This week, we are kicking off a new series that will be complimentary to our Emerging Voices series. Titled Emerging Leaders, this interview series will feature educators, mentors and industry leaders who are investing their time and resources into guiding the next generation of designers.
Hello Douglas! I am SO excited to get to do this interview with you, following our previous week’s collaboration with your department alums at City Tech! Can you share a bit about yourself for the people?
I’m excited to be included. Thank you. Well, first and most importantly, I’m Jonathan’s dad. This is my first interview since his first birthday so I’m dedicating this to him. So the first thing to know about me is that it ain’t Brooklyn if there’s no shoutouts. Shoutout to #LilJon. On the professional side I’m a Strategist, Author and Professor, but the role I’m most proud of is, advocate for inclusion.
I hope that setup will provide the starting point for our conversation.
You’ve talked about the power of origin stories before. Why is it so important for people–and brands–to get this right? Also, can you expand upon what you shared above?–What is the origin story of Douglas Davis?
Yes. We’re all familiar with our favorite Marvel Superhero backstories, but all of us have a story about the path we took to get to where we are. It’s important that we tell these stories as individuals, because the path is seldom straight, and usually full of setbacks due to insecurities, fear, or lack of resources. In my view, it would be irresponsible if after making it to mid-career and beyond, creatives stayed silent about what we had to overcome when we cross paths with young designers. This is why how you got here is more important for people. There’s someone on the path behind you about to quit that doesn’t know they’re on the path.
[When it comes to brands] it’s important because the heritage gives creatives something to explore when it’s time to tell the brand’s story.
My personal origin story is that I’m the professor who had no plans to attend college. My high school guidance counselor did not have one conversation about college with me. 11th grade summer, after a childhood of watching the men and women in my small town community work hard and still come up short, I understood that I could either make a living with my head or my back, and I wasn’t the strongest. So I decided that if I didn’t go to college, I wanted it to be because I didn’t want to, vs I couldn’t go. There’s a difference. So I took the SAT 3 times to get the best score that I could get, but by graduation, I still had no plan.
Then, one day after graduation, when I was volunteering with an organization called The Urban League, I stumbled onto a conversation about Hampton University.
And I remember the Vice President of Recruitment and Admissions saying, “If you have the college requirements, you should apply.” And at that moment, I was so thankful that I had the option to apply, because I made the choice to prepare for the next phase, even though I didn’t have a plan, I did plan to have options.
But get this: When I got to Hampton, I had planned to major in Fashion Merchandising but they phased that major out, so I said, “I like art but I’ve never done this Graphic Design/Photography thing. So I’ll do that.”
The moral of my origin story is: having options is important, because they’ll set the tone for the options you’ll have in the future. But if I didn’t share how I got into design or even college, young designers could look at my successes, not seeing any of my failures, put me on a pedestal and fill in the blanks on their own about how I got here. Usually with an assumption that I was always successful or that it was somehow easy for me. The worst part about that, other than its not true, is that it removes my most powerful teaching tool: the ability to say, “I’m not different from you. And if I can do it, then so can you. I’m just waiting to see if you will.”
What is remarkable to me about your story is that it isn’t simply a story about a designer. It’s a story about grit. What does grit mean to you?–What does it mean to slay dragons?
Grit is a metric that makes most qualified people of color invisible in the algorithms and dashboards HR uses to recruit in corporate America. Grit isn’t on their radar.
Grit is applying to a graduate design program at Pratt, without owning or having money for a computer, and staying up all night in the computer labs or using your friend’s computer to do your work while they sleep, and in the morning, when they wake up, you go to sleep.
Grit is losing your job in the .com bust and working at the Gap folding sweaters, or stocking DVDs while applying to every job, on the job sites every night, calling your leads at 1am to leave a message, so that in the morning when they get in, your voice is the first one they hear. So when they return your call and you’re folding sweaters, you return their calls while on your 15 minute break from folding sweaters.
Grit is saying to yourself, “I don’t care what happens, I ain’t goin’ home” at 17. But when defying all odds and making it despite every obstacle that isn’t seen or valued.
There are deep talent pools that go unnoticed. And at the same time, this is the source of my greatest pleasure when in my capacity as Chair of the B.F.A. in Communication Design at New York City College of Technology. We take Grit and make diamonds with the ideas our students produce. If you’ve ever wondered how you go from underestimated threat in the room, to threat in the room, the answer is: you go to City Tech.
I say this last part because the recent Tech trend of not requiring a degree doesn’t help those at the bottom or middle of the socio-economic spectrum who need the degree to gain the confidence that their wealthy competition was born into. The fear of being less than, or not having design pedigree in your origin story is sometimes what scares young designers of color out of pushing forward. So dragon slaying is finding the fear, acknowledging it, and moving toward it with the intention of turning your weaknesses into a strength. Fear is a dragon that won’t shut up. To silence it means you have no other choice but to slay.
You have a saying. “Real recognizes real.” — How do you recognize and cultivate grit in others?–particularly your mentees and students? Why is it important as a leader to help recognize and cultivate “concrete roses,” so to say?
I cultivate grit by teaching with a hand full of sand. And when a student or young designer asks me any form of “Tell me what to do,” I throw some of it in their eyes when I respond, “You paid for the questions, not the answers. So based on the problem, you tell me what you should do.” Ultimately, I never tell my students the answer, but I do remind them that our clients will come to them with various forms of the same request (“Solve my problem”), and they’ll need to work through ambiguity to arrive at multiple viable solutions. So I cultivate grit by using questions, frustration and expecting them to lead. That’s my recipe for giving my team everything they need to survive because I won’t be there at their job but I can walk with them to #getit.
I hope that HR or recruiters are reading this because recognizing grit takes deciding to recruit at schools like City Tech or California State Northridge or University of Texas Arlington to name a few. You recognize grit by deciding to seek out the schools that are removing barriers because they’re the public path to a creative career. So recognizing where grit is, is easy… Just go to the programs that don’t have the visibility, or charge the tuition of private design programs and you’ll find grit. Remember, when a student didn’t come from money, money isn’t their first thought as the solution. That student has to think her way out of a problem. And that’s who I want on my team. All I do at that point is build trust over time by convincing them that they don’t need me. I see my students because I came from that same lack of resources. They see me because I believe about them, what they don’t yet believe about themselves.
Can you tell us about your journey into teaching?–what does it mean to teach at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge?
I began teaching at 25 during the dot.com recession while I was freelancing and folding sweaters. I thought I’d start teaching at 35 or so, but I pretty much had a dual career out of the gate because I began working at 22 before graduating Pratt a year later. I’m fortunate that the department Chair, Professor Emeritus Joel Mason and Professor Emeritus, now Councilman, Bob Holden, took a chance on a 25 year old kid. I walked in, showed my portfolio, and started teaching typography to students that were my same age and in most cases older than me. I’ve always found myself one of the—if not the—youngest, in most professional scenarios. But 20 years later, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. So glad black don’t crack.
You’re among the youngest members of your school’s faculty, yet you are also the chair of your department. The thing is: while this may seem like an anomaly to someone from the outside, it is far from an anomaly in your life. Anyone who is familiar with your work would know that you are both an early adapter and a leader wherever you go. That said, what I have noticed for myself in my own career is that the climb to the top can become quite lonely if you are not careful. Do you have any advice for young emerging professionals about how to navigate workplace politics, corporate structures and ladders, etc.? What kinds of values and mindsets should they keep in mind as they grow in their careers?
This is an important question. The advice I give all my students or young designers, is to focus on the work. All the other stuff is a distraction. The premise being, that if they zero in on why they’re in the room–which is to solve a client problem–then all the gossip or bias still exists, but their relentless focus on the quality of the work will enable them to work with insecure partners or in a sea of gossip, day by day until you’ve proven to yourself, and everyone else, that you’re the real threat in the room and they should be watching you. The dynamic changes over time with that respect. Then, when you’re done, you can keep it movin’. But this is hard for designers at any age because it requires an ability to concentrate only on what matters. Long game. I honestly can’t be sure if I was discriminated against or had someone pass me over as a creative because of my race. I was too busy sharpening my knives, hunting heads and swinging the hammer (in the lab working on my craft).
However, as you mentioned, after reaching a different altitude in the industry, I have had to become more aware of the politics, and that informs, not dictates, how I move. I can, without a doubt put my finger on instances in the ivory tower where I was underestimated because of my age or not taken seriously because of my methods. I can report that the doubt didn’t linger. Play long game. Overall, my advice to creatives or professionals at any level, is to remember that you’re competing with how good you were the last time, not anyone else in the room. Prove to yourself that you can do it and you’ll sleep soundly while others around you are afraid.
You are a part of many boards and founding teams. Can you share a bit more about this experience? How can an emerging designer/professional join boards and/or help support boards? Why is it important for professionals to join boards, as opposed to just focusing on growing inside of their organization? (in terms of community building, networking, etc.)?
In the open I mentioned that I’m an advocate for inclusion and my board/founding team experiences are situations where you may not see me or know that I had a hand in influencing or opening a door. To date I’ve helped found two New York City High schools in my 11 years of work with the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies). I now sit on their Foundation Board and I’m proud of the work we’ve done to open doors and increase the variety of voices in front of and behind the concept. That’s my personal mission and it’s how I determine if I can align myself with an organization.
I do my best to walk the talk, and it’s validating when someone recognizes this, but I don’t need it [the recognition] because ultimately I do it for the young designer who’ll take my place. In my opinion, that’s why designers must decide to concern themselves with what goes on beyond the creative team.
I believe strongly that designers must learn to write so that they can lead the client and inspire through thought leadership. So my advice to young designers is: find a cause you believe in and use your super powers to recommend the story they could be telling (This is how I showed up at AIGA and became your Co-Chair Phim).* Especially now that times are a bit dark in America, we need leadership and I’m looking at creatives to use their influence to make change.
It’s more important now than it’s ever been so being on a board—when you’re ready to contribute on that level—is all about using your influence to make an impact.
Speaking of impact, you’ve said “Moving forward is the only option. Standing still is the only enemy.” What does this mean, in the context of investing in career opportunities?
When I’m training young talent, this is usually in the context of some personality issues that arise from the team dynamics. Distractions are a barrier to moving forward and as long as you’re focused on being better than you were last time then you’ll make progress. Designers: You don’t have to babysit each other’s kids or give each other a pint of blood, but if the impact of any personality challenges or conflicts negatively affect the quality of the work, you’re gonna have problems. Students: Commencement is your first day of school because that’s when you will commence to paying your bills with what you have in your head. Remember, there’re teachers all around you. They come in the form of failure or difficult circumstances or your coworkers. The only way you’ll see clearly enough to recognize them is if you’re clear on what the enemy really is. But lastly, If you don’t remember anything else, remember “#getit” is part goal setting and part action. There’s only one speed. Push.
Lastly: Progress is important but then so are ethics. They’ve become a main topic of conversation in the design zeitgeist. How can we set good intentions professionally?
Well I’ve always learned the right way from watching an example teach me with their actions. That was true when watching my mother who taught passively as I observed what she did, and also true from listening to my grandmother, who taught actively by instructing us to “always have time for old people” or to be “[h]umble.”
These teachers helped shape my values and were my guidelines when I went too far because I’ve always liked to #flossdaily. I say that to say, ethics are relative, but what’s universal is that they’re taught first at home–good or bad–by example.
I think those in our profession who’ve reached the point where the public wants to know the voice behind the concept should remember: whether actively or passively, we’re teaching because they’re watching.
Just as everyone has their personal boundaries, we should all know what our professional boundaries are. The challenge is to remember that, as you grow, you’ll discover many of your boundaries as they’re crossed. For instance, I was a full blown alcoholic and into using drugs before leaving for Hampton at 17 and by the time I got to Pratt at 21, I was a blackout drinker. So when I entered the industry at 22, I worked on a lot of alcohol brands (I never once mixed my use with my creative work. Focus). By the time I got help at 24, I was clear with my headhunters not to call me for alcohol, tobacco or military accounts. Secondly, though my father was a Marine and many in my family have served or are active military, my personal preference was not to utilize my super powers for those things. Ultimately my personal ethics informed my professional practice and to anyone reading this, there’s nothing wrong with drinking but I didn’t have self control, therefore it wasn’t right for me. That’s the decision I had to make.
We set good intentions by first being honest with ourselves and then making an effort to align our actions with that truth. Though you’ll also need to give yourself patience, the only way to have an effect on the profession is to start with yourself.
*Douglas was interviewed by his National AIGA Diversity & Inclusion Emeritus Co-Chair Phim Her for this interview, on behalf of the National AIGA EMERGE Content Team.