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Ep 7: Illustrating Equity with Angelica McKinley

I sit down with Angelica McKinley, who is currently a Creative Director at Google. She has such an array of experiences that go from design and writing for the New York Times, coding, and communication design. In this episode, we’ll talk about what equity in illustration means and the important role it plays as brands need to have a point of view on social issues and set courses of action to address them.

Ep 7: Illustrating Equity with Angelica McKinley

About

Angelica McKinley

As one of the founding members of Slack’s web design team for brand, I’ve led the implementation and final visual design for the redesigned Slack.com; created a responsive modular design system that makes building landing pages and new components faster; and mentored our web design team on improved craftsmanship and consistency.

References

Full Text Transcript

Harrison:

Hey, I just launched the new YouTube channel for technically speaking. There will be three things you'll need to do. Head to youtube.com, search for technically speaking and hit the subscribe button. Invite your friends, family, or the whole neighborhood while you're at it and tell them to subscribe. The mic is hot, Angelica.

Angelica:

The mic is hot.

Harrison:

My name is Harrison Wheeler and you're listening to Technically Speaking. Welcome to another episode of Technically Speaking, a podcast about design and the human experience. I sit down with Angelica McKinley, who is currently a creative director at Google. She has had such an array of experience around design, even writing for the New York Times, coding, and communication design. I mean, she knows her stuff. In this episode we'll talk about specifically what equity in illustration means and the important role that it plays as brands need to have a point of view on social issues. If you've ever seen the doodles on Google as of late, which I'm sure you have, you can probably trace it back to her. We'll touch on the impact of the work that she did on Juneteenth and the responsibility and impact that it carried for her.

Angelica:

This project for Juneteenth was a lot. I think it was pressure, not only just for myself, of just the standard I hold myself to, but just like how momentous this time is. And then this holiday within this time.

Harrison:

Angelica, welcome to the show. How you been?

Angelica:

I'm doing good. How are you, Harrison?

Harrison:

I'm good. I'm good. It's been an eventful three months, but you know we're trucking through it.

Angelica:

It has been a year in three months. 2020 really laid some bricks on us. Some good ones in terms of some hope for the future, some hope for some change, but it's been a very emotionally tough year. But I'm happy to be here with you and for us to just be having this conversation at the same time.

Harrison:

Well, I'm glad that you're here. How long have you been out in the Bay area?

Angelica:

I've been in the Bay area for about three years now. Actually, yeah, I just had my third year anniversary in April and it has been a lot. I've learned a lot. For me, it's definitely been an experience. I mean, I started kind of my career at 100 year old institutions called newspapers, for people who may not know what those are, but now they're called media organizations. But yeah, I started off there and to then especially start my tech and Bay area journey with a startup by working at Slack, it was definitely a change.

Harrison:

If you had one word, how would you summarize that pivot?

Angelica:

One word. I think I would say...

Harrison:

Three, three words [inaudible 00:03:32]

Angelica:

Yes. Help me out. Throw me a little bone. I would say in three words, the pivot was transformational and eye opening.

Harrison:

How so?

Angelica:

Eye opening because, just being a black person in tech, they really started to hit home to me. I was like, Oh, I can now actually see with my eyes, what people are talking about. And I think that was important. And it's also made me realize that how sometimes media organizations cover California is maybe not as well balanced as we would like for it to be.

Harrison:

You mentioned that you'd worked at the New York times. You've moved out here. I've seen you work at organizations like Slack, Apple, and now you're working at Google. I mean, what has that been like? I mean, you're looking at writing, you're looking at coding, illustration, marketing. How do you maintain these different sort of skills on different mediums and platforms?

Angelica:

I think that's a really cool question. One of the things that I do credit to starting in editorial design and illustration is that kind of scrappy nature that we talk about in tech from startups. There were a lot of opportunities for me at the New York Times. And even at the first paper I worked at, at the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia, that allowed for me to learn new skills and to kind of apply them in creative ways. There was ability to experiment within certain boundaries, but there was definitely a willingness to tell someone, "Hey, well, if you can figure it out and bring me something and show me what that looks like we could possibly do it." And so if you kind of have that mentality or that ability within an organization, it does sometimes create room for that.

Angelica:

And when I've looked back recently and about how all this experience leads up to working on the doodle team, I feel like it's heavily relies on my ability to dabble and also to understand the constraints of various different disciplines. I still have to think about UX, how someone's going to experience the artwork that we put up.How can I make it more enticing for them to want to click on that? Because I've definitely read about people on Twitter saying that they, well today I decided to click on it. So, I'm curious about that. Just as much about the art part of it. And I think also one of the things that I think is really fun is that I didn't really spend a lot of my career making videos, but my first two Google doodles, well actually the first three, are the biggest ones have been video and really like playing more with that medium. Even though it was something that I sort of had learned skills, like I knew how to use Final Cut Pro or how to kind of play around in Adobe Premiere from my time in news. Because you might be asked to like, Hey, can you put together these clips real quick?

Harrison:

So, so Google doodles, that has a very high profile responsibility when it comes to design. I mean, Google is like the gateway to the internet. How do you handle that pressure, if there's any?

Angelica:

Speaking of pressure, this last project, this project for Juneteenth was a lot. I think it was pressure, not only just for myself, of just like the standard I hold myself to, but just how momentous this time is. And then this holiday within this time. And I think the other thread that I guess I kind of, you see throughout my career and through leading up to the Google team, is that I am huge into information and visual storytelling. I love being able to tell stories about our people or tell stories about the black experience in an elevated way, through these highly sophisticated visuals or through just the mechanisms of using different digital tools or using new techniques. I feel like our stories should carry that same weight and that's how I felt in journalism as well. And so, yeah, I think there's a lot of pressure I put on myself with thinking about all those things and to be honest with you, during this time, that project was extremely hard.

Angelica:

There were very many times where I was crying or kind of felt like is this an important thing to do? Should I be out using my body as a form of expression about what's going on? Should I be online writing things and sending things and sharing things. So many thoughts went through my mind about it. And it really was the help of my husband, who I feel like a super steady rock. He's always clear through these things, but even just talking with other friends and people and being like, but Hey, there is a voice that you have and you've always used it in this way. And so how can you make the most of this opportunity?

Harrison:

Sort of like the different mediums that you've worked in? It seems like this has kind of been the convergence of all of those experiences. It's just the output is in a different sort of medium.

Angelica:

I think multiple times in my career I've been a designer as a part of a project, right? Like you may start off as a junior designer in news and editorial. You're like a junior designer on a team and there's maybe a lead, right? And then maybe you move up into that more senior role. Someone's not really looking over your work, you're getting easy approvals. People start to trust you and your caliber. And then if I moves up into leading other people. Maybe it's not managing them hands on, but you're kind of leading the light creative vision, artistic vision. And I felt like that definitely has felt like a natural progression. But I would even add in that for me, I've also made some lateral moves as well as trying to move up to be like more senior. And in those lateral moves have, to me, really taught me a lot.

Angelica:

I think definitely moving to tech really helped me, one with articulating the things that I knew I could do, but we didn't talk about in that way in the media world. One of the things I remember having a conversation with someone about was redoing my entire resume and really getting a lot of the jargon from news out of it and really try to focus on, well, what was the result of the efforts that I did? I may have led the design of this section, but what does that really mean? That means I really actually created a visual framework that other designers could use and pick up very easily. I made libraries that updated with the frequency of our visual language. I created documentation, really getting into, well, what was the result? And I really thought it was interesting that that was something in the transition that didn't really, wasn't really expressed. That it wasn't something I knew and it wasn't something someone was telling me.

Harrison:

So speaking of the results, what has been a result of your work doing these doodles?

Angelica:

One, I think the result has been much more variety of the types of illustrators that we work with. I think that the team was already moving in that direction. I think that that's very important to Google and to the team. I think that I help bring a different perspective. I know I'm always pushing one for people who don't always fit the classic mode, right? I think we tend to elevate, especially art and illustration to a certain standard. And I want to kind of bring a little bit of the less perfectness in, right? And I think it's something I've thought about over the years working as a designer, you've worked with different ones where at first they were like, it needs to be pixel perfect, or we need to make sure everything is tidy and lines up correctly, right? And lately I've been starting to feel like let's have a little bit of imperfection in there. Let's have a little bit of difference in there. Let's let things kind of breathe and be a little bit more organic. And I think that that's how we can bring more authentic perspectives to the topics that we want to discuss.

Harrison:

Before the show, we were talking a little bit about equity in illustration. Be great if you kind of dive in a little bit of your thoughts around that thinking.

Angelica:

I've actually been thinking a lot about equity and design. And especially with that event we were talking about earlier, where are all the black designers? And thinking about specifically with illustration, when I first moved to tech, I was working on a redesign of slack.com and I ended up stumbling upon this art director's article that talked about how all the illustrations Silicon Valley was starting to look the same. And it was kind of like this trend at that time was just like small heads, big bodies, this kind of thing. And I feel like part of it was just like these figures are very relatable. They're like vector and kind of loose. But also like graphic. And so not very detailed. And I think that you can put a lot of personality onto them, but the personality that tech and most companies seem to gravitate towards is happiness and more joyful expressions.

Angelica:

And I think when we think about equity in illustration, we have to think about people of color, and specifically black people, bringing their experience into their artwork and bringing the tools of which maybe they learned into their artwork. And how can we be more accepting and inclusive of that in their work? Because this is kind of art, so there's a bit of subjectivity to it. Yes, there was some analytical and hardcore things you can derive from it, but there's a bit of that heart in illustration that you still want to keep there. And so I think it's about allowing artists to bring their full selves and allowing them to express that in what they're doing and not try to control so tightly. And I think with tech in general, I think it's a challenge with illustration about expressing different emotions. Because it also could be tied, in the case with doodles, very closely with your brand, right? So how do you express different emotions, but in a meaningful way?

Harrison:

Are there any examples of companies you think that are doing this well right now? Or is that sort of yet to be seen?

Angelica:

A lot of companies are kind of going back to the drawing board and kind of having some more conversations about how they can show up a bit more meaningfully, right? I think there's a lot of things to consider as a corporation. I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know all the back in with the law stuff, but at the same time, I would say that people are more media savvy now than ever. And people are constantly bombarded with imagery about that with everything that's going on now, right? There's so many images at my disposal to the point where sometimes it can become overwhelming or, as I said, I think people have just gotten extremely more savvy. They're able to really cut through some of the BS or just some of the, Hmm, that doesn't feel very authentic.

Angelica:

And so when it comes to, I think branding and identity, I think, yes you want to make sure you're saying aligned with your company and how it is viewed, playful or helpful or some of those other adjectives that we may use. But I think it's also going to... And I think Tech Crunch may have did a story about this a few years ago, but it really stuck with me. It said branding in the future is going to be a bit more tied to the actual kind of things your company believes... Like what we're seeing now, especially in the midst of these huge historical moments around like racial equity. I think gender, just all of these topics that, to me, it's like, Oh, a side thing. They're a large part of the conversation that I think brands not having a comment or not having a point of view, is going to alter.

Harrison:

What are some things you think that folks that are working in illustration and organizations can do today to build in more equity around illustration and imagery?

Angelica:

Oh, the first thing I think people can do to build in more equity and illustration is check your sources boo. Where are you sourcing people? After working on the Juneteenth doodle, I've had a couple people ask me about sourcing imagery. And I would say, I look at a lot of different things. One, I'm an avid reader. I came from newspaper. So of course I'm looking at the New York Times, which produces volumes of illustrations on a weekly basis, to looking at the New Yorker, which has that very crafted, elegant feel to it. But I don't just stop there. I also check Instagram a lot and follow a lot of the drawing groups. There was this one really great resource, actually two really great resources. A young lady on Twitter had posted about drawing while black and has made an air table from the hashtag.

Angelica:

There's also, I think there's a black designer's website, Blacks in Design, using that to maybe look for people. I have a friend who, he has a company called Meaningful Gigs, which helps place designers from Africa into different roles, because he feels like design is going to be this equitable thing, especially now that the tools are more web based. And so I think we have to really go outside our comfort systems and really try to look with a more kind of like futuristic eye on the people that we're looking at. I like to try not to say that someone's necessarily not ready, but I like to say, I haven't found the subject yet. I haven't found a match yet. But really being just a lot more proactive because there's so many great groups and resources. And even if a social media search doesn't yield a person immediately, I've found five or six people who may come up for a different project.

Angelica:

I found a couple of new groups that I could follow that invest in artists. And it just kind of keeps helping that community because once again, I think art and design are just communities. And how do we bolster those communities for different groups? Some of my favorite things that have been to look for is indigenous artists and indigenous illustrators or animators or creators, thinking about that group and not just indigenous to the US but thinking globally, people who are indigenous to Australia or Canada. How can we also weave their experience into the things that we create? The second thing about equity, I would say is probably demystifying a little bit of the veil with illustration. I definitely have artistic ability, but I do not call myself a illustrator, but I think that that's okay. 0

Angelica:

And I think sometimes that isn't said enough or isn't said what the experience of being illustrator and also what the experience of being an art director, creative director working with illustrator is. And I think, especially thinking about my news days, I think of art directors a lot like photo editors and things like that, where we're shaping the vision and we're really good at identifying the talent that can take us to that vision. But I feel like there's been a lot of mystery around art directors. There's not a lot of black female art directors or creative directors and especially in tech companies are in some of these more light dominant fields where there are a lot of art directors. And I think part of it is just this feeling like it can be kind of insurmountable, like how do I get there?

Angelica:

But I think that if you're having a strong passion about illustration, if you have a strong passion about design, if you are a person who doesn't mind learning new things and tinkering around, that there could be a lot of a space for you in that. Because I think as an art director, I draw on a lot of knowledge, right? When I'm doing research, so I'm having to draw on my reporter, journalist brain. I'm also having to draw on to my artistic side and think about how do I want this to feel? What is the right style? I'm also having to lean into my people person and extrovertness for this to really get people on board for a project. Some people may be surprised, but not everybody necessarily wants to work with your company.

Angelica:

So how do you get people excited about what you're doing and feel like it's meaningful? So I feel like it does draw all those different things. And I feel like it's kind of just dropping that veil so people can kind of see what those roles are like, because it is different a little bit more behind the scenes. And then I guess a third thing for illustration is I just like to say, being willing to take a chance. I know when you're producing at certain levels, it can feel very hard to take a chance, but I think there are definitely different levers and different projects to pull on where you can use when new, or maybe look for someone who's budding out of college, or maybe taking a chance on someone who may not be as digitally savvy, but their artwork is really, really great. And how can you bring them into this new sphere? I think those are kind of all the things I definitely think about.

Harrison:

Thank you so much for those tips, Angelica. And thank you for coming on the show. Is there anything that you want to leave with the listeners before the episode ends?

Angelica:

The last thing I want to leave with listeners and especially our black designers out there is that I could not have anticipated this path. I could not have written it in a book. I did keep one journal that I read recently where I said, "Well, I know I don't want to be just a page newspaper designer anymore." So I feel like there's like some little things we know, but we never really know where we're going. And I feel like what has made the journey sad, but also sweet sometimes, is being open to different roles, being open to learning new things and really keeping learning and some fun, too. I'm just a huge book nerd, but learning and fun as a part of it and everybody's journey won't be the same. Like I said, it's kind of amazing when I look back and I'm like, yo, I started off making $30,000 in Roanoke, Virginia. It's some persistence, but some luck, but also some, Hey, I think this is interesting. Or I want to try this and being open to that experience.

Harrison:

Enjoy this episode. Be sure to hit the subscribe button on whatever podcast platform that you use. You can also subscribe to my newsletter at harrisonwheeler.com for the latest industry insights, new article posts and announcements of future guests on the show. Once again, thanks for listening to this episode of Technically Speaking. I'm your host Harrison Wheeler and I'm out.

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