07.26.22
Dana Arnett + Kevin Bethune | Audio

S10E3: Vernon Lockhart


Vernon Lockhart is the Executive Director of Project Osmosis, a Chicago based design education and mentoring initiative.

Vernon spoke about the importance of creating actual change within the design community, and not just giving lip service to ideas about diversity and inclusion:
We all have the human right to be creative, I truly believe that we all do. And it shouldn't be based on finance, or borders, or boundaries. You know that those things need to be removed and we need to do it in a way where not only just break them down, but make sure that they can't be rebuilt.

Next Week: Kaleena Sales and Omari Souza weigh in on the state of design education.

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This season’s theme music is from Mike Errico. Photo credit: Philip Thomas

TRANSCRIPT

Kevin Bethune
Welcome to The Design of Business,

Dana Arnett
The Business of Design.

Kevin Bethune
Where we talk with leaders in their fields...

Dana Arnett
...About how innovation, access, and curiosity are redesigning their worlds. I'm Dana Arnett.

Kevin Bethune
And I'm Kevin Bethune. This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by ArtCenter College of Design, a global leader in art and Design Education. Later on, we'll hear from Andrew Harlow, a member of ArtCenter's film faculty.

Dana Arnett
On today's episode, mentorship and metamorphosis.

Vernon Lockhart
Once you get this started, you get out the way. You know, you back up and let young people be creative. You don't you don't over of of what that looks like. Then that's where the best projects come from for us.

Kevin Bethune
Vernon Lockhart is the executive director of Project Osmosis, an education and mentoring initiative that emerged from the Chicago chapter of the Organization of Black Designers. And he also serves as an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Design.

Dana Arnett
Vernon is also founder and principal of Art on the Loose, a creative consulting firm specializing in exhibition design and brand identity.

Kevin Bethune
Vernon, welcome to the podcast.

Vernon Lockhart
Thank you, guys. Thanks for having me. Such a pleasure to be here.

Dana Arnett
Vernon, how are you today?

Vernon Lockhart
I'm doing good, man. I know, you know, I know me and Dana we go back. So, so good to be with you Dana, and it's so nice to meet you Kevin.

Kevin Bethune
Nice to meet you, too.

Dana Arnett
Well, let's get started. I'll go back to our origins. We're both fellow Chicagoans we met many years ago— gosh, I guess it's almost three decades ago. You were this curious college graduate, kind of a groupie at VSA hanging out with your pal, Rich Nelson.

Vernon Lockhart
Yeah.

Dana Arnett
And I could see this bright future glimmer in your eye back then, but I honestly could never have predicted your current life, which is so masterfully blended creativity, activism, and stewardship. But before we go there, I have a question that might not make sense at all to our listeners who don't know you and even ones that maybe who do know you. Here's the question: who is Ultraman?

Vernon Lockhart
Oh, that's funny. Yes. So Ultraman, that's a great part of my lineage there. Well, so Ultraman is actually a superhero, Asian superhero, from really the late sixties seventies. I'm originally from Saint Louis and so when I would go to school, when I was a youngster, the kids at school would, you know, kids can be brutal, brutally and lovingly, but brutally honest in some cases. And in my case, growing up, I had this very slanted head, right? And so some of the kids at school would call would call me things like, you know, football and stuff like that. But one day I went to school and this character Ultraman, if you see him, he's got this very sloped head and so the kids at school started calling me Ultraman. And so, I learned from my mother to — I went home when they did that and kind of was not happy about it and you know whining about it. And my mother, who I affectionately call Baby Girl, basically said, wait a minute, is that the superhero that you run home from school every other day to see, you know? And I said, yes. She said: Boy, you better take that negative and make it a positive. Right. And so I instantly decided to brand myself, you know, as the superhero, as a kid. And I went home and took a shirt and drew this character on it and went back to school and all my, you know, classmates and people they were like: Oh, Ultraman, oh that's so cool. And then I pop my collar and the name stuck, right? So ever since that's been sort of my alter ego name. And so now I carry it of course with pride. You can see it on our even in our business little outline. We all have our alter egos and superhero characters. So that is Ultraman. That's where Ultraman comes from.

Dana Arnett
Love it.

Kevin Bethune
Very, very cool. And when investigating your story, I found that you had early exposure to creativity through your mother, who you affectionately call Baby Girl, which is really, really endearing. And that eventually led you to pursue an education at the School of Art Institute of Chicago.

Vernon Lockhart
Mhm.

Kevin Bethune
So showing up to art class and realizing that perhaps no one looked like you, how did that feel for you and how did you internalize that?

Vernon Lockhart
That's a great question. So the way it felt for me, I was fortunate in a sense that, you know, my-my mother, Baby Girl and my father, Lafayette— I affectionately called him Fete. They instilled a certain level of confidence that me can be, you know, even when I didn't know it was being instilled, right. To your question, Kevin — I was exposed to design by my mother who wanted to be a designer.

Kevin Bethune
Mhm.

Vernon Lockhart
So, but for a person of color in the sixties, fifties and sixties, wanting to learn, design and go to school for that was unheard of. So instead, she wound up buying these books. She worked to get the money to get these books and put her in the purchasing- they were called Famous Art Course Books, and they had artists like Norman Rockwell. And I mean, these books went back, right? So when I was about five, she-she saw me drawing and doodling and being creative, and she gave those books to me. And so for me, that confidence and that kind of internal structure was there. And so to answer your question, fast forward to going to college and school. And I was doing that in the in the late eighties or early nineties, right. So going to school for this and I would be sitting in the classrooms and things and, and I would notice that was very obvious that I might be one of, you know, that's it as far as a person of color. And I learned very quickly that that could, in some cases, mean that I would not be seen or not be visible. In other cases, I would be visible. So it really depended on what was going on in the structure. It was difficult. So I'm not going to sugarcoat that. It was difficult because there weren't others who looked like me, or at least at the time that I didn't know, right. And so in some ways, it was incentive because it put me on this quest of saying, you know, I know where I'm from and I know, you know, people and men and young ladies and women and, you know, people from my tribe that I grew up with that were super creative. But I recognized that I was in this privileged place. You know, there was things that like what I just described of getting these books and putting up put on this journey super early. So I recognize many of my peers and others that didn't have that, which is why they weren't in those classrooms at that time, they weren't exposed to it. So literally, as I'm sitting there, I was going: You know what? Even then, I was going: If I get a chance, you know, I'mma change some of this. You know, I want to- or at least I want to make sure that those who are from where I am, who may not know of this. So I'm that kind of person where I go, it's not just me. It's all of us. Right. You know, I was looking at the whole sphere and saying, as an industry, there's a lot of people that just don't know that this is even possible. But that's also a lonely trek. You know, when you kind of come to that recognition that, you know, if you're in a room that are dominantly white, you know, you recognize, okay, I'm the minority here. But again, I viewed it as an opportunity, I think, in many ways. You know, I mean, I think this kind of an optimistic mindset, right. But it also set me on a quest to find others.

Kevin Bethune
Absolutely.

Vernon Lockhart
So that was that incentive too I was like, okay, this is just one classroom or this is just, you know, and where I'm from, I knew creative folks. I knew they weren't in school, many weren't. But I said: you know, this is more of how things are set up by design in some ways. You know, unfortunately, you have to admit that when the numbers are that far off, this is due to lack of exposure. So that's a long answer, but it's the one from my heart, so—

Kevin Bethune
No, no, it absolutely resonates, especially from personal experiences as well. So I appreciate you sharing that. So when I think about, how can we maybe connect those early experiences and impressions that you had if we were to fast forward — how do those convictions that were forming remain steady? Or perhaps how do they change, as you as we lead up to the start of Project Osmosis?

Vernon Lockhart
So I think those incentives intensify as I went through school and college and, you know, I recognized again how fortunate I was to meet what I call open minded creative citizens like a Dana or, you know, different ones who on these journeys that it wasn't a closed door mindset, right? And so for me, it was even more it added to my drive, right. I basically said: okay, this is an honor and a privilege to be in this position. And the and coming from a person like a Baby Girl, you know, I also recognized she told me something when I was on this journey and started to work and get jobs. And, you know, I said, Baby Girl, I'm going to one day I might be this famous designer, this big thing, and I'm going to when I do that, I'm going to go and I'm going to buy you this big design house and I'm going to get you you know, you're going to have your design dogs and blah, blah, blah. She was like, know baby Vern, No, no, no, don't, don't, don't do that. I'm good. I'm good here in Saint Louis where I'm at.. She said, you know, on this journey, though, when you see other youngsters or if you see someone else, with that gleam in their eyes like you have. Then you do something about it. You try to make sure that there's a line for them to get. And that's literally there was a consortium of us. It wasn't just me, you know, it was several of us and we call ourselves Osmosites now, right. And so we kind of just really started to look at the whole landscape. And then, as was mentioned, more as a partner organization, black design. And so. So that's how all that it's, you know, really, it was this sort of thing that was just happening that was part of my DNA that I wasn't really like thinking about where it would lead to, today or things like that. It was more of this this initiative that felt, you know, compelled, obligated to do. And then momentum just started building, you know, so that natural, normal interest in design, period — design as a problem solving tool, right. I learned that very early with my Ultraman experience. You know, I turned that into a small business, right? Designing other posters and superheroes for people. So you start to learn that you can use creativity and design to initiate ways to solve problems, just like you solve a creative challenge or a problem. So that's, you know, just been consistent for me. And that's that's just what I do. That's what I do now.

Dana Arnett
So, Vernon, congratulations, by the way, the inaugural recipient of the IBM Empowerment Award. You're very modest, guy. But what I love about you is you're not just a dreamer, you're a doer. And I know that that came to life and was a principle part of why they've recognized you. And part of that dream, I know, is eventually building a Osmosis Design Center on the south side of Chicago, where young people can dream and learn and express themselves in a safe environment. For our listeners, though, let's talk a little bit more specifically about the current programs that make up Project Osmosis and how those might be the building blocks for the future.

Vernon Lockhart
It's a great question, Dana. Thank you. Our programs are the core of what we do. We have several programs and they're basically they cover the gamut of ages. And in serving in these areas and the programs kind of are actually created by the young people, are by the people who are around, who we see. We'll go to gradeschools and do introductions on on design. We would go into the communities and we would give a big presentation on what is design, you know, and then from that we give out resources and goodies and information on design so that as a program. Probably one of our most powerful ones. And this was in connection to Marcia Lausen and others at UIC, which is where I lecture. We did a thing called Design Youth Forum. This particular program — I was actually going to do a meeting several years ago with my mentor, Charles Harrison- Chuck Harrison, and when I was on my way in, there was these youngsters standing outside kind of looking in, and I kind of walked up to them in my Saint Louis quite way, and they were like: Oh! You know, and I said: Oh, I don't mean to scare you all, but I said, Do you know what this is with your looking at? And they were like: No. And then I was like: This is a design school. So they were looking into one of the, you know, atriums and kind of trying to see what it was to say this is a design school. So, you know, and they were like: No, we have no idea. We don't do that, you know, and they were all so nervous. And then I said, Well, I'm a designer and I'm actually meeting somebody here. I said— so a light went off in my head another time, but I went, you know, and I went to check and I met and I said: Chuck, there are these young, people and they don't even know what this place is. So he said: Yeah Vernon, what are you going to do about it? Right. And so, so I was like: oh, man. And, you know, he he kind of was mentoring me, you know, and it hit me that best that pay foward that Baby Girl was telling me. And so I went in and and I said, you know, there are young people that are in this area, you know, of color and different ethnic groups that don't know what this is. And that's a shame. They need to be invited in here. And I said— and I learned quickly that the biggest reasons why people aren't exposed to something, is becuase they never received an invitation. And so that's what that was. So we basically got together with some other Osmosis folks, you know, and we created this program, created these creative start up kids because we recognize there are many in high school that still hadn't-that didn't know what this was. And so we decided during spring break to have this form on campus, and we basically got the whole design campus. So the first one we had maybe about 40 students because we were getting our feet wet and trying to figure it out. The second we had about 120, you know from Chicago area that were interested in design to the point that we had to assign the different disciplines right. And then of course it just snowballed. We got instructors for each program. One of the things that I, I know the power of networking and we're all a lot of designers are shy by nature, including myself, but I learned and I think the St Louis street's taught me, you know, you got to be able to negotiate. You got to be able to really present things in a way which is palatable for people so they'll say yes to it. And that's what we did with the Youth Forum. And so fast forward. I actually just met with Marcia last week. We're going to be making plans — due to COVID we we weren't able to do it for a few years. But from that program, we've been doing that now for 20 years. There are creatives that are now professionals in this industry. And that, for me is the you know, if you see one of them and they come up to you and say: hey, I remember I was in there, I was in the Design Youth Forum, and now I work here or I'm in Sony or I'm over here in this country. And I had reached tears you know? You know, I try to be I try to be hard, but nah, that makes me just, you know.

Kevin Bethune
So one of your programs, Design Explorers, focuses on young men of color. And I quote, branding yourself versus being branded by others.

Vernon Lockhart
Yes.

Kevin Bethune
And so can you talk a little bit more about the intersection of identity, self-awareness, and professional opportunity?

Vernon Lockhart
Absolutely. So again, rewinding back to my own childhood and the importance of that branding. If you come from areas that are very, you know, underserved and I say underserved or lacking resources, I'd rather say that than because people are being overlooked, right. So it's interesting with the brand because when you think about the business of branding, you're grading or redesigning a reformatting something. So people will see it and notice it and you know, and then get their true sense of what the identity that's what they call the brand identity to really understand what that thing is and what it does and what it's about, its own, you know, culture, or legacy. And so we recognize here in Chicago, for example, a good example is that men, especially young men, are pre-branded. You know, if they have locks in their hair or if they wear their clothes a certain way, they're viewed as as as troubled or as an outcast, or as— it's almost it's an automatic thing. And then, of course, media and modern, you know, can kind of really sort of push that forward, that that's what they are and that's how they think and that's how they feel. And so for the Design Explorers, that's kind of how that those things grew, because we were recognizing that a lot of young men were just being pre-branded. And to your point, one of the things I learned really quickly is if you don't brand yourself, someone else will. You know, this world will do that. And so there were several young men in the area, some who had reached out to us, some who we reached out to them. And it was during our 20 anniversary, we called in 20 for 20. You know, 20 young men, you know, rebrand themselves. And so we sat with them, talked about what was going on. The first thing we're telling them as you all the strong you all aew this and you all are that. So tell us what people think you are and tell us what you really are. So we wanted them to understand how brand identity worked. And so they would tell us, well, people think because I wear my hair like this, that I don't- I'm not smart, I'm not this. And I said, okay, so now how would you turn it into your true brand identity? And the work and the pieces that came out of this, and some of those men are young men are in this field now. So, again, it's not just me, but what we do with the young men and with the programs is we embrace them during the program. And that's the thing that's missing. And then what that does is that confidence level just goes. And then we get out the way we literally, you know, but we make sure the big challenge for us now is once we get that spark, is to make sure they have the resources like, you know, so that's part of what we do now is talking with universities and corporate corporations because many of them got late starts. So there may not be they may not be in a position to go to a four year program, or they, they're not pre-scholars and they're not, you know, so we try to figure out other ways to make sure that they stay in the field and have opportunity.

Kevin Bethune
This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by ArtCenter College of Design.

Andrew Harlow
Hi. It's Andy Harlow, talking to you from the beautiful campus in Pasadena. I'm an instructor and adjunct faculty in the film department with specialization in commercial advertising.

Kevin Bethune
At ArtCenter, Andrew is deeply involved in facilitating collaborations between his students and exciting sponsored project.

Andrew Harlow
ArtCenter is known for its transportation design. Working with them as a first time film and collaborated with transportation design for the Lincoln Ford model. The brief basically was, design a Lincoln automobile in the year 2040. And so we've created stories not only just about, oh, look at this wonderfully designed car, but the kind of people who are going to drive them. What was going to motivate them in the future? What are they looking for? And you could dig really deeper. So it's not just a superficial dive into car design or whatever the product is. I do you remember presenting to to Jim Farley, CEO of Ford. I think when you've got someone who's representing such a huge established corporation, it immediately sets the students off into —this is real. I'm presenting in a once in a lifetime opportunity. It takes them outside their comfort zone, the challenges them to think in certain ways, finding solutions to things in a new way.

Kevin Bethune
Partner with ArtCenter and build a creative team to lead you into the future. Contact Partnerships at Art Center dot edu.

Dana Arnett
Yeah, you're kind of getting into an area, Vernon, where you're, you've been at a pioneer in terms of not only creating these programs, but you have to wear a nonprofit hat and fundraise and and you're doing it very successful. And now we're starting to really see the fruits of your labor and those of your colleagues scaling. And, you know, beyond Chicago, which is the perfect place where you could probably spend many, many days, hours and years as you have, building something extraordinary. Do you have a broader goal of, you know, influencing the bigger design ecosystem that spans the globe and maybe the utilities that you've created and programs— can they do that?

Vernon Lockhart
Part of our, I think, endgame with this is to create sort of this template or almost a blueprint that can go into other cities and communities. And we we already created informed partnerships with individuals. You know, so for me, when I say we all have the human right to be creative, I truly believe that we all do and it shouldn't be based on finance, or borders, or boundaries. You know that those things need to be removed and we need to do it in a way where not only just break them down, but make sure that they can't be rebuilt. My mother would always tell me, you know, you can change your policy, but that doesn't change your heart condition. So you have to want to change this industry. You have to want to to see to it that these young people get as far as you, if not further. So, yes, you know, and I'm a businessman, too, right now. That's the part that I've learned along the way with this. You can have a father like a Lafayette and not, you know, that brother was gangster. So you learn business. One of the things you learn about business is that you have to create what wasn't there. You have to create opportunities. You have to speak it. You know, this is the energy thing, too. And so we really we really try to do that with the work that we do. And then also, I have to make sure that I don't get in the way, because a lot of times when you're the director are people look at you as something like that. There's a new influx coming in. And I recognize that some of the young people that we've been working with, they have a different mindset than me. You know, they'll go, they'll ask question— and Dana's experience this — they'll go to a firm and ask questions and it's like, oh, you know, we. weren't expect those questions, right? But its that open, we want them to recognize that even if someone doesn't look like you in the industry, you have a right to the.

Kevin Bethune
Yes, yes. So so part of what comes with preparing this next generation for this world of business that is changing so much is changing the conversation and terms that come with it. We both have concerns that words like diversity have become almost a placeholder and an act of lip service that keeps us from moving forward, honestly. And to me, this is at the heart of what you're doing and what needs to be done. I mean, do you do you agree with that sentiment?

Vernon Lockhart
I personally don't like the word diversity for that-that reason. I've heard it for years and it's been a placeholder word, you know. I would even do projects that talk about diversity. And someone would say okay we got to be diverse. So get an Asian person, black person, white person or this person and do a brochure and put it out there. And then, you know, once that's done and printed, it's like, okay, well, that doesn't mean that you're included still, you know. And so I personally just would recognize the difference of saying it and then creating things to make sure that it happens. And so that's to me the big difference and also being impeccable with your words. And so I think in our industry, we really have to look at even how the curriculum is, how design is taught in schools. So we can't expect things to change if we're still teaching only a Euro-perspective of what design is. Right. And that to that other point of feeling, a little disconnected from it, you know, when you go to a school and you don't see anything about you or anything like you're in the curriculum, and it's no disrespect to Bahaus and Helvetica and all these things. They're incredible and it's great, design is amazing, but there are other things that are equally as great from other typefaces. And, you know, even going back to Egypt and looking at the scripts and things and and how that type is, that all connects to culture. And even here in Illinois and where we live. And, you know, like Dana said about Midwest brothers and where we from, there are cultural things relevant to that area that you gather and take with you. But as designers, we have to also have that mindset to look at great design across the water. And then it's just it's just great design. And then it's then that word inclusion has force. It really, really means something because you're in a room of, I hope for the day when this is happening now, I think it's starting where you can't tell the majority in their room, right. It's like this is all these creatives and there are different styles and profiles and how they but all each of them matter, you know, and you may see a person that, that you think is that that's what's happening in culture. I know where I'm from again in person, they look at me. They go, Oh, he's a black designer. He's that. And it's like, No, my background is not actually, you know, it can be pre— So I think inclusion means to not prescript it but invite people in and then let's just see what happens.

Dana Arnett
So, Vernon, as we close out this conversation, I'll go back to something you said earlier— we all have the right to be creative. And as we fast forward from those early days and the current one, which is a life of sort of grassroots activism and doing and dreaming, can you share maybe a new, unexpected insight that you've learned recently that might point to the future of Project Osmosis?

Vernon Lockhart
Yes.

Dana Arnett
That's a big question, right?

Vernon Lockhart
Yeah, it is. It really is. Well, I would say. One big one — I used to feel very alone in this trek of trying to get this design center done. But the thing that I didn't realize is that the champions behind it will be these young people who we were working with all along. So for me, the unexpected thing is the sort of passion from the very ones who we, you know, introduced and introduced is not the best word, but who maybe because of being connected to us at a given time, were exposed more to it and they become the ambassadors. And so that's the big how quickly it can change when you invest in it. And the investment isn't just, you know, even a check, the investment is making sure, you know, it's the love that goes into it. Anybody who finds out that you truly love them and care about them, they're gonna want to contribute. They're going to want to really make a difference in it, too. And then I would say the other part is that we live in a time now that people do want to and they're just trying to figure out how to. And that's been a pleasant surprise for me because I've been, you know, for a long, long time. It's been the— internal feeling for me. And it can create calluses, you know, because it's kind of like, okay, you know, nobody's going to really do anything with this. And then it at about you, like, let me just do my service and step aside. So it's the true brand about Osmosis is that it was going from one end of the spectrum to the other. But I never expected is I would get so much out of the service where for me I feel like I've gotten way more out of the not going to ever get to it.

Kevin Bethune
Well, the love is clearly invested and it's coming back to you tenfold, hundred fold it sounds like. So job well done. And we just want to thank you so much.

Vernon Lockhart
Thank you, guys. I'm grateful to be here, Dana and Kevin, thanks for having man.

Dana Arnett
And Vernon, thank you.

Kevin Bethune
The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer. Our website is DBBD dot Design Observer dot com. There you can find more about our guest today, Vernon Lockhart, plus the complete archive from past guests and hosts. To listen go to DBBD dot Design Observer dot com.

Dana Arnett
If you like what you heard today, please subscribe to this podcast. You can find The Design of Business | The Business of Design in Apple Podcasts or however you listen to podcasts.

Kevin Bethune
And if you're already a subscriber to the podcast, tell your friends about the show or go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about the show.

Dana Arnett
Between episodes keep up with us at Design Observer on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And make sure to stay tuned for next week's minisode with Kaleena Sales and Omari Souza.

Kevin Bethune
Our producer is Adina Karp. Judybelle Camangyan edits the show. Our theme music is by Mike Errico. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder, Jessica Helfand and other previous hosts Ellen McGirt and Michael Bierut and to Design Observer executive producer, Betsy Vardell.

Dana Arnett
See you next time.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Design of Business | Business of Design



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