Episode 298: Husani Barnwell

Husani Barnwell is a creative director and consultant with degrees from Parsons and Harvard.

Husani Barnwell not only has two impressive degrees under his belt from Parsons and Harvard, a mile long resume, but he continues to reinvent himself. He is a storyteller, a designer, and a leader in the industry. His passion and drive shine through in his work and in our conversation! He is honest and open, and our chat was an enlightening experience that I appreciated. His experience ranges from Creative Consultant to Educator and so many things in between. Talking to him highlighted the important work that is happening, and that still needs to happen, in this industry.

If you're not following him, you should be!

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Revision Path is a Glitch Media Network podcast, and is produced by Deanna Testa and edited by Brittani Brown.

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Maurice: All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Husani: Hey, Maurice. How you doing? My name is Husani Barnwell. I'm a creative director. Also, I'm an educator. I'm a designer. And trying to be an all around great citizen on earth.

Maurice: Well that's a good thing to be in this day and age. What are some of the things that you're working on right now?

Husani: Right now, I've been doing a good amount of freelance work, whether that's been in design or creative direction. So, I just shot a spot that's on air for Spectrum. I have been doing some work, it's a consultancy named Agami, and that was on the U.S. Army and Clorox. Also, really just pursuing some of my hobbies like cycling and fitness. Just been trying to enjoy my time.

Maurice: What does a typical day look like for you right now?

Husani: That varies. From many of the interviews I've heard in your podcast, people tend to say the same thing. It really depends on if I'm freelancing in an office, like at an agency, or if I'm working remotely from my home office. If I'm at my home office, my hours can really vary. I might burn the midnight oil, wake up at whatever time that's necessary to wake up, check through emails, figure out which deliverables need to be done or if I have to be brainstorming. It also depends if I'm working independently or with a partner. So, there might be some conversations on the phone or even Skype calls with that partner.

Husani: Or, if I'm at the office, that's waking up, getting ready, getting into the office. If there are status meetings, handling those. Then really tackling whatever assignment it is that needs to be tackled.

Maurice: Now, the partner that you're speaking about, that's you're Lambert Barnwell partner?

Husani: Yes. We first started working together when we were both promoted to Junior Art Director and Junior Copywriter back at BBDO. That was the first ad agency I've every worked at. Yeah, he's been a great friend and partner for years. We still take projects independently. As of late, I've had many projects that I've just been doing on my own. But he's definitely a go to, he's a great writer, great colleague and yeah, it's a pleasure working with him when I can.

Maurice: Which work set-up do you prefer right now? Freelance or working in an office?

Husani: That's also a good question. For a long time, I really enjoyed freelance because it allowed me to see how each of these agencies worked. Get to know different creative leadership and see how they worked. Really observe. Because a lot of times, especially in advertising, you don't always get the mentorship that you need, and you can make mistakes and then fall on your face if you're not up on it. So, I learned by watching people and watching what they do and how they conducted themselves with clients or with account teams and producers, etc. [inaudible 00:03:05] over the years, after just watching them for a while, I was able to handle a lot more things on my own.

Husani: So, I do enjoy working at agencies and working in the office, but I have to say, lately I've been really enjoying working at home. My set-up at home is better than a lot of the set-ups that I'll have at some of these agencies. So, it's like a really....as you know, being an entrepreneur on your own, it's a really great feeling, handling a lot of stuff on your own. The confidence you get in being able to tackle things for multiple brands and major brands. Then seeing that work that's on the air and knowing that idea might have been something that you came up with when you were just sitting at home in your home office, in front of your computer or outside in your backyard, or whatever it might be.

Maurice: Yeah, actually right now I am working for a company but I do know what you mean about that entrepreneur life. Right now, with what I'm doing at Glitch, it's remote, so I do have a home office that I work out of but then from time to time I'm at the New York office. I do get that sort of bit of like working in the office, working at home thing. It is really interesting, because before I worked here I had a home office and I worked doing my studio for several years. From time to time, I'd work at a client location. I'd work at a coffee shop or something. I have the freedom to sort of do that now even with this current job. But I do like how...I don't know, there's a certain level of freedom that comes with just being able to not necessarily be inside of an office. It just...especially for creative work, you need to kind of be out there and get inspired by just being out there in the world.

Husani: Yes. As you know too, a lot of office situations have changed with the open floor plan, which is a bit of a farce when it comes to collaboration and work efficiency. You don't really get as much done as you would like. It's hard to have private conversations. It's hard to have meetings with clients or whatever it might be, when there just people all around you. So, I know for really senior management, they still get their door and offices. Of course, in the margins, the agency itself does better with the open floor plan. But for the actual people outside, you know, out in the open, it's not as conducive to being creative.

Husani: Being at home is great. You get to play the music you want to play. If you have to step away, you can. You don't feel like you have to be glued to the computer. When creative doesn't always come as systematically as that.

Maurice: Yeah, often times I know if I'm just staring at the screen too long I have to...like I'll just migrate to a different location. Maybe I'll sit at my kitchen table, or maybe I'll sit at the couch, or maybe I'll just go take out the trash or something. Just something to break up the monotony of having to think inside of this one particular kind of construct. I hear what you're saying there.

Husani: Yup.

Maurice: How do you approach new creative projects?

Husani: It's a good question and it kind of points to some of the experience that I've been having, preparing to teach the Creative Methodology class. That's as you know, the design thinking. It's similar, it's a method that people can use to uncover insights and key strategic concepts and ideas that eventually can lead to great, big ideas., which the over used term. For me, it starts, usually with learning everything and anything that I can learn about whatever it is that brand...what they're offering, what the product might be that they're offering, what the service might be. I research the competitors, seeing what they do. I can even get on to Amazon and look at customer reviews of whatever it is that is being marketed. It's really just like filling myself up with as much as I can about the problem space and then start reframing what the ask is, or what the key points that we're supposed to be tackling is. You know, reframe it, think about it different ways. I might then start even doing something as simple as going to Google and using Google Images. Or even a stock house like Yeti and then just looking for imagery that might be related.

Husani: Then you start to see these relationships. So much about an idea is it's a recombination of two different existing things or multiple existing things. So you have to fill up with those things. I guess an analogy I can use, if I'm going to create a masterpiece, I'm not just going to use eight crowns, I want to make sure that my crown box has all 64 or more, and then that way the ideas can come and flow.

Maurice: What are the best types of clients for you? I know you mentioned some of the hobbies that you have. Do you try to find clients that fall in line with that?

Husani: I wish I did that more. One of my regrets as a creative is that I started to just get assignments while freelancing and then I'd do well on those assignments and then I'd put those pieces in my book. But I wasn't really curating the types of things that I wanted to work on. So, more and more I started to get financial stuff or tech companies, which I enjoy doing stuff for tech companies. Say for example, I've done a lot of work on Verizon, on AT&T. Like I mentioned before, I just shot and produced a spot for Spectrum. I've worked on Apple before, as well. I enjoy working on technology but I wish I put more sports and fitness related stuff in my portfolio, as I was coming up.

Husani: It's never too late to make the change. I could definitely whip off some spec stuff or maybe dig up and maybe re-art direct some of the things I've done that were in the category. Because I've worked on Visa before and they had an NFL partnership and an Olympics partnership. So, the stuff like that, that I could throw in my book or re-art direct.

Husani: I've also done some stuff on ESPN and I can probably just tighten things up with that and get that in there. But I'd love to do stuff for fitness and sports related things and I don't really have as much of that as I would like.

Maurice: One of the things with doing that kind of work is that sometimes it also can pigeon hole you. I'll give you an example, when I started off my studio we did a lot of political work because it was honestly just available. It was right when Obama got elected and a lot of politicians were suddenly needing to have a web presence, or needing to have a social media presence. So, we had a lot of political just kind of work that we did. Not across any particular party line. After a while we kind of got pigeon holed into just doing that sort of stuff. Like non-profits, for example would come to us and say "oh well, you know we would but you've worked with politicians before" and blah blah blah blah blah. Eventually, I kind of had to just stop including the work in my portfolio. It was good work. I was proud of the work. But, the problem was that even though it was good work that I had done, just to categorization of it was holding me back from being able to do other things or work in other kinds of fields.

Husani: Yeah, and it kind of reflects a lack of vision on the part of the people who are making these decisions about who to hire or who to work with. As a creative professional, as you are, and as I am, it's almost like a doctor, you don't really turn away patients, you try to do the best job you can of whatever the issue the patient has and you seek to do no harm. It's like that whenever I get assignments. I try to do the best I can for whatever that is and always come up with compelling stuff as a creative professional. So, whether it's something, like I was saying before, something on Verizon or it could be something that's a bit more fun. Even some work I did recently with McGarry Bowen on Subway. It was like this kind of going at McDonald's, that work.

Husani: I can go from that to maybe doing something in healthcare. I've worked on Humira before at Sachi Wellness. Worked on opioid induced constipation medicine at a place called BGB Group. As a creative professional, we have to be able to wear many hats and so it kind of sucks when you go to agencies and they assume that you can only do what they see, which sort of undermines what we're actually capable of.

Maurice: Yeah, in a way, I can see how it could be sort of up to the clients to figure it out but then not every client also is going to just be that informed. They want what they want, and they hopefully want something that's going to fall in line with what exactly it is they need. I know that I've heard clients before say that they want good designers, but they only want designers that have done basically exactly the kind of field that they're in or something like that. I think it's a double edged sword. I certainly understand it, I think, from both perspectives now. But I do agree, that we kind of need to open it up and make sure that, at least when clients are approaching designers, to know that just because you see these things it doesn't mean it's the only thing that they can do. Ask them...I guess the clients can ask but then the designers can ask as well, at what they're open to. What the clients are open to in terms of new types of things. It should be quid pro quo. Should be a conversation, not just a transaction.

Husani: Yeah. I get your point too when you're saying it from a client perspective. But when it comes to the agency perspective, I feel like the agency should know better.

Maurice: Oh, oh yeah. Certainly. Yeah.

Husani: Yeah. They should know about the versatility of their creatives, and the creative process better than a client who's probably scared so they're like okay, we just want a....we want to see what's familiar and to know that the person can do what's familiar. But then that also puts at risk, things really looking so uniform in a category.

Husani: It's nice some times to see some fresh thinking but I do definitely get your point. From a client perspective, they actually have the choice so they could just say, okay I really like...I have a headphone company and I really like what this creative did on Beats so let me hire that creative.

Maurice: Yeah. When did you first get this spark for design? Because I can definitely tell that you're very passionate about it. But when did it first come about?

Husani: That's cool to ask because I know many people come into things late. But from a very young age I was always the school art guy, the school designer. I mean I'm talking from like 7, 8 years old. I was the one doing the drawings and stuff for the school publications and what have you. Then eventually, when I enrolled at high schools, a Prep School in New Hampshire called Saint Paul's, which is a bit of a culture shock considering I'm from Brooklyn, Queens and then the Bronx.

Husani: So, I got there and eventually while there, took a design class, did really well in the design class and then during the summer, I was invited by the head design teacher, her name was Karen Burgess Smith, and she invited me to work on a series of posters and brochures for the school gallery. Because the school has a really nice art gallery that basically feels like a museum. So, I worked on those poster designs and she submitted them to, it's called The American Association of Museums, and they have a design publications award, and we end up winning the award. This was against a bunch of professional graphic designers. I was only 17 years old at the time. Like 16 going on 17.

Husani: Then while at school also, I used to be the school cartoonist, and I was President of the graphic design group there. Sort of, that really sparked my interest in design. But at the time, architecture was really what my go to is, and I could talk a little bit more about that later. But when I got to Harvard, I got to Harvard to...I basically was there to study architecture, but I was also the designer of what's called Harvard Student Agency, which is the world's largest student run corporation. They had what was called HSA Type and Graphics, which is like this small graphic design agency that was basically doing work for all the other agencies within HSA. Then also doing work for clients in Cambridge and in Boston. Eventually, I because the head designer of that and then they changed the name to Harvard Graphic Design.

Husani: Then I also took a design class while at Harvard. But Harvard isn't really known for it's graphic design and visual communication design stuff. Design became my thing while I was there and then the manager of Harvard Graphic Design, her name was Carolyn Yu, she did this program called The MAIP Program, The Multicultural Advertising Intern Program. I know you featured some people who were involved with that in some of your podcasts. Like Tracey Coleman. She told me, she was like "hey, you know you'd be great at this, like you can be an art director at an ad agency. You're basically doing the stuff that we do." I didn't really know what art direction was. I knew about design but not art direction. So, I applied to get in that program and was accepted and interviewed at a bunch of agencies. BBDO was really impressed with my work and so they brought me in.

Maurice: So, BBDO being that kind of first agency job. I know just from doing my research that you really...that's really where you kind of started your career in a way. I mean you built up there. You were there for nine years. What was that whole time like for you?

Husani: That was an interesting time. I started as a MAIP intern and I was partnered with an art director named Chris Curry. It turned out actually, BBDO thought I was a writer because it's hard to believe that there are art directors that would come out of Harvard. Even though, Jeff Goodby went to Harvard. Anyway, I was partnered with this guy Chris Curry, he's a talented artist and art director. We were working together on many projects and we got an assignment for CNBC and we created a series of outdoor advertising, print advertising, there was radio spots and TV spots and the work was featured on the company reel.

Husani: As an intern I though okay great. I mean, it'd be hard for them to want to get rid of me, I mean I'm pretty promising. So, they said you know what we're going to do is we're going to promote you to an assistant art director role and you'd spend half your time concepting and working on creative and the other half your time in the paste up studio or the paste up bench as it's called. Just like the stereotype of advertising, that offer was a bit misleading. Most of the time I spent was in the paste up studio mounting everybody else's ads. So, I got to see the good and bad and the ugly of these ads coming through and felt mad. I can do better than some of this stuff.

Husani: But still, I was pretty junior, because I was only an assistant art director. So, I took a number of classes at Ad House. It's like advertising school in New York. I took an advanced concept development class, a focus on portfolio class and a focus on art direction class. And put together my portfolio, put it in this nice suitcase because this is back when, before everyone had this stuff online. It ended up being a foot rest for the senior creative leader there, Charlie Miesmer, who's an awesome guy, ended up being a great mentor for me. But at the time, it was just hard for me to get him to open that suitcase, that portfolio case.

Husani: Finally, he did and he was really impressed with the work, to the point of talking about it in Shoot Magazine and how to quote him, he said he "felt like a schmuck" for not checking out that work sooner. So, then he promoted my partner and I and we became juniors. So then we were junior art director and junior copywriter for a while. We end up working under Susan Credle and Steve Ruder. Susan Credle is now basically one of the most awarded advertising creatives in the world. She's the Chief Creative Officer or the Global Chief of FCB. So, we worked under her working with M&Ms, worked on Snickers, Pizza Hut. Many brands.

Husani: Created some great work, we won a few awards. Then eventually I was promoted to mid-level art director. At that point, it became clear to me that BBDO is a touch place to be as a junior. Especially the way it was. The way it was, you'd have these, and pardon the term, gang bangs and everybody would work on certain assignments and if you were the small fish in the big pond, you were going to get last choice. I still managed to produce work, but I really had to claw my way up while I was there.

Husani: Then it got to the point, after David Lubars came in, he was bringing a lot of his people from Fallon, where he was. It was just a lot tougher to produce. Even though I was still producing, and eventually I decided to leave, and I became a senior art director and that's when I started to really see growth in my career, after leaving. That's the interesting thing too, that sometimes it's great when something isn't really for you and you see it's not, it's like...whether you get laid off or not...it can sometimes be a blessing because it can almost force you into positive changes in your life that you might not have if you don't make that change. I think it ended up being a great move. BBDO is a great place to be. I actually ended up going back there, back from 2014 to 2016...

Husani: ... actually end up going back there, back from 2014 to 2016, and it was a lot better because I was more experienced. But yeah, that was basically my story of BBDO, that eight to close to nine years.

Maurice: It sounds like it was really aggressive being there.

Husani: It was challenging. I mean, there were some weeks I worked like 110 hours in a week, sleeping there. Yeah, like I would get up, I'd go to the gym just to take a shower and come back, and I was broke so I had to drink the free milk from the company fridge and that was how I was getting by.

Husani: And it was tough, particularly tough because at that stage of my life I was really young, I was super fit, and I didn't really respect how my mind needs sleep, needs to eat right. Exercise was something I did, but I was really pushing myself and there was some lessons that I learned about that, about trying to learn how to have balance and to cut out some time for yourself and for your own mental health. Just to be able to be as on point as you can, because I was really stretched thin for the first bunch of years there. Later on I felt like I came into my own, I got my shite together, but yeah. It was definitely challenging.

Maurice: Yeah, I was going to ask, when did you start to get that balance between work and life to kind of even things out?

Husani: It took a while. I think maybe even like 2006 or seven, and I was promoted to a junior in 2002. So it took like a good four or five years before I was okay you know? Where I really started to respect my body and respect my mind, and not just burn a candle at both ends. Because I was still very much young and still ... I was kind of protesting a little bit inside, like I wanted to have work-life balance even though there really wasn't any. So I still tried to have it a bit anyway, so that meant many nights of just like three or four hours of sleep just because I had a life outside of that.

Husani: Like while I was at BBDO early I would take outside clients and at one point I partnered up with my high school roommate. He was basically one of my closest friends, Charles Best, and he's the creator of the ... He came up with the idea while he was a teacher in New York public schools, he saw that he didn't have the supplies he needed and he had to pay for them on his own, as did many teachers. Students didn't have supplies that they needed, and so he said, "You know what? Wouldn't it be great if you ask donors to donate towards certain projects or supplies or whatever it might be to help these students."

Husani: So he came up to me about the idea for DonorsChoose.org. So I ended up being the first volunteer and creative director for DonorsChoose and this is while I was still in the pay stub bench. So that went on for about seven years while I was still at BBDO but I felt it was really important to be doing things like that too, and to not make life in the ad agency as my only life. DonorsChoose ended up, it still exists now, it does great, it's helped millions of students get better access to education. They're mostly underserved students. So yeah, that's been great.

Husani: I also at one point was the MAIP Alumni Association Creative Director, and this was while I was at BBDO. The MAIP program was really important to me, that's one of the key ways to help diversify the advertising industry. So I wanted to do whatever I could to give back, so I was doing that as well. So yeah, I was just really busy while I was there.

Maurice: Man, none of this sounds like the movie Boomerang at all. I feel bamboozled in a way. No, I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

Husani: Yeah, that's funny. Yeah, like my experience at Multicultural sometimes had tastes of Boomerang.

Maurice: So let's talk about diversity in the advertising industry, because I know that's a pretty hot topic, it's something that certainly consumers see a lot whenever they see ads that kind of ring really wooden in terms of racial representation, gender representation, et cetera. How do you see it in the industry right now from your vantage point?

Husani: I feel as though it's crawling along slowly but surely getting better. But there's still so much more work to be done, and I'm kind of at the point now where I'm sipping my tea. I know you're a tea lover. Like sipping my tea and kind of watching and waiting for the next car wreck.

Husani: For example, I know many people know about H&M and the mistake they made, their flub, of showing a young black kid with a hoodie that said, "Coolest monkey in the jungle." And that led to operating profit loss of like 62%, which was their lowest number since 2005. Then many of us know about that Pepsi spot featuring Kendall Jenner, and it wasn't Kendall Jenner's fault necessarily about that, but she offers a can during a protest to the policeman and that somehow just ends the strife and the rift. That sort of made a mockery of Black Lives Matter and these other protests.

Husani: Then recently there's this Ancestry.com ad, or this Ancestry ad where you can't really tell, but it's a white man and he's with a black woman and you can't tell if she's a slave or what. But he's asking her, "Just escape to the North and then we could be together." It's a spot called Inseparable, and it just felt like god, didn't we just uncover so many issues of the #HollywoodIsSoWhite? It felt totally like #MadisonAvenueSoWhite, you know? Like who's coming up with this stuff?

Husani: It's clear to me that there aren't people of color or people who at least have legitimate diverse mindsets in those rooms when these ideas are being made. And these companies oftentimes are just breathing in their own fumes and they really just don't think about, they don't even question enough about these moves that they're making. So I'm hoping, and I hate to say it because I'm not one that wants negativity, but I do recognize that sometimes you have to have a little suffering or a little pain in order to make that next move that's going to be better for you.

Husani: So I'm hoping that these agencies flub again so they really get it, that this is not just something that's great just to have legitimate relationships with your customer base who are diverse, super diverse. But this is all about also your profits, like this is going to eat away your profits if you don't do things right. So we see that when companies do take a stand, like Nike with Colin Kaepernick thing, Nike did really well because of that. And then the people who were like, "Aw, I'm going to burn your jersey, I'm going to burn your shoes," they weren't the biggest and best customers anyway. So the majority of the consumer base rallied around Nike.

Husani: And actually there's some research that's saying that that even isn't enough, that these consumers, particularly millennials, they want to see that you're really about it when it comes to taking a stand and supporting, say, diversity or supporting social causes or whatever it might be. They don't want it just to be lip service, they want you to really be in it. So yeah, like I was saying before, I'm just going to sip some tea and if I get called upon to try to make things better, I'm more than happy to offer my services and we'll see how things go.

Maurice: I mean, but like we've said before, this is something that has been going on for years, and certainly I think there might be a flipboard in somebody's office where it's like, "Zero days since the last offending ad," or something like that. What do you really think it's going to take to make this change? Because this has been something that has been going on for years, I would say decades at this point. Of course you have events and organizations like ADCOLOR and the Marcus Graham Project, et cetera, speaking of Boomerang, that are certainly trying to help change the tide as it relates to the numbers in the industry, which hopefully then will reflect in the advertising. But why do you think it still just hasn't made a difference yet?

Husani: I still think we have some of these dinosaurs that are running things, and they're not letting go. They probably are surrounded by a lot of yes men and yes women and they're not really being checked. So if there's some greater accountability, I think we'll see some changes but when I take a look at our political climate and you see what's happening in the White House and how even though there's some clear issues, like clear issues about the planet, clear issues about reproductive rights, these people in power, they're not being affected by their actions yet. Not enough. Like they're not being forced to resign enough so they don't really get the consequences yet. So until that really happens, where they see some major operating profit losses or they see like major ... Enough to shake them out of their bubbles, then I think we'll start seeing some changes.

Husani: Or, and this is what I've been liking lately, because of what's going on and this political climate in this world, many of us are just like, "You know what? Fuck it. We're just going to do our own thing. We're going to start our own brands, we're going to be our own content creators, we're going to rally behind the issues that we find are most important." And it's like that's sort of forcing everybody else to take notice. So I'm actually liking the fact that this pressure is making diamonds the way it is. I'm actually liking seeing what many of my peers and colleagues are doing.

Husani: And a lot of us, when we're working in agencies and stuff, we start to see that man, we're the ones doing so much of this work. Like we could do this, we can do these things on our own if we develop the right client relationships. We don't necessarily need to work at an agency or whatever and just keep that cycle going. So much of life is just people just going along with how things are, but I see stuff changing now and I welcome it.

Maurice: Yeah, it sounds like what I think needs to happen is, and this is similar to the design industry as well in that there needs to be a shift in equity. Sort of as you said before, like you've got the older dinosaurs at the top that are still running things. If there was a shift in equity that would allow more people that are underrepresented in a number of different ways to have that seat at the table, that is how I think the real change is probably going to happen.

Husani: Yeah.

Maurice: Certainly the fact that we are doing more things to put that culture out there, it's great. But what ends up happening is you're still in a way being drowned out by these larger, bigger agencies or entities or et cetera. But that shift in equity I think is what's going to be important.

Maurice: And we're kind of seeing it I would say, not to get too political, but I think we're sort of seeing it right now in the government, for example. The new freshman class of senators and representatives that have come in have really started making change. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib and others have started being really vocal about issues and it's causing things to happen. Or at least the conversation to happen, which was more than what was happening before.

Husani: Yeah, and that's great because so much, like I was saying before, it's about the expectation, and so many people have become jaded and just assume things have to be the way they are and then they stop trying to make those changes. So I'm hoping this all builds momentum and we get to see things turn around. It's a little interesting, too, we're talking about how a lot of these people at the top, how they typically are ... It's typically homogeneous.

Husani: And I'm reminded of a sort of controversial Oprah quote, and she was asked, "How do we get rid of racism?" She talked about how there are certain groups of people in like say the South or a lot of them are older and their racism is so deep and they hold onto it tight, and it's all they know. I'm just going to use this example as a metaphor. And she was saying, "Well, those people are just going to have to die." And I don't actually mean death when it comes to these people at the top, but you know ... But there has to be a changing of the guard at the top.

Husani: And you know, we were talking about politics, as long as we have these congress people who are in there for life and then they're bought off by the Koch brothers and whatever, then it's harder to make change. Like with Alabama, which just happened, all those officials, they just did what they did and that had nothing to do with the voice of the people. So yeah, the top has to get shaken up.

Husani: But I do like seeing that people are being fearless, down coming from the bottom and people more in the middle. Like you mentioned AOC and what she's doing. Yeah, the more people can see like, "Hey, yeah, we can make change," the more they're going to jump on and try to make the changes they can, too. Just in your own sphere, your own circle, if you try to make change, people will gravitate towards that. A lot of people think that the change has to be huge and it has to be big, but just in your life as an individual, if you're just doing what you can that starts to resonate and reverberate and then it grows. So yeah, I'm excited to see that momentum build.

Maurice: Yeah. So let's take the shift back to career. Like I said, we don't want to get too political on here, we're not that kind of show but ...

Husani: Sorry.

Maurice: So I know that you've worked at a ton of agencies since leaving BBDO. You worked at Havas, you worked at Digitas, you worked at KBS, et cetera. You landed at GlobalHue for a while, you worked there for I think for about four years. When you got there after doing a string of, I don't know, almost permalance opportunities at a bunch of different agencies, how was that longterm agency experience different from your time at BBDO?

Husani: It was way different. I don't know if this sounds right, but people at GlobalHue, they worked really hard and so at least that felt the same. But I just had more of a sense at GlobalHue that people were really rooting for me and for my success. Like I was brought in with my partner and I was working under Desmond Hall who was Spike Lee's right-hand man back at Spike. He really tried to nurture me and we went over more nuances and details about presenting well and kind of having fun with it and the right mindset to have when it came to that.

Husani: He always had his door open, was like, "Hey, you got a minute? Come in here, come in here." So I got to see that as a creative leader, you have to check in with your creatives often, and doing that, that's how you can really uncover some juicy nuggets of creativity. So it was a great experience. It was also great in that I felt like ... In some ways I felt like I was sort of giving back. I had learned all these skills and all that at BBDO and it was definitely great, but advertising for, for lack of a better term, for my people, but I was adverting for African-Americans and then at other points also the Latinx population. So doing it for both, it felt like I was coming back home, like things are coming full circle.

Husani: And I was pretty motivated before, but it was a little bit of extra motivation because I realized a lot of what I'd be creating could really affect the mindset of my own people. I saw even more as I got older that how much we really needed it, how we really needed to have this sense of empowerment and positivity. So almost all the advertising I would do would seek to do that. I handled all of Verizon's Black History Month initiatives, except for one when I first got there, and that was handled by Neisha Tweed, who's now at Facebook. But after that I was handling all their Black History Month initiatives and I was really trying to uplift my people.

Husani: Then I also felt like the agency itself was rooting for me when I would go to the clients, like say Verizon in Basking Ridge. That relationship was supposed to be with McGarryBowen and they have the general market agency, and there were all these other partner agencies. But sometimes it got competitive. It felt like instead of us working together, sometimes it was us versus them. So I'd get there, I would present, I knew that my agency was huddled around the phone the way people would huddle around a radio in the past during a sports game or something. It was great to know when I would do really well, when I got back to the agency, a lot of pats on the back, like people were really proud.

Husani: That really just made me happy, like I felt like people were really supportive whereas at BBDO, there are a lot of really driven people but for the most part they're trying to get their own awards. They're trying to put pencils and lions and whatever on their own shelves. So sometimes they would nurture the younger creatives to do that but most of the time it was really about their own ideas. So yeah, that's what really felt different to me. I really felt like people were rooting for me a bit more when I was at GlobalHue.

Maurice: So now you're, like you said, you're freelancing, you're working with a number of different clients. Given your longevity now in the industry, how have you seen the agency model change over the years?

Husani: I've seen it change a lot, and it's still changing at a rapid pace. Some people are saying that the agency model, the agencies are dying. Recently we saw how Accenture just bought Droga5. Some agencies are scrambling just to try to deal with the changes, so you see these mergers like Y&R merging with VML and now it's feels like Wheel of Fortune. It's like VML, Y&R, just so many letters.

Husani: So we're seeing these consultancies and companies that weren't typically traditional creative advertising agencies or whatever, they're starting to steal some market share. So I see that many creatives have to evolve and many agencies have to evolve. Like another place that I freelanced at for a bit was RGA, and they have RGA Ventures which is basically like a consultancy and they create a lot of original IP, which is a bit different than what you see at normal agencies. Even BBDO at one point, I think still have it, they have a consultancy division and I used to know more about it. There's a guy named Sangeet Pillai who's over there, but now he's at Verizon.

Husani: So we're seeing many creatives too starting to leave the agencies and either doing their own thing or going client side. A lot of clients also are doing more stuff in-house. So as a creative it's a great opportunity but if you don't evolve, you're still stuck in the past and you go the way of the dodo.

Maurice: How do you see agencies working with consultancies now?

Husani: I think they're trying to figure each other out still. Like agencies are great when it comes to the creativity but maybe not necessarily speaking the language of the consultancies or those clients that they would get, like consultancies would get. They're more data-focus and it's more about ROI, and agencies, some of them are still more concerned about just consumer engagement and likeability and entertainment. There's still some reconciling that needs to be done.

Maurice: So you've worked in the industry for a while in terms of working at all these different agencies. Of course you got your start learning about design at Harvard, but then even after all this time that you've worked in the industry, you went back to school. You went to Parsons. Can you talk about why you chose Parsons and what made you decide to go back at this stage in your career?

Husani: Yes, that's another great question and I think it's relevant to everything I was just saying, too. At the advertising industry, even the design industry, there's many changes and when I first started in advertising, I had some design experience. Like I said, I had one design class in high school, one design class at Harvard, tons of color theory and studio art and all that other stuff. But then basically after that, I was working in advertising as a creative and I didn't really have a formal design education, and I know we see that a lot. I think there's some benefits to not necessarily spending your formative years just learning about design.

Husani: At a certain point after-

Husani: So, then I took a... at a certain point after certain assignments, especially while freelancing, I still have that old school way of being an art director who just knows what the idea should be, knows how it should look, and have some design fundamentals, but then hands it off to the design department. You can't do that. And so many times I would see a great idea could live or die just based on how it looked because a lot of times some clients and some people internally, like some account people or whatever, might lack some imagination. And so, I saw that. I go "okay, I really need to make sure that I'm up on it when it comes to design." And so, I started by taking some continuing ed classes at the School of Visual Arts. So I took a design class, a visual branding class, an advanced Photoshop class, a concepting class, and an integrated creative... an integrated creative class. So it's like five classes at SVA. And then I kept doing my thing, and I felt more confident, and the work was better, and things looked tighter.

Husani: But because, like I was saying before, I'd only taken a few design classes I felt like I wanted to take it to the next level, and to feel way more confident, even thought I was confident I wanted to take it to the next level to make sure that when I start entering senior leadership roles I knew what the hell it was I was talking about. And so, we saw how the advertising industry went from TV, print, outdoor, and radio to all these media touchpoints that... they were so vast, especially with the rise of mobile handsets, and social media, and digital capabilities were starting to really accelerate. And so, then we started seeing how experienced design, whether it's user experience design, user interface design, or just experiential advertising. We start to see that brands weren't just concerned about getting through to a customer in that moment and having them say "ah, I really like that brand. I really like that product" they had to continue to keep that relationship with them, on a brand strategy perspective.

Husani: And so, we have all these touchpoints, all these points of interactions, and I needed to know that I was not just knowledgeable but was really learning from people who specialized in that. Because like I was saying before, being a freelancer a lot of the times you just have to watch people. But people, especially as you get more senior, they aren't necessarily going to take their time to school a freelancer, and coach a freelancer. And so, Parsons had their inaugural year of a Master of Professional Studies in Communication Design, which focused on digital product design, UX and UI design, there's interactions, there's also front end developing. Like HTML5, CSS,-

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Husani: -JavaScript, and some other stuff too. And so, to me, it felt like "okay, that would be a great way to round out my skillset and to make sure that I actually had more mastery in design, design thinking, and all that. And so, I decided to enroll in the program and... Well, I applied. I got in, and it ended up having some sentimental value to me too. So it wasn't just about trying to get that degree, but I was also... and I don't know if you really know this yet, but I was my mother's caregiver for about 17 years as she battled metastatic breast cancer-

Maurice: Hmm.

Husani: -and public health is something that I'm really up on, and I really did my best to try to help her. And she lived a very long time and then passed away. And so, it became that I wanted to finish that degree to sort of honor her. And so, while in that program it turned out that my grandmother and my father passed away-

Maurice: Oh wow.

Husani: -and then my cousin. And so, that program, and getting that degree not only made me... I was striving just to be better, I also wanted to make them and their spirits proud.

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Husani: And so, I was happy to do the program and I feel more confident about taking the senior leadership roles. And then, also, one of the things too is because a lot of these agencies are homogenous they don't necessarily, at least in my mind, trust that someone of color can come in and really knows what they're talking about. And, obviously, in case by case situations they will totally trust the people that they're working with but you have to prove yourself. And so, as a freelancers coming in, because usually it's temp to perm, I had to make sure that coming in I knew what I was talking about, and could right out of the gate establish my authority, and help them learn or see that I knew what I was talking about, I did really add value, and then can be trusted for further assignments.

Maurice: That makes sense now that you've given all those explanations around that. I was just curious because I know when I was... So I didn't go to design school at all. I went to just a regular liberal arts school called Morehouse though. I went to Morehouse-

Husani: [inaudible 00:47:04]

Maurice: Yeah, it was a good school. I went to Morehouse, I majored in math, even when I graduated I didn't have any kind of prospects in terms of jobs. I could be a math teacher or I could go back to school, and I didn't really want to do either one of those things. I had been doing design kind of just in my spare time and eventually had built up my portfolio enough where I actually got a design job. So, got a design job about three years after I graduated from college, worked at a bunch of places around the city for a few years, and then quit, started my studio. Even now, up until this point, like we're doing this interview right now in 2019 I have not had any kind of formal design schooling, or knowledge, or education at all and part of me does wonder if I need that, like if I decide to go back into the design industry at some point. I feel like I keep abreast of what's happening in the industry, about technologies and things of that nature, but I don't know what it is about having the degree that kind of solidifies it, I guess.

Husani: Yeah. And I also am quite impressed... I learned that about you and I'm quite impressed of what you were able to accomplish not having it. And I don't think everyone needs to. I found though, for me, I was reinventing the wheel for every assignment a lot of the time-

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Husani: -and arriving at certain solutions after lots of trial and error, and in some ways thinking that that one solution was the best solution. And design school was helpful because it helps you see that there's so many different great solutions, and if you really start to get mastery of certain principles, like in human centered design, learning about accessibility, the certain principles and things that you can learn where you can arrive at your solutions faster because your tool kit is now full.

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Husani: And so, it actually has been somewhat helpful for me because I feel like that for every assignment before, because I didn't have a formal design education, there was a lot of coming up with things and they would work but I didn't quite get why-

Maurice: Hmm.

Husani: -I didn't quite have mastery of, say, contrast, and color, and form. Or using grid systems, I would end up just approximating things when I did certain layouts, and it would work, but then as a tool you might just want to start with a grid. And things just came together a lot faster. And so, it did help me just to have more confidence. I don't think people necessarily need to have it. I know you feature people who are really successful who didn't have it, and I also, like I was saying before, I think it can be disservice to people to have too much of a design education say, in college when you really should just be filling up with more of a liberal arts education. You talk about Morehouse, learning about the world, learning, absorbing those ideas. That's where you really start to develop the right mindset and then later on having some design education is helpful. Some people can just go to Lynda.com and learn some things, they don't necessarily need the degree. But no, there was a part of me that saw it as this goal, coming out of Harvard, in some ways I was like "okay, if I do want to get a degree I want it to sort of top the name recognition of Harvard." At least in my own mind, I know it doesn't-

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Husani: -a lot of people don't really care. And I felt, Parsons, which is one of the top five design schools, I think, in the world. I felt like "okay, I'll get to learn from some of the best, and I won't have to dig for everything on my own. People can then present certain concepts or principles to me that I could absorb, and it wouldn't be as hard as if I was trying to pave that way independently."

Maurice: Yeah.

Husani: And so, I found that it was helpful, especially when it came to user experience design and digital product design. The world is going more and more that way, you see at agencies you have your marketing and advertising people, and then you have your product design people. And if I ever, as I rise in the ranks and potentially go full time, I want to be able to give actionable and insightful wisdom on to anything that's coming my way. And for me, it'd end up giving me the confidence to feel more like that's feasible.

Maurice: And now, speaking of design education, you're about to embark on a design education journey of your own at SVA, right?

Husani: Yes. Since December, I've been doing lesson planning to prepare for a Creative Methodology class called Killer Work, and I'm co-teaching that with someone named Mark Simon Burk, he's a really great guy, he'd been teaching the Creative Methodology class for 20 years. I was actually a student of his in the past. I really am a fan of lifelong learning. Not only learning, but then giving back and teaching. And so, that class is about to start in the beginning of June and I'm excited for it. I also have been just doing a lot of other things in education because giving back is something that was sort of instilled in me at a young age. It was a man named John Hoffman, who founded the Albert G. Oliver Program, and one of the tenants of the program is to make sure that people did community service and gave back. And so, over the years I've done many things for education beyond what I did for Donors Choose, I've also done a lot of stuff for the 4A's, you know the 4A's, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, they're the ones that created the MAIP Program.

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Husani: So I've done the React Competitions, I was part of their High School Education Initiative Diversity Steering Committee, I used to volunteer to do their Education Initiative career days helping some of these younger students. I also for Ad Council used to do Advertising Futures Program, and even did some One Club portfolio reviews. So I'm constantly trying to give back and now that you mention it too, I was also trying to be a substitute teacher to teach at these two different advertising high schools that were created because the advertising industry was sued for lacking diversity. But rather than just making it rain in the streets they were like "all right, well let's fund two advertising high schools." And one of them is called MECA, or the Manhattan Early College of Advertising, and the other's called High School IAM, or the High School of Innovation of Advertising and Media.

Husani: And so, I was doing substitute teacher training for those and I only had one more thing to do but that's when my mother passed away. Then I had to get shoulder surgery from a cycling injury, and then grad school started. And so, I might revisit either doing the substitute teacher training for that, or there is another CTE Program where I could actually jut become a full time teacher. And so, I'm having a hard time trying to decide, do I double down and just really get into education or keep making that the thing I do on the side? And I've been in talks also with Doug Davis, who you featured before on your podcast.

Maurice: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Husani: He's the chair of the BFA Program at the New York City College of Technology and he is inviting me to potentially work with some students evaluating portfolios, and then maybe even work my way up to being faculty. And so, I always want to give back and I feel like it's a good thing. It's just a good thing in general to be able to share wisdom and nurture who's coming up. And so, I'm excited about the class at SVA, and I'm excited about any of these educational things that are coming down the road.

Maurice: When you look back at your career what do you wish you would've known when you first started?

Husani: That another good question too. I try to think abundantly, and sometimes it could bite me in the ass. I think early in my career, especially coming out of Harvard, then selling all that work that I sold as an intern, being at BBDO, which is basically one of the top ad agencies, basically the top ad agency network in the world, I just thought the opportunities were just going to keep coming. And so, there are a few assignments where I did all right, but a part of me sometimes wish it was like, "oh, if I only knew, or if only could've done this, or if only just did a little bit extra on that." And I think people have to recognize that yes, thinking abundantly is good, don't take certain things for granted as a result of that.

Maurice: Hmm.

Husani: And so, if I knew then what I know now I think I would've boned up on my technical skills a little bit more, understanding that, like I was saying before, sometimes clients or internal teams might lack a bit of imagination and sometimes they like to see those shiny objects. And so, I might've been able to develop some of these things a little bit better. I've created some ideas that might have had mobile app components, but if I knew then what I know now I would've been able to actually show how that app could work so I'd be leaving less to the imaginations of people who are viewing the work. And I think really just tackle each assignment like it's your last, because you never know when that one assignment, that on project you do is the thing that leads to the next thing, which then leads to the next thing, and it all builds momentum. And so, if I could change anything I think, as dedicated as I was, I'm pretty hard on myself so right now I'm talking about "oh I wish I went harder." I went pretty damn hard, but I think I could've worked a little smarter. And so, I'd say that's something I carry with me a bit and I never want to have that feeling again.

Maurice: Now you've mentioned this education that you're about to go into, in terms of teaching and everything. And even what you're mentioning with Doug Davis. I'm curious when you look further out, let's say the next five years or so, what kind of work do you want to be doing? Where do you see yourself?

Husani: Okay. I see myself doing a number of things. I think now, I was talking about thinking abundantly, for a long time I felt that you could really only do one thing, even though I had five things I was doing, when it came to my career and my source of income I was only, for a long time, thinking that one thing was really feasible. And more and more now I'm seeing that I can wear many hats. And so, down the road I see myself as more a senior leadership, possibly full time somewhere. I also recently created an LLC, it's a creative consultancy, so I plan on also engaging in work with more clients, I've already had a number of them. Yeah, that's really what I see when it comes to a creative standpoint. I see myself potentially also maybe rolling out some mobile apps. This idea I had for a mobile app before the app Headspace came out was a synchronized meditation app, and this was back in 2010. And there was some research that I had come across, it was call the DC Crime Study, and it's basically they are like 1,000 transcendental meditators who tried to lower the crime rate just by meditation alone. And the Institute of Crime and Public Policy saw about a 30% reduction in crime in comparison to other years-

Maurice: Hmm.

Husani: -during that time period. So I saw that and I thought that was really interesting.

Maurice: Yeah.

Husani: And I also started seeing stuff on the power of focused intention and how focused intention can alter the structure of water crystals, like if you meditate in water crystals and examine them in a microscope if you have positive emotions it looks like snowflakes, if it's negative emotions it looked like a warbled mess. And some of that research that I started to see, this was even after 9/11, there were these random event generators all around the globe and there was this organization called The Global Coherence Initiative and they noticed that the earth's magnetic field had changes, what they attributed to depressed emotions, large scale depressed emotions. And so, after seeing all this I thought "wouldn't it be great to have a synchronized meditation app that allows people to meditate on certain issues simultaneously" and from that DC Crime Study there was termed called the Maharishi Effect, which says that the square root of 1% of a population could affect that population. And so, I wanted to roll out that app, I couldn't do it because I didn't really have the know-how, Headspace came out afterwards, that was more of an individual meditation and it wasn't until grad school I was like "okay let me just make one of my projects what that app would be" and that's in my portfolio now, it's an app called Coherence.

Husani: And so, I see myself potentially even rolling that out. Or maybe rolling out another app, or maybe a mobile game. Maybe even some side stuff in real estate. And so, I'm now more prepared to open myself up to the world and to allow things in, and to pursue different paths and not have it only be just in advertisement.

Maurice: Well, Husani, just to kind of wrap things up here where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Husani: Sure. They could follow me on Instagram if you'd like, it's HusaniBarnwell, that's H-U-S-A-N-I-B-A-R-N-W-E-L-L. There's also on Twitter, I'm Husani with Twitter. And I know that's... I know Husani Oakley and that's the blogger's name.

Maurice: Yeah. Yeah.

Husani: And I think him as well. Then there's Pinterest, I keep a Pinterest profile that I go regularly and I'm a super prolific pinner. I keep things organized by typography, or graphic design, fashion, there's so many different categories and I curate it really well. And so, that's Husanicreative or you can find me on Working Not Working under Husani.

Maurice: All right. Sounds good. Well, Husani Barnwell I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for first just talking about the work you do, sharing the years and years you put into this industry, but also really communicating what your passion is behind why you do what you do, why you strive for excellence. I think that's something that people who listen to this will certainly pick up and learn from. And hopefully we'll be seeing more of you in the future, especially as it relates to design education. I think that's really something that's needed right now as more and more people are getting into design in a lot of nontraditional ways. Some of them are going to four year institutions, some of them are not, but I think it's still good to have people of color in the ranks in design education. So, just kind of putting that out there. But... No, again, thank you so much for coming on the show, I really appreciate it.

Husani: Yeah. Thank you. I really appreciate that you invited me and I welcome being amongst all the esteemed company that you've already featured on the show. And so, thank you for having me, I appreciate it.