October 19, 2020

Allati El Henson – treating design like it can change the world

My guest in this episode is brand strategist and design systems expert Allati El Henson who is currently Lead Brand Designer at Cloudflare. Allati recounts her experience growing up in the hood in East Oakland, the importance of education, discovering design as a profession, technical precision in design systems and the value of having a big store of confidence. And why designers need to treat design like it can change the world.


Transcript

N.B. This transcript is mostly AI-generated. There may be a few errors.

Andy: [00:00:00] Hi, it’s Andy here, just to let you know, this episode contains a couple of F-bombs and I don’t really like to censor the guests. So if you’re listening with little ones, you might want to put your headphones on.

Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and on to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Pilate and I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach, trainer, and writer. My guest today is brand strategist and design systems expert Allati El Henson, currently lead brand designer at Cloudflare. Allati, welcome to Power of Ten.

Allati: [00:00:45] Thank you. Thanks for having me, Andy. It’s really good to be here. I’m glad to do this session with you.

Andy: [00:00:51] So, we’d spoken a little bit before, so, but, and you’ve had a kind of interesting journey as you, you described that she made a little film about it as well on your website.

So, tell us a bit about that journey of how you’ve got to where you came from and how you’ve got to kind of where you are now.

Allati: [00:01:05] Yeah, definitely. So I’m born and raised in East Oakland, which for lack of a better way to say is the hood and sort of growing up was, you know, quite the obstacle in general because.

When you’re growing up in such a community, you’re kind of, under resource from jump. And my mom is actually not from this country, she’s from Palestine. So that made it doubly more interesting to like also, you know, grow up with this foreign parent and sort of be looked at as this sort of outsider, no matter where you are.

And so with that kind of in the back of my mind, as I’m navigating the world, I’ve always had to really be very strategic about every single move that I’ve made. And that’s kind of helped me get to where I am today from sort of the beginning. I was always sort of told that, you know, education is going to be my way out of this circumstance.

And having that be something that has been super important, I’ve always made it a point to be really good in school to, you know, find this thing that I was really good at and to kind of exploit that as much as possible. And so to kind of escape the trauma bond, growing up in this sort of situation, I would draw and paint like all the time.

It would literally take me into this. Whole other space that kind of gave me a, a relief from my actual reality and by sort of stretching my imagination in this way. all the time growing up, it kind of helped me into my adulthood to be able to. Sort of think outside of the box and look at things from another perspective and sort of visualize a life for myself that I’ve never seen anyone else have before, because you can imagine growing up in that way, you don’t really have a ton of role models.

You don’t really have a ton of, there’s nothing really accessible to you to say, “Oh, I want to be like that.” And so to be able to find design and, you know, find this stress relief was, you know, very, like, I’m almost surprised like every day that I think about it, I’m like, wow, like this was such a cool, perhaps you, in some ways, like, I don’t even know how it actually actually happen.

And when I find myself telling other people that story who don’t really. Have a similar perspective and who are not from my background at all, they kind of look at me and they’re like, but how did you make it out of the hood? And I’m like, well, I just told you. And they’re like, but how, how was that even enough?

Because… You know, you would think that like it’s just impossible. Right? And some of it, you know, feels like it was, but you kind of see this opportunity as this like little pinhole. And if you just like target it perfectly right. And things line up perfectly. Right. And then you can sort of make it outta there.

And so by really finding, my passion and, and bringing education to the forefront and being as resilient as possible, because people are going to tell you that, you know, you’re not good enough or “Oh, you know, you might want to take remedial classes” instead of starting off and sort of the regular, standpoint in college and just being like, no, I’m gonna, I think I’m smart enough to do this. Like, I’m going to just go ahead and do it and then just kind of going for it. So, that’s kind of how it would say, I kind of made it to where I am today. Being super resilient, not letting people tell me no. And believe it of ourselves.

Andy: You know, you said very early on, you knew that education was the thing that was going to help you here.

What was the inspiration or where did you kind of, where did that come from? Where did you, was that just you, you were aware of it. Was there any particular person often there’s a, someone along the way who kind of. It is a mentor or kind of gives you that little kind of push.

Allati Definitely. Yeah. My parents both were very strict, like super strict.

We didn’t grow up with television. pro probably cause we were really poor and couldn’t afford it, but also, they sort of look that television as this. Imagination killer. And you know, when you don’t have this thing constantly, you know, there till kind of like take you out of your own intellectual space, then all you have is that right?

Like, all you have is that intellectual nature and this, imagination. And so while other children were growing up on Sesame street and watching like cartoons or whatever, I kind of grew up on like, Ancient Egyptian history, books and biology books and things like that. Like that’s what we read, like, you know, growing up from, I can imagine, like from two years old to at least.

Five years old is when I went to, you know, regular school, like in society or whatever, but those were the books that we read. So I didn’t even find out about Sesame street until like I was an adult kind of, you know, 16 or 17, lots younger doll or whatever. And so it’s pretty good, definitely in, so my parents being really strict and kind of, you know, also be an intellectuals themselves.

Like my mom, she came from Palestine to be. and what a degree in computer science to go to UCF, she has a scholarship. And so, you know, having parents that are very intellectual and who are kind of almost outside of society in a way, like the way that they think and the way that they raised us, it was very much, you know, outside of the system that, you know, we kind of live in today in American sometimes, you know, around the rest of the world.

And so. Kind of having that being instilled this discipline, the structure of always having to sort of be on your P’s and Q’s, constantly plotting and planning, making sure you’re following through always doing what you say and saying what you mean and this being like this. Almost, religious sort of a way of living and being, and that was the way that I was brought up.

So my parents were really strict and they drove home the whole educational piece and wanting to make sure that you’re well equipped to navigate a world that kind of wants you dead. You know? So it’s, it was yeah. Kind of wise to be smart in that way.

Andy: [00:07:02] Which also means you weren’t though in your, it’s not like you were the first person in your family who had gone to college or you hadn’t kind of had that you had someone, you had your mother who had been through that and kind of knew at least what they experienced.

When was the first time you realized that design was a. You know, was it a professional thing that people got paid for doing? Cause you, obviously you talked about, you know, think you were painting and drawing and those kinds of things. There’s a moment often where people go, Oh, right. But this is a thing that, you know, someone does as a job and this is a career that’s possible.

Allati: [00:07:33] Yeah. I kind of remember it like it was yesterday actually. So I was in high school. I went to Castlemont, which is. You know, a high school in deep East Oakland. And fortunately enough, my actual art teacher, he had a teacher’s assistant who was a student at CCA, which is California college of the arts, which is the college of arts, the design that I went to and she saw me like painting, like pastel painting and, and drawing like.

Every day in class. And I went all the way. Like I was one of those, like children who were kind of like the adult child, which is kind of funny that I can look back and say, like, I was one of those adults or whatever. and I’m like always teaching other students, like how to draw, how to paint, like, and really working with them like you should like not.

And I look back, I’m like, wow, you’re really funny. and so she would see me doing this and be like, wow, you need to go to art school. Like, what are you doing? And I was like, what? Art school? Like, that’s like a thing. And then. She gave me this pamphlet that was a pre college pamphlet. And it was just like, you know, design a glassblowing, illustration, like whatever else, you know, major you can have in, in, in art school.

And I’m like reading this pamphlet and I’m reading the one on, on graphic design and I’m like, Whoa, this sounds like really cool. And so I ended up applying to the pre college program and was able to get a scholarship to go there and did my first, sort of. Experience, I think it was like a three week course, like right before you would sort of start your fall semester program.

And my teacher, for that program was black, which I was so lucky and kind of, you know, ever since then never had a black teacher since, but it was a great foundation to have because he kind of sat me down in a room, you know, realizing that I’m the only black student that he has. And he kind of was just like, Hey, just so you know, this is what it’s going to look like throughout your whole time here.

And I’m gonna let you know right now you need to work three times as hard. You need to borrow, you need to be this much smarter. You need to be this much on top of all your stuff, because people expect you to not be very good. And, you know, also being from, you know, the hood essentially. They’re gonna, you know, doubly sort of judge you for, for who you are.

And so having somebody just like cold, hard, just like, tell me exactly like what I’m about to be up against. Was really valuable to me, because it made me kind of more aware of who I am and, and what it means for me to be yeah. In a space like this. And I took the course and I got an a, in the course, which, you know, I was like, Whoa, this is super cool.

And I kinda got taught to just like pay attention to every single detail and do the thing of like seeing the forest from the trees and the trees from the forest. And if you can, you know, constantly manage that dynamic. Design systems is, is the place to be right. And, and that’s sort of, how I initially got into, into design.

And when I found out that it was this visible yet invisible thing in the world that, you know, you, you kind of are born into it and you don’t really realize that somebody is making your experience. You know, you just think that this is just an experience that you have no control over and that you’re just having, but an actuality, like we can curate our own experiences.

You just have to know that is possible.

Andy: [00:10:47] So, when did that happen? When was, what was the moment when you kind of realize that that, that someone was curating your experiences? That that was a thing that people did?

Allati: [00:10:55] So we, one of our first things that we, that he had took us to do in this pre college course was literally walking around the neighborhood.

And in North Oakland is where their first campus was. They had an open campus in a San Francisco campus. And so we’re walking around this neighborhood in North Oakland and you don’t North Oakland is kind of seen as the, affluent part of Oakland. So there’s a lot of like, rich white people for a lack of a better way to say.

And so you start to see like, Oh, these the signage and the restaurants, and, you know, the, the way that, you know, the streets are paved, then all the way finding and, and just sort of pointing out literally everything that is designed like in your life. And even picking up a candy bar and being like somebody designed this label.

And so just getting us to understand that everything that you see and that you experience in the world is a piece of design that somebody has created really opened my eyes to be like, Oh, wow. So when I’m in a car and I’m gonna get off on a exit, or if I’m looking at a street light or. you know, if I’m at a restaurant looking at a menu or literally just sitting and being in a space like this is all designed and it kind of made me sort of get this, overlay almost like, you know, how, like, in those shows where this Android is like looking at something and then all of a sudden there’s like crosshair and then exactly like data and like all this UI and like all this stuff.

And it kinda made me turn into one of those. So it’s like, no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing, I have this overlay of. Information about what I’m looking at and breaking it down and, and really construct them and deconstructing it in my mind better. You know, if it, if it’s not a great experience, all they have to do is do this and then do that.

And then maybe if they did that or did that, like it would, you know, become a little bit. And more elevated. And so just imagine what it’s like for somebody like me to just live in a world and can’t turn this thing off. So it’s like constantly sensory overload going on. And so people wonder why I’m spacing out and, you know, not having a stroke, I’m definitely like visualizing and revision, realizing how this thing could be.

And so. You know, having him take us around and, and just make us aware of like literally everything around us just made me like this. yeah, kind of a little bit of a design AI, a little bit, just kind of fun.

Andy: [00:13:14] It’s amazing. I can just sort of imagine you kind of going around and, and this kind of “oh the kerning is wrong on that.”

So you had this kind of, so we’ve had this moment where the it’s, it’s all kind of opening up for you. And you’re kind of scanning the world around you, which is, you know, it’s amazing actually, when you think about it right there, that there’s, there’s that teaching assistant and there’s that teacher, right?

Those two people… had you not have had, usually that teaching assistant, imagine you had had someone not have said, “Hey, you know, you should go to art school.” You know, your whole life would have been very different and your career. So, you go to you, you go to, a design school and you started graphic design and visual studies got a high distinction and then you go out into the world. So, so what was that like? What was your kind of professional journey after that?

Allati: [00:14:05] Yeah. So when I was in college, my dad passed away in my sophomore year. And I think that when that happened, it kind of made it more personal. Like it was almost like. Okay, now that this happened, you definitely don’t have any sort of foundation or infrastructure underneath you.

And in order for you to create that, everything has to be sort of considered everything is a strategy. Everything is, you know, the stakes are really high and I couldn’t feel like, you know, just for fun or just for my own life pleasure. It was way more serious than that. because I know that, you know, he’d sacrificed so much just for me to have this other life.

And so with that always in the back of my mind, moving into the space of the working world, it was actually like, kind of interesting. So I graduated, CCA in, in 2012, kind of crazy. I was the only black designer slash person to graduate in that class, the only other black woman who graduated in that class was an architecture.

So two black people in the whole graduating class.

Andy: [00:15:11] This is 2012, right?

Allati: [00:15:12] Yes. Can you imagine? I like, I literally could not even believe it. and so, so that also kind of sat with me and I’m just like, okay, this is kind of what it’s going to be like. And so I’ll get into this. This workforce in a way that I got into the workforce was I would get into these competitions like AIGA, ships and the continuum and all these different things.

So one get my name out there, but also the stipends were very helpful because imagine, you know, being super poor and not having any infrastructure and being on a 95% scholarship to go to this elite design school and you know, that that’s not paying for food or travel, or like literally anything else except for the, the actual school.

And so. You know, always have to be on your hustle and grind. And because of that, uh, agency had actually caught wind of me because the, the founders of the agency were the judges of this, this AIGA competition. And so as they’re like presenting me with this award, which was like 50 other, you know, design students had, you know, compete, competed for around, around the nation.

And I won first place. Like I won the actual award and they’re shaking my hand and, and sort of giving me the award plaque or whatever. And they’re like, we want you to come in and interview with us. and. I was like, Oh my God, like, of course I didn’t even graduate college yet. And I’m already like, you know, getting these opportunities that I’m not even the one not to seek, like I’ve never heard of this agency before they’re based in London initially and had just come to San Francisco, but there were kind of a top tier branding agency done a ton of work for other tech companies, as their clients.

And, you know, I’ll come in there to, to interview with them. And this was back in the day when, you know, design was like physical objects. So you’re presenting like actual things. It’s like, I’m in a room on a table and, and, you know, they were like, Whoa, this is incredible. Like, we’ve never met anyone like you before, blah, blah, blah.

And I’m like, Oh, cool. Like this is awesome. And they asked me what I was looking for. I was like, Oh, I would love to, you know, come in as a junior designer. I definitely think that that’s where my skill set is. But, you know, I’m, I’m not one to complain and if you have a sort of internship available and, and you know, no broad junior designer positions, Oh, I’d love to take it.

And so they, they were like, Oh, we don’t have the junior designer position, but the intern thing, like let’s, let’s do it. I’m like, okay, cool. Let me, you know, got to start somewhere. And so I’ll get in there and come to work the first day. And then all of a sudden. A young woman is also their new. and, and we’re rolling.

They’re early trying to make a good impression and I’ll ask her, Oh, what is your role? She’s like, I’m a junior designer. And I’m like, wait a second. They didn’t have jury designer positions open and comparing dates and come to find out. She actually interviewed after me. So it was kind of like very dubious, right?

The way you kind of get in here. And I’m like, Whoa, this is, this was kind of crazy and kind of a deceitful. And so. funny enough, she actually, her work visa didn’t come through. So somehow she has to go back to Korea where she was from. And even though, you know, that position was now open and I’ll ask them like, Hey, not at that has happened.

Like what what’s up with that? Jeremy’s on a position and, and they still, you know, were reluctant to give it to me and, you know, acted like they couldn’t basically. And so at that time, I was still kind of, chatting with another agency called Words, Pictures, Ideas, and the founder of that, his name was Ben Davis and he’s the visionary for the Bay Lights.

And that was one of the. The first biggest projects that I worked on. And so he actually made an offer, on a, on a Wednesday at like two o’clock in the afternoon. And because they had been so deceitful and because they had lied to me and then still didn’t want to give me the opportunity that I initially asked for, which was open.

I kind of left work on a Wednesday at like two thirty in the afternoon, signed another offer and literally walked to my next job. And honestly, that kind of set the foundation for kind of. You know how I hold myself and how I want to have, like, I deserve the same respect as anyone else. Like why would that be okay for them to lie to me and what I was, I was supposed to just stay there at this place who, you know, did not actually value me as a person, as a designer, but you were more than happy to exploit my talent and my intellect? That’s not okay.

And so knowing, you know, knowing this in the back of my mind, what my worth is it, you know, it kind of letting me know, like, you know, you other, you know, this wasn’t something that I want it to happen, but it was something that I had I had to do because it’s just the business decision.

At that point, I was literally going to not be able to afford to come to work, with the, you know, the, the amount that they were, you know, trying to pay me. And so that just gave me like, okay, and. I’m starting my new position. He gave me two weeks pay right up front, which was amazing. And, you know, went on to work on some really great projects.

Like I’d done it so way, finding signage for Fisherman’s Wharf and redid their crabs. So for the next 50 years, this crab is going to be the iconic crab that I created, which is really funny, did the single space and multi space meters in San Francisco. So when that rolled out and all that became digitized, I did the UX and UI for that.

And the design of all the decals. Which is really, you know, one of those things that is, again, a seamless part of a human experience. Like you’re not thinking while you’re interacting with these meters or the way that way, finding signage like that. Some girl from the hood had designed it. And, you know, you’re like having this expense, and, you know, work it on the Bay Lights, which is this huge art installation, which we raised millions of dollars that we didn’t even think we were going to raise.

And, and now it’s, it’s still up five or six years later and it, and it’ll continue to be up because people come from around the world to see this piece. and so, you know, and also had got the opportunity to do, do a brand refresh for a really sort of historic a French restaurant in, in San Francisco called Cafe Claude, which I’ve got to own 100% just, you know, from having creative directors really believe in me and believe in the work that I was doing, because.

You know, I worked so hard for, for all the things that, you know, that are opportunities that come to me. So that was sort of my way in. And ever since then, it’s kind of been history and I’ve been able to have, you know, companies call me and say, Hey, we need to do a brand refresh. Like let’s, you know, we would love to interview you and have you come on board.

Andy: [00:21:28] it’s great to do work like that, which, which is part of the everyday fabric around you. I’m gonna actually, it’s interesting listening back or so hearing all of that story in one go, you kind of can hear back to that moment when you’ve been walking around and looking around you and seeing all these things and going, “hey, someone’s designed all of this” and now you’re, you’re one of those people, right? there’s a, you know, I’m interested in a part of this work. You clearly you come across super confident. And, you know, did that teacher at, California College of the Arts has said to you unique and I have to, this is how it’s going to, you’re going to be seeing, you’re going to be, you’re going to have to be face more criticism.

You’re going to have to work twice, three times as hard and so on and so forth. first of all, did that, did that happen? Did you get more criticism? Did you get more, you know, people kind of examining new with a different lens and how did, how did you avoid that crushing you basically cause for some people that can really just eventually, they’re just like, you know, this is just, this just gets to me, it becomes, they internalize it. It becomes part of their kind of internal chatter and inner critic. what’s been your sort of secret to that, not happening to them.

Allati: [00:22:36] Oh, that’s so interesting to hear somebody else asked me that question. And I heard something similar the other day when I was having a one on one with another product designer. So, because I grew up in the way that I grew up, it’s almost like it’s never been different. So it’s almost like, I don’t know a different way of existing in the world where I’m not being under this microscope.

And because of that, It’s almost like it’s normal and when I’m not under a microscope, I’m almost like, am I missing something? Like what, like, what is actually needed? Like, are you even looking like what’s happening? And so, because, because that’s kind of how, you know, I was raised like one, just having strict parents who were like scared to death, that something is going to happen to you just from literally going outside and playing soccer ball or whatever in the street.

It’s almost like you you’re super used to kind of, and like in this state of like constant observation and, constant criticism and people constantly watching you to make sure that, you know, one, you stay alive and two, you don’t fuck up. and so going to school and just being observed by a whole different type of people, I think that is what made it more like interesting is that it was a culture shock to have these people that you didn’t really experience in your community. And like observing you because in a hood, it was very kind of segregated. Like white people was in the hills and like everybody else was in the flats, you know? And so when I, when I went to college and it was literally nothing but white people, it was like a culture shock.

Like I literally was like, Oh, these are those people on TV. Like, that’s how I would reference them because that was the only place that I had experienced them. And so. And when I’m there and I’m like, under this microscope, it was almost like, Oh, okay. So this is going to be pretty much how it is. And in order for me not to, you know, take that as something that would make me weaker or, you know, make me more intimidated.

It was just like, Okay. Now I have a stage to perform on basically. And so let me, let me make sure they never see me sweat. And let me make sure that, you know, I’m a really give them something to look at pretty much. And so, you know, with that sort of mindset, it kind of takes me out of the like, Oh, people are picking at me or people are doing this.

And it just gives me a space to kind of, you know, be the best that I can be. And I kind of look at it like, you know, Because I have all this, you know, these eyes on me and this and this criticism that could easily go in any direction. I use that as an opportunity to be incredible and to just show off how incredible I am.

And I know I’ll kinda like come off as very competent. I have heard from, you know, higher ups or, you know, people who want to critique me that like, You seem overconfident sometimes. And in my mind, I’m like, do you know where I would be? If I wasn’t, over-confident like, I need this much confidence just to be regular in this phase.

Like, that’s how you, like, it’s what can keep you going? And you know what, all the people that tear you down, it’s like, Oh, if I, if I’m over-confident, but I’m constantly being torn down then I’m, it’s like, at least I’m not in the deficit. You know what I’m saying? So if I have a lot of confidence and I’m being tore down, I’m going to get into deficit really quickly, but if I will over amount of confidence and I’m getting tore down, then I just have, you know, I’ll end off with or regular amount of confidence.

And so no one I have to over supplement myself with that. It’s just kind of like, well, I know somebody is going to take $50. So if I got a hundred, then I still got 50 left. So, you know…

Andy: [00:26:14] You know, from my perspective, which, you know, white, middle-aged privileged male, it sounds just really exhausting too, but it kind of seems to also say just to give you energy, I know you sort of set your self confessed workaholic, right?

Allati: [00:26:28] Definitely…

Andy: [00:26:30] Do you ever kind of feel like, you know, I want to take my foot off the gas a bit or is that…

Allati: [00:26:37] Dude! I’m so tired! Are you kidding? I’m hella tired? Like, it’s like hard to even explain with the English language, the level of exhaustion that I have and that I’ve experienced throughout my life, but it’s like, it’s interesting because it’s like, when I, when I think about it as like my body, it’s like, Oh yeah, yeah, you are exhausted for sure.

But when I think about it, like as my soul, I’m like, okay, well, my soul has an infinite amount of energy. So it’s like if I tap into that as much as possible, then I’m going to get the energy from somewhere. You know what I’m saying? I try to focus more on that part of the energy rather than the body part of my energy and the mental part of my energy, because immediately, I’m tired as fuck.

I’m not even gonna lie, like I’m constantly exhausted, but I try not to, you know, use that as my energy source, because to do that, I would have been out like quite a long time ago. So I, I really did to try to tap into that infinite energy that I have inside of me in order to constantly go at it, you know, constantly keep that same level of excitement and enthusiasm that I had, you know, since I first started, you know, coming up and so that’s.

Yeah, I am really tired. And it’s funny. Cause I like literally had that same sort of feedback where I was talking to a product designer and I’m just like, explain it to her, like how I’m excited that we’re doing this brand refresh that people are all on board and it almost didn’t happen. And I came in and was like, no, there’s no way, like, and, and you know, kept kept going and kept pushing. And she was just like, “you tell me you’re tired, but you seem super energetic”, but I’m like “Girl, it’s got to come from somewhere.” It doesn’t look like, you know, I definitely wouldn’t have anything to show for it. That’s for sure. So, fortunately enough, I’m able to, it’s one of the things that I think that I was able to harness from a really young age, and I don’t think that I would have gotten very far without it and so I try to keep it and keep myself tapped into it as much as possible, because I think that it’s one of those things. It comes from the same place of like being able to turn negatives into positives. And because I’ve had to do that, my whole life is kind of that same sort of, dynamic. Um, and, and it’s just been very useful for me. So keep it close.

Andy: [00:28:56] I mean, it’s, it’s, you know, a lot of people, when I do coaching with, with designers and design leaders, there’s a lot of people actually have the opposite problem, which is they’re trying to really kind of find out what I, I talked about recently or I wrote about recently is the shape of themselves and that, what, what is the shape of you? Because eventually you’re going to get to a point where actually. You, you’re not trying to fit yourself into someone else’s hole, or you’re trying to find it, just making your own one, making your own. And part of that, it’s about finding them kind of shape of you. And quite often someone tells you you can’t do something that’s when someone, you know, when you push up against something that you find out where actual edges are. If you don’t have any, you’re like a, kind of a blanchmange, like a gas and you just don’t, you don’t really know kind of who you are. And often that’s just seeing people who’ve kind of had, you know, every privilege, every advantage you could imagine and they’re really lost because. cause they don’t, they haven’t found their edges. I’m kind of bumped up against each and thing much.

Listen, I really want to talk about your view on design and design systems too, because you, you, I saw a, a talk that you gave where you were part of like a panel discussion, one of the things that Cloudflare had done. and you talked about, you know, putting together a design system and you said this thing, and it’s kind of in keeping with what you’ve been talking about about not, not knowing what’s ahead, but that’s what keeps you going. so you tell me, tell me about that kind of feeling of, or what was the kind of work, but also where was the moment where you thought, like, I didn’t really know this is where this is going and how you push through that as a designer.

Allati: [00:30:30] Yeah. So this is, yeah. Cloudflare’s design system is. So unique because Cloudflare is so unique. Like I’ve never been in a place like that before. and it’s one of those places where they encourage you to take risks. they encourage you to sort of do things that you’ve never done before. Like they’ve never done before, which I really value.

but things definitely have to be done yeah. In a certain way, because they are so technical things have to be technically accurate. And I find myself in these positions where those are the sort of companies that are go for. And sometimes when I’m thinking back on it, I’m like, Oh, I wonder if this is because of who I am and knowing that, you know, when you’re at a place where things have to be technically accurate, then there is a right, right? And when there is a right and you’re this person who people are constantly trying to prove wrong, you have something to go back to and be like, but it’s technically accurate so you can’t really, you know, you can’t critique me now, you know what I’m saying?

And so it’s like a different, it’s like a, kind of a different world where. You know, you, you do all this research, you get all this data, you analyze it, you work with these stakeholders and you turn it into something. And at the end of the day, what you’ve turned into is all gonna be backed by all this data and all this information and all this testing that you have you’ve done.

And so they can’t. It’s harder to refute it as opposed to, you know, being somewhere else where it’s like all super conceptual and like already, and it’s all just imagination based. And you know, it’s like kind of your word against theirs or whatever. It’s like kind of the lines a little bit more blurry and you know, they, people can always be like, well, that’s not correct. And what do you, you know, what are you pointing it back to? And so being in a place where it is. You kind of have to point it back to the information. It kind of gives me that edge of being like, okay, you might not like who’s doing it. You might not like that. I am who I am, but guess what? We got information that just like validates everything that I’m saying. And so I really kind of keeps things a little bit more cleaner. And, and I kind of value that a little bit, and that’s why, you know, decided to, to be at a place that is very technical and, and, you know, you have this information to back you.

Andy: [00:32:49] For some designers that would be, feel constraining, right?

That would feel, you know, that it’s too data-driven that there’s not enough of the kind of creative, you know, I don’t know, inspiration intuition in there, in there. What is it about that, that kind of for you, it seems to have the opposite effect.

Allati: [00:33:07] So yeah, it does. You know why? Because sort of like the way of my imagination works and the way that I’m tapped into the rest of the universe, it’s like, The universe is very data driven and very connected and very, you know what I’m saying?

Everything is math is mathematics. Like that is the language of the universe. So if you think about it, it is actually true that the things that are the most imaginative, the things that are most creative, the things that are, you know, the most out there are all still backed by physics and, you know, information and data.

And because that is the way I think I can find the creativity in things that are. More technical and that’s what makes, you know, the design system that I’ve created for Cloudflare. So interesting. And so cool. And, and what, what made the, you know, the, the management they’re so willing to sort of take it in, because it was this merger between technicality and conceptual and an art and creativity where it’s this like seamless sort of experience.

And, and that’s how I was taught about, like what design actually is. I remember when I was in pre college and we were watching this Bruce Mau like video and he was explaining how design is art and science perfectly merged together. And when I heard that, yeah, I was like, Oh yeah, that is exactly what it is.

Because growing up, you know, I’ve always been in, into the STEM world. I used to want to be an astrophysicist and, you know, a neurosurgeon and all these, you know, very scientific, very sort of technical things, but the way that my imagination works is I’m like, Oh, but I want to also do this. And I want to also do that. So In finding design design systems was just sort of my way of being everything.

because depending on what the project is, I’m going to have to learn this, or I’m gonna have to know that, or I’m gonna have to study this visual language or that visual line. And so it’s, it’s the closest that I think. Anybody could really get to be in a generalist in a world of hyper specificity, where everybody is just this like vertical into their space and in design systems, it’s like, you gotta kind of know something about everything in order to do well at it.

And in order to be able to see the forest from the trees and then back in there and back again. and so because of that, you know, It, it just, you know, it’s one of those things that I’m just like, Oh, okay. I can see the creativity in everything I can, like, no matter what one plus one equals two, but if you zoom in closer and closer and closer and closer and things start to become more interesting than that. Just sort of like hard line, right.

Andy: [00:35:42] Yeah. Listen, you mentioned Bruce Mau. I’m interested, you know, what other influences you’ve had, who else has influenced you? I mean, Possibly other designers, but, you know, from other areas as well. And, and particularly then, as you were saying, you know, you went to college and his own, it looks like you there. Right. And, but you know what other role models you’ve, you’ve had?

Allati: [00:36:05] This is going to be funny. You’re going to laugh when I say this. So outside of design, like I’ve been really inspired by Tupac Shakur…

Andy: [00:36:13] That’s not funny… I’m not going to laugh at that!

Allati: [00:36:15] Okay, good. Cause. Honestly, like my whole time throughout college, like I would just listen to literally all of his albums, like all the time, like I’ve been got so far, like I created a history book in my Type 2 class, and somehow his mom got wind of it and I was flown to Atlanta to meet his mom at one of his like birthday celebrations.

Yeah. It was really impactful. And she cried when she saw this book and people thought I actually published it. And I was like, no, it was just a design project. But, and, and that was, that was really cool. And just like friends, I would never forget, but he inspires me so much just because of his work ethic.

Like I would watch all these videos about him and I’ll watch, you know, all these interviews that he done and, you know, Even though, you know, he pushed thug life and all this stuff. He was an intellectual, you know, he was an artist, he was a creative, he, he was super, super smart and super personable and just, you know, this all around like human being and, you know, seeing that and seeing him be brought up in the hood and seeing him.

Be, you know, have these parents who sort of raise him also outside of society, kind of gave me like, hope that like, Oh, you know, I could be mainstream too, even though I’m very nuanced because people need to see this perspective and have it be brought into the forefront and to the limelight. And so.

And just seeing him in listen to his music and, sort of having him as one of these people that I would just sort of look up to as for inspiration, kind of really helped to keep me going. And even though he wasn’t a, you know, a designer per se, you know, I really did sort of use him, as, as a way to, to kind of keep me going and to keep that fuel and, and to just be really, really inspired.

Andy: [00:38:00] I can see the parallels there. I’ve watched the entire series of Hip Hop Evolution on Netflix. And, and it was, one of the things that’s kind of really fascinating about that is, that combination of, you know, artistry, but also the technical development that they’re doing, you know, there’s, there’s, there’s an amazing bit, whereas at Grandmaster Flash talking about when he kind of realized that “I could put, I could put my fingers on the record” and that was really taboo. Cause you kind of, you know, yes, you ruin the record by doing that. And then “I got crayon out and I’m kind of drawing on it’s a, so I know where I can stop the record and scratch”. And, you know, that just that little moment of, of our frustration actually, cause he couldn’t get it working and, and, and then he kind of started building his own rigs and everything and you really kind of see it all the way through.

So I, you know, I can completely see the, the, the parallel there and, and, I can see why that is inspiring too. Anyone else?

Allati: [00:38:57] Yeah. Who else? Gosh. It’s so it’s so hard. Like the people that I would name, I had a, I had a teacher named Jennifer Morla and she was a tough cookie. Oh my God. Like people thought I was insane for taking her class twice. I took her for design three and design four and design three was on branding and design four was experimental design. And you know, when I took design three, This was right after the semester after my, my dad had passed away. And so I was like, Oh, like, I’m gonna treat this like, my life depends on it kind of, cause it kind of did, it was like I needed something that was going to take literally every fab…, like fabric of my being in order to do so that none of it will be stuck in this like hole of depression, which I was dealing with. And so that the project was like, Oh, create your own sort of brand and sort of whatever space, And then the class started, it was 18 people and by the time it ended, it was three people. So yeah, every and everyone cried and like, it was brutal and it really taught me that design is a discipline, you know, like, yeah, it’s fun. And yeah, you get to do these things. And yet it’s, you know, more exciting than looking at an Excel sheet, but at the same time, it’s very rigorous and it is a discipline and you have to respect it.

And you know, that, like, I value that so much. Like when I think about my design, then my design career, she really liked gave me the backbone that I needed to kind of survive this industry. Cause she was harsh. She told it like it was, she didn’t care what you look like if you was my color or, you know, a white guy or Korean person or whoever she told everybody straight up and it was so eye opening. Cause I was like, “Oh my God, she treats everyone bad. This is awesome. Like it’s not just me.”

Andy: [00:40:56] Like, or was that just being candid? Cause I have a, you know, when I was teaching Australia, I had a colleague who I’m just told, taught it straight. Right? You know, on the principle that you don’t, you do not do anyone any favors by kind of saying, Oh yeah, that’s really great and it’s not right? Because eventually someone will someone either behind their back or someone to their face will tell them that it’s not. So, you know, although he was quite hard in that respect, you know, he was deeply respected by the students for that very reason.

Allati: [00:41:25] Definitely. Yeah. And I was just being funny, but yeah, it’s just like great to, you know, see that she told the truth to everybody. Cause I have seen situations where teachers, like you said, like people are harder and more critical on me in the, somehow the bar is sky high and then the next person and it’s just like, “Oh, you’re doing awesome” and I’m like, they didn’t do anything, what are you talking about? So it was great to see that, you know, this woman was pretty hard on literally everyone. And that’s just kind of like our approach to design and making sure that everyone felt that heat and felt the level of discipline and rigor that it takes to really practice this. Because as designers, you can do some damage in the world and we’ve seen it, right? Like there’s a lot of defined systems that exist right now that are atrocious and are wreaking habit on communities.

And so, you know, to understand your place in the world and understand the power of design, you need to be aware of it and you need to treat it. Like it is this thing that can change the world, you know? And, and when you understand that you’re more willing to be empathetic and you’re more willing to think about it and in different perspectives and to, to treat it with as much care and cadence as possible.

Andy: [00:42:30] Yeah. So this brings me beautifully to my last question, which is Power of Ten is named after thePpowers of Ten film by Ray and Charles Eames about zooming in and out of the universe. And, you know, you talked already about design is sometimes so ubiquitous it’s everywhere. And so therefore it’s invisible. what, one small thing do you think either is, is overlooked and undervalued or, really needs to be redesigned that has, or would have an outsized influence on the world.

Allati: [00:42:59] Yeah, man, this is not small, but I’m going to say it. I think that our entire, at least in the United States, our entire system, like the system in which we live under this construct that we live under needs to be redesigned. And before I got super heavy into design systems, it’s like, you don’t see everything as an interconnected woven thing that exists.

And kind of perpetuates itself throughout literally everything else. But once you understand design systems and you start to really see that, even the system that we live under here is a design system. And if you sort of analyze it and do a great big audit on it and all the ways that it different people around, you know, in the United States, but also around the world girl, because, you know, everybody kind of looks at us, right. And so when you’re able to kind of deconstruct that in creative, let’s say infographic around it and really be able to pinpoint everything single form and facet in which it’s affecting this person or that person or these people or those people, or, you know, just people’s imaginations in general and the fact that I’ve sort of been around people that cannot even think outside of, of this system, because they’ve just been so indoctrinated and entrenched in it that you don’t see it. And so I think that our entire system that we live under is a, is a design problem. And I think it can be solved if you know, the right approaches are being taken and, and a great big audit is being done.

And, you know, everything has sort of pulled… all the strings are pulled to in order to lift, you know, all these things that are kind of swept under the rug. and so I think that if we address that as a design system and look at that purely as a design problem, we’d be able to live in a, in a better society.

So I know it’s not, it’s not small at all…

Andy: [00:44:55] It isn’t small, but you have to start somewhere. Right. And you know, that thing you just said about an infographic is information or knowledge is power. You know, well-designed information is, can be very powerful. So where can people find you online?

Allati: [00:45:10] Yeah. So I have a portfolio website which needs way more love, you know, how it is as a designer we’re always like the last thing we touch is our own I know. So allati.co is my design website, I’m also on Instagram as allati_goddess, of course, yeah. And then I’m also on LinkedIn, as, as just like my, my name, Allati El Henson. So you definitely can find me on all those social channels.

Andy: [00:45:40] Well, we’ll put the links in the show notes. Thank you so much for sharing your journey and being my guest on Power of Ten.

Allati: [00:45:46] Thank you. It was great to be here. Appreciate it.

Andy: [00:45:50] As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine, you can find me as @apolaine on Twitter or polaine.com where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter, Doctor’s Note. If you liked the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others finders and as always get in touch, if you have any comments, feedback, or suggestions for guests, all the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.