My family liked to joke about that every time during the holiday seasons or during some sort of special season event. You see all the brands put out some R&B music and show black people doing stuff with their products. And it just got me thinking like, “Man …” Or in Black History Month, right, just where it just becomes so myopically focused on just a few key characters. And it turned into that.
Alex Pierce: For me, I don’t know. I’m still exploring that to be honest. There’s a lot of things I’d like to approach in a dream project for me. And maybe if people see my Instagram, you’ll know this about me. I love food. I love everything about the … I love making food more accessible to people. I think for me that’s a dream project for me to work on.
Alex Pierce: Another thing, and I’ve been getting more and more into this, I’ve been exploring it, but I love games. I love video games, which sounds like a typical nerdy black guy thing to say. But I love video games and I would love the idea of working on interactive experience, gaming interactive experience, maybe using pixel or I don’t know. I’ve been getting into pixel art lately, as you might know. And actually, what got me thinking about that is I saw something, I think it was on A Awards or I can’t remember, but it was this guy who did this interactive side scroller or pixel art game about is Japan cool, and he gave this history of Japan and I think talking about Nintendo and that kind of stuff. And it’s this interesting interactive side scrolling experience I can’t remember the name of. It’s killing me.
Alex Pierce: But I don’t know. It just got me thinking, “What a cool, educational way to talk about something and make it engaging too.” And I don’t know. I like the idea of making an interactive game and getting deeper into that. I’m not a developer myself, at least not first and foremost. I know enough development to be very dangerous. That’d be something for me to explore, getting deeper into the interactive space.
Maurice Cherry: What is it that inspires you these days? How do you keep that creative spark going?
Alex Pierce: For me, it’s just I learned a long time ago not to get invested in my work so much that my identity is wrapped up in my job, because I think once you start doing that, it’s easy to get burnt out or get depressed about certain things or … Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t get any fulfillment out of your job, but I think it’s really important for you to try and discover personal interests outside of that.
Alex Pierce: And for me, what inspires me, and it sounds, once again, simple, but I just like going on the internet and just looking at cool shit. I like looking at Sidebar, I like all the inspiration blogs, but then I just also think about what are ways for me to explore something and take it back into my work at the office. I like to explore different technologies. I like to do things.
Alex Pierce: But in my personal life, what actually inspires me is I love to read actually. I love reading science fiction. I love reading novels. I am actually in a book club. I’m in a book club and people are going to be like, “Okay, that’s all right. Wow, that’s fancy. That’s hoity-toity.” No. We meet at a bar and we talk about our book. We’re half in the bag before we actually start talking about the book. But I think for me it’s just helped me expose myself.
Alex Pierce: And you know the designer, what’s his name, Tobias van Schneider, I think? The guy behind Semplice and he’s the guy at Spotify. I remember him saying how he gets his inspiration from people outside of the industry and how little he talks to people in the design industry. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I think it is useful to live outside your bubble and just sometimes taking a step away from the screen. And I’m very technology focused, so I’m not saying, Put down your phones. Rah, rah, rah.” I’m saying just find things that you enjoy and have fun with, and I think you can learn how to connect those things together.
Alex Pierce: For instance, I did a thing a few years ago. It’s one of my actually things on my case studies, but I did this thing called, “We Lunchin’, Bro,” which is just an in-office term of just, Where we going for lunch, man? What are we doing?” And my old creative director, he made this word document of just lunches or lunch spots or restaurants in the area, that kind of thing. And I thought, “Okay, this is interesting. So how can I take that and make something a little bit more accessible and interactive for people to help make better decisions during lunch?” And I did that on my own time for the office and I made it a thing. I made it a little mobile website and it was fun to do that. But it’s just one of those things where I’m taking something from another part of my life and seeing how can I apply my own personal skillsets to enhance the experience for me.
Alex Pierce: So that’s where I come from, how do I find inspiration? I have my passions and interests and hobbies and I think about how can I inject that into my own creative mind a little bit.
Maurice Cherry: So what does success look like for you at this point in your career?
Alex Pierce: Success? I think success looks like I’m working on stuff I want to work on. I think success for me is I think having good synergy with your team. For me, I think it’s about … Man, that’s a tough question.
Alex Pierce: Success, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. But I would say I love where I’m at right now in terms of my team. I think success is me continuing to learn, and I think this is one of the things I tell people on my team all the time, which is, especially in our industry, in our field, interactive work, you always have to be learning. You always have to stay on top of things. And I just have that passion around just making sure that I am moving ahead. And success to me looks like I always have something on the horizon, I always am looking forward to the future, I have something that is fulfilling my creative passions and desires. And people might recognize that. Maybe they don’t. I would guess success would be that people do recognize it, I guess, maybe formally or informally or whatever.
Alex Pierce: But for me, and I think this is a long time ago I said this, for me success is me making something that people get a use or enjoy out of, whether that be functionally, whether that’s an app or product or tool, making products that outlive me would be great. But obviously, as we talked about, sometimes especially interactive design can be ephemeral and doesn’t last forever. But I think making things that serve a purpose or function and I want to make experiences that people enjoy. And yeah, that’s where I would leave it at. I think just getting some sort of satisfaction out of people utilizing whatever I make to serve their goals or needs.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Well, it’s 2020. It’s like the future now, which is … it’s so wild to think about. But where do you see yourself in the next five years? In 2025, what will Alex Pierce be working on or what do you want to be working on?
Alex Pierce: Maybe I’m designing a website for the first hoverboard. I don’t know. Right now, I’m currently an associate creative director and I love where I’m at right now. I love the mentorship and guidance as well as still being hands on. I think five years now, I think I’m still doing both those things, maybe at a higher scale, hopefully at a higher scale or larger level. I think my goals are just continuing to just do cool work. Just remember that, for me, we’re so lucky to do the work that we do.
Alex Pierce: A lot of people, for them, you want to make sure that, I want to be clear about this. A lot of people, their job is not their career or their first passion. Sometimes, a job is just a job and everything outside of that, that’s what they … they go to work to earn money to live their life. And that’s perfectly fine and that’s great. And for me, we’re lucky because we get to take our passions and our creative thinking and we go to work and we get to express that. And I used to joke not a lot of people can go to work and their job is to just dick around on the internet.
Alex Pierce: My brother, he’s like a super genius. My brother, he has like three degrees and he’s a VP over at … he’s actually in Atlanta actually. He’s a VP over at Citi, and he’s a math genius, a math nerd, a math whiz. He was a mathlete in high school. Oh, hey, congrats. For him, he tried to explain to me his job once and it just flew over my head. I got a lot of good grades in college, but math was not one of those classes I got great grades in, unlike you, which you’re apparently a creative genius and a math genius.
Maurice Cherry: Well, let’s not go that go that far. But no, go ahead.
Alex Pierce: I’m just grateful for working on stuff that a lot of people … and I want to make sure that people don’t take that for granted, especially if there’s a takeaway from this, is that don’t take what you’re doing so seriously. Some people are like, “Oh, we’re doing work that’s going to change the world.” Yeah, there’s certain … design does have a very important impact on people’s lives. And I think that’s one of my goals, to have my design work impact people’s lives in a positive and in an meaningful, impactful way.
Alex Pierce: But I think at the same time, sometimes you just want to make people smile. Sometimes you want to just entertain people. Sometimes you’re just wanting to have fun. And that’s what I did with my portfolio site. That was the goal. It’s not for everybody, but I made something that … And I remember one comment from a designer on Twitter. He was just like, “Thank you for making personal sites fun again.” And granted, there’s certain flaws with the site, I think from an overall maybe architecture standpoint, but I think the goal for me was just to experiment and have fun and just do cool stuff. And I want to keep being able to do that. And I think that’s something I want people to remember, just we’re really lucky. Just have fun and don’t take yourself so seriously and …
Maurice Cherry: So just to wrap things up here, Alex, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?
Alex Pierce: They can go to my personal site, TheGeekDesigner.com. I’m on Instagram quite a bit. It’s at AlexJamalPierce, all together, lower case obviously. And then I am also on Pinterest, strangely enough. So if you want to see some random recipes that I like, go on Pinterest. I think it’s Alex Jamal Pierce, Pinterest, something like that. If you see a black guy’s face, and I have glasses and a beard, it’s probably me. So, yeah.
Alex Pierce: Then I also still have my Black in History Tumblr up and going. It’s been a little lapsed since I put any entries in, so I need to get back into the flow of things for that. But if you want to check that out, there’s that too. But otherwise, I’ll be at home trying to finish The Irishman. Pray for me on that. I probably won’t. I’m probably going to watch that Six Underground movie that just dropped by Michael Bay. So-
Maurice Cherry: Isn’t that wild how we can binge watch a whole series of a show, but then a three and a half hour movie is too long?
Alex Pierce: Yeah man. I was [inaudible 01:01:55] in that Avengers End Game movie, so I can sit through a long movie, but you got to give me something, man. You got to give me something.
Maurice Cherry: All right. Well, Alex Pierce, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Well, first, I think thank you for, I guess I would say coming back on Revision Path. Like I said before, you’ve been on here before seven years ago, which is wild to think I’ve been doing this now for seven years. My God.
Alex Pierce: I’m impressed. That’s [crosstalk 01:02:24]. I’m glad to be an OG.
Maurice Cherry: OG. Yeah. Well, I think it’s been good to see not only your growth as a designer and really your growth in your career, but also to see how you uniquely approach projects, as you were talking about brand-centric design and user-centric design. I think it’s that level of intelligence about the field and about the work that more people need to see, I think just from us in general.
Alex Pierce: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: And hopefully, that will inspire more people to want to get involved, even in some small way. Like you said before, you want people to not take themselves so seriously. But I think it’s important to show that there are folks that are in this industry that can bring that level of play to their work, but also be very serious and smart about it too. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Alex Pierce: Thank you. I’m glad to be back.