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Interview: Ricardo Odum Talks Navigating White Design Spaces And Shifting His Mindset

Mississippi native, Ricardo Odum is a graphic designer and speaks about his experience navigating white design spaces as a Black man, which played an integral part in shaping his creative identity.

Aside from his corporate and freelance work, graphic design serves as way for Ricardo Odum to be seen and heard. He is a native of Horn Lake, Mississippi and current resident of Chicago, Illinois, where he works as the Social Media Graphic Designer.

Ricardo speaks about his experience navigating white design spaces as a Black man, which played an integral part in shaping his creative identify. He explains, “Like most artists, I think of myself talented enough to apply my talents to any project or business to help that project be successful. I shouldn’t have to deny myself, especially when it’s instinctual, just to make someone comfortable.” 

He continues to keep a positive mindset and is focused on overall growth. When speaking on the importance of elevating Black voices in the design world he says, “It alleviates the notions that Black people can’t capture the voice of a company. It gets rid of the cultural gaps that exist in our society.”

Tell us who you are and what you do.

I’m a graphic designer! I’m originally from Horn Lake, Mississippi. Memphis, Tennessee area, but I’m currently serving as the Social Media Graphic Designer. I’ve also done a lot of freelance designing and illustrating for clients. 

Graphic Design basically means: “do whatever you have to, to get this project done” and be that by drawing, Photoshop, design, or animation. The job is to creatively and effectively execute to get a certain outcome. That outcome varies, but its main purpose is to visually send a message or visually represent something.

How have your life experiences impacted your work?

I actually struggled with this question the first time around, but after living a little longer, I feel better equipped to answer the question now. Having doing art since I was seven, and finding new ways to use it, I’ve learned that I have this overwhelming desire to be heard or seen through my work.

In most of the studios I’ve learned in, the teachers I’ve had have been white (usually) women teachers–who did their jobs, to be fair. However, I often noticed that I’d have to water down myself for them. Black masculinity, which can be complex to anybody, is something I don’t think they could relate to. So, they’d often make suggestions for me to stay away from it, or keep it out my work—almost like I have to ignore or deter myself away from a part of myself.

I mean, like most artists, I believe that I’m talented enough to apply my talents to any project or business to help that project be successful. I shouldn’t have to deny myself, especially when it’s instinctual, just to make someone comfortable. It was tough for them to judge my work when I didn’t leave it out of it. When I did something pertaining to hip-hop, sports, or a du-rag, or wave grease, for example, they struggled to be able to judge it fairly mainly because of the content. Not because of anything artistic.

But, is it not their job to be able to judge everyone’s work from an artistic perspective, regardless of content? That’s what we’re taught as artists to do when it comes to critiquing each other. It wasn’t like the work was offensive or anything, so it was baffling to me that someone who was getting paid to do that failed at that very thing.

This is something that happened at every stage in life, with at least one teacher if not multiple. I often find myself going back to that Kanye lyric, where he says, “I’m too Black, I’m too vocal, I’m too flagrant.” This definitely felt like the case and still does to a degree. It’s like they have a mental block or subconscious disdain for a culture they aren’t familiar with. I don’t think they ever did it on purpose but that doesn’t make it right.

So with that being said, a lot my work has to be with being heard or seen. I created the Instagram page, Madman Design, which is solely based on that. The logo I created is a depiction of gold teeth (dog’s teeth) yelling or barking, making sure it’s heard. I thought it was an original idea until I thought about it and it really comes from that cultural divide and struggle between myself and my instructors.

Black masculinity isn’t something you normally see in the design spectrum. You often see us in fine arts, music, architecture, but design? Never. I look at guys like Aaron Draplin or Scott Fuller with Studio Temporary, who are two white guys but have a heavy masculine overtone in their work. People tend to not care because the work they produce is phenomenal! So now, instead of caring about that cultural divide, I’m just putting all my effort into being good. In sports, they have a saying that, “winning cures everything.” So that’s what I’m trying to be about.

Have you ever seen someone in their most attractive, beautiful state ever? If not, get them to talk about what they’re passionate about.

Who are some of your influences?

Some of my influences are some people that I mentioned earlier, Aaron Draplin and Scott Fuller. I spoke about Aaron Draplin in my last piece so I’ll speak about Scott Fuller. He’s based in Atlanta and does a lot of work in that area. He’s done work with guys like Killer Mike, and also work with the Atlanta Hawks. I’m a huge fan of bold simplicity, and that’s what really shows in his work and something that I try to implement in mine. I also love what a guy I graduated with, Hank Washington, is doing.

I have a lot of influences who aren’t necessarily in the art world. As an artist, you can see things in a way that other people don’t, so you can find inspiration anywhere. One of my biggest influences in life has always been Kobe Bryant. He’s had such an impact on my life growing up. Reading his words as if they were gospel. Studying his mannerisms and the way he methodically moved. The way he never backed down, in a way that pissed everyone off. He was a straight-up monster and wanted you to know it.

When I see people with passion or I’m around passionate people, that inspires me. That influences me. A lot of my friends are that way, and for the ones who aren’t I tend to find it difficult to be around them for long. Have you ever seen someone in their most attractive, beautiful state ever? If not, get them to talk about what they’re passionate about. You’ll see the unrelenting joy they have on their face. You’ll see how effortlessly they smile. You’ll feel that insatiable energy and it just engulfs you. When dating a woman, that’s something that I try to get them to talk about, just so I can see them at what I believe is their most beautiful state.

A lot of my everyday friends and people have influences on me as well. Some of the conversations we end up having always left me with something to take from them.

How have you grown on your journey as a creative from when you first began to now?

I think more than anything my mindset has changed. And I see my skills set matching that, since I animate now. Still not the biggest fan of photography, but I have a better understanding of it now for sure. But the mindset that I’m speaking about is the constant effort and need for growth. I’ve given up on the idea of trying not to change. Growth is a change for the better, so if I’m not changing, I’m not growing. So the main thing I’ve been focusing on is growth, and if changing comes with it, then so be it. That’s just life. I don’t want to look back at my life and say I never changed, especially since if I haven’t achieved what I had hoped. So, I’m just embracing that challenge. I want to be better, and it will be better. So, I need to adjust my mindset accordingly.

The resources that I pursue are different now as well. I listen to a lot more podcasts to stay in that mindset. I listen to a lot of Jay Shetty, and even the Joe Rogan Experience, because podcasts tend to aid me in my creative quests and journeys. Because that’s how I look at it: a journey. And I often ask myself, “what is my journey demanding from me now?” or “what do I need to learn or do to get to the next level in my journey?” 

What has been your experience navigating the creative landscape of your city?

My experience navigating has been pretty good. I didn’t always like the work I did for commissions and hired gigs, but because of word of mouth, I was able to put together a decent-sized portfolio. Word of mouth has helped me greatly. It’s almost weekly when someone hits me up looking for something and needing my services, which I’m grateful for. Memphis has a lot of creative people there. I’ve really grown and been pushed over these last few years, because of the artistic circle I’ve been in and around.

My personal work is just for my own exploration and trying to find new roads of creativity to travel down. I want to stay fresh and escape from the parameters of commissions and corporate work, so exploring my own personal work is always an avenue. I’m in Chicago now, but I just got here. So I haven’t been able to explore a lot (and Covid-19), but I’m looking forward to it.

Why do you feel that it’s important to elevate Black voices as it pertains to your current industry?

It’s important because it alleviates the notions that Black people can’t capture the voice of a company. It gets rid of the cultural gaps that exist in our society. Like I mentioned earlier, that’s been a problem for me. It exposes the world to our side, our thoughts, and our abilities. In turn, it exposes people to us and knocks down barriers that other cultures have about us. When we’re being heard, the playing field is leveled. That’s why it’s important. So that things like cultural gaps will no longer get in the way. And, if they do get in the way, those gaps can be closed. 

It’s never just about getting good, it’s about staying good. 

What advice do you have for up-and-coming creatives in your industry?

Embrace change. The design world changes, and it changes fast. Find your niche and voice, but stay on top of trends. That way you learn new tricks and you grow as an artist, but your voice and tone never have to change. You should be so good that your talent can’t be denied. I’ve had to do so many different things from clients to jobs, and you don’t want to get caught incapable of performing. Because then they’ll just move on to the next person. Probably how you would if someone was underperforming for you. Adaptability is how a species survives. So, you better be willing and able to do adapt or find something else to do. It’s never just about getting good, it’s about staying good. 

Do you have any current projects coming up?

Not at the moment, but I did just get a new job in Chicago that I’m excited about.

How can we stay connected with you?

Stay connected through Instagram. I’m available whenever I need to be. I love what Black&Gifted is doing and has done, so I hope you guys keep this going!

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