Product Designer, Hue Collective Co-Founder, Entrepreneur
Cicada’s singing, airplanes overhead, whistling trains and the distant conversations of fellow Hue Design Summit attendees, create the perfect background noise and ambiance for our conversation, about what success means to him and its impact, embracing himself authentically, and the impactful work he does.
Definition of Success
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Alphonso Jordan. I am a product designer, and I’ve been designing in general for the last thirteen years. I did architecture for my undergrad, and that was my first experience with design. I went to a design school for my master’s degree, my MA, and I’ve been in the startup space ever since, from graduating from there in 2015.
I identify as African-American, my mom’s actually Native American but she doesn’t talk about it enough for me to understand what’s going there. But definitely black too! It’s a little bit of both, but for the legalities and the sake of just being appropriate, African-American.
What communities do you consider yourself to be apart of?
Actually, a lot, to be honest. From a literal standpoint the black community, because the black community in general has been one that’s been at the mercy of a lot of people that have been in control.
I have empathy for other communities, whether that’s women, LGBTQ, low-income, under-served under-banked, those who are outcast for the most part. So I try to do and fit in with others as much as possible without being an intruder.
But I really do own by blackness…
What was your first introduction to the field of design?
I grew up, playing with Legos a lot, one of my collective members Randall is a big Lego person too. But growing up with Legos in Germany, K’NEXs, I’ve had a liking for building things and designing things. And so the first thing I did in the U.S, when I was ten was trying to see how I could use that in a career going forward. At an early age I’ve always wanted to design buildings, build houses and what not.
I needed math, so I got good in that process. I went to Georgia Tech, and studied architecture. I learned a few other design skills in the process, which led to Graphic Design, learning how to present, how to layout presentations and boards and stuff like that. So communication became a secondary thing I picked up, and so, ever since the Lego, its kind of yielded itself as part design and branding now.
What has your experience been like as an African-American Designer?
“I’ve had a black designer tell me, work twice as hard to get half as far and then I had another black designer tell me you can’t create but so much to make a difference…”
On Creating Impactful Work
“What you’re working on, has to have some kind of impact.”
“I don’t believe in doing something just for show.”
Is there a correlation between you being an athlete and product designer?
I try to keep them separate as much as possible until I can’t.
For a long time, people would say athletes get it easy, especially in school, you know ‘oh you get a free pass or free ride…’ I can tell you right now, Georgia Tech, that’s not the case. I did double the work anyone else did, because of sports. But as I got older, I realized that being an athlete has a ton of advantages, from teamwork to management to discipline. So its yielded a lot of qualities that I think carry over.
But at the same time I do a lot and I don’t want sports to elevate me to a status above anyone else and a lot of times people revere athletes as that and so I’d much rather be on the same playing field as everyone else, so I typically don’t talk about it. I just think that I offer much more than my athletic endeavors.
My definition of success has allowed me to not make it all about me. I’ve had people in my life who have expressed and shown me what life is really about. A lot of times people make splashes on the beach and those are the ones who are seeking attention and validation, based off of money and cars and notoriety. The people who make the biggest impact are the ones who aren’t chasing it like that, like the ones who are giving back, for example you can take people like Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Garret Morgan, people who did stuff that made a difference to help people and the impact is still felt today.
I ask myself ‘how can I take something and share it with someone else?’ And if I can do that, then I’m good.
Dangers of Social Media
But in terms of relying upon a digital platform to provide meaning for your life, I think is dangerous. Very toxic.
I’ve met a lot of dope people on social media. I get my news from Twitter. I get my laughs from Twitter. But it can also be a very toxic environment. I think its dangerous to rely on that. Go outside! Jump some rope!
Everything isn’t meant to have a picture. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve been to a lot of countries and I take pictures for myself, if at all, let me go out here and enjoy it for myself, its just for me. People be adding filters to nature, I’m like it don’t get no better than this.
But I learned that, sometimes you gotta get away from stuff and some stuff is just for you, it ain’t meant to be shared. People, they want to share stuff for the validation and they want the attention and that’s dangerous…Somebody who ain’t even paying your bills. If that works for you, I guess, but that ain’t me. It took me awhile to get there. I had an upbringing, in a structure and I saw value in things that other people didn’t.
If Instagram goes away, what happens to a lot of people, you don’t even exist and I didn’t want my life to be tied to that.
The Hue Collective
I wanted to come out here and create something self-sustaining. That it can stand outside of these pillars that we’ve built around “success”. We gotta be intentional, we gotta have purpose. That’s pretty much what the collective is about, what this summit is about. Something so small, a mustard seed can grow to this. My definition of success has allowed me to focus on what really matters.
I think that now we’ve gotten to a point, where you can still lose your life now if you step out of line, but I think that now, the affordability to come out here and break the mold is much easier and not life or death. Now resources are still an issue, opportunity is still an issue, but I think now you see more of us jumping out of that thinking and you have stuff life this (Hue Design Summit).
You have Eddie Opara, Renee Reid, Oen Hammond, you have Beyonce. She’s the greatest! Her Netflix special is incredible. I watched it like three times already. I’m impressed! I enjoy watching other people enjoy their craft. What excites you? And if I can see you loving what you’re doing and how hard and passionate you are, I try to bring the same thing to what I’m working on.
When I’m here thinking about the Summit, I give it my all, because they expect that and they deserve that.
Barriers to Entry
A lot of times, we (the community) stop each other. People struggle to get there and they don’t want to share an easy way to get there as well, which I think society, you know, incorrectly taught us that there isn’t enough for everyone to go around, a piece of the pie, and that’s not the case! If you look at the grand scheme of things, we’re still so small.
People think that one black hire is the diversity hire for the company, so they don’t need anymore and that isn’t true, you can never have too much diverse talent on a team and so its kind of disheartening to see other black creatives sometimes be that barrier to entry. That’s one of the things that I didn’t realize, I learned more about it in the startup space and design space, but it carries over.
“You can always get a lot of inspiration and support from old black idioms and phrases… ‘rising tide raises all ships’ or ‘if you want to go far you go together, faster go alone’ these things matter.”
A Message To Community
I don’t think that the black community and society in general needs one person as a leader. That’s dangerous! For a number of reasons. We put so much pressure on that person, that person gets knocked off then what happens next? So it has to be a very organic continuum, I don’t know what to call it, but it has to be moving together at the end of the day.
Kind of like how water moves.
Fills up spaces.
Always bringing things together.
A lot of times when it comes to helping other people out, its not about what you can offer me. You can help me by paving it forward for somebody else. If I can stoke a fire in you and you can pass that on to the next person and stoke the fire in the next person. Tupac said it, I may not change the world, but somebody I’m rapping for is going to change the world. I think that everyone wants to come out here and change the world, like ‘I want to be the person who changed 6 billion people’s lives’. I ain’t all that, if I can touch say 100 families and if someone of those 100 families becomes something meaningful in life then that’s all that matters.
“Ego will blind you from a lot of stuff.”
Be yourself. Don’t hide. Your stories are worth telling. Your experiences are worth telling. You grew up in one area, or lived this kind of way, doesn’t negate who you are and what you bring to the world. Because every story matters. So don’t hide. Don’t be afraid to work hard, its going to be some long nights, tough nights. I was up working last night to 12:30 AM, had to wake up at 3:00 AM and be at the airport. But sometimes you have to sacrifice your comfort, you know? Like I said, your greatest opportunity’s outside your comfort zone.
Pull up your sleeves, don’t hide who you are, and get shit done.
” Luck is when opportunity and preparation meet.”
What Do You Wish People Would Ask You More Often?
Well its not so much what I wish people would ask, its what I wish people wouldn’t ask. Like today, I was on the train at the airport and a lady asks ‘did you play basketball?’ She should have asked me ‘what major did you study? Or what school did you go to?’
I wish people would ask, ‘What excites you? What gets you up in the morning?’
I love helping people, that’s what gets me up in the morning.
To learn more about what Alphonso is working on, check out the links below.
Hue Design Summit – An immersive 4-day un-conference for developers and designers of color to foster relationships and build community.
Yellowbird – a financial literacy platform, helping millennials understand personal finance on mobile devices.
In capacity of product design