This interview is part of 28 Days of Black Designers, a project that spotlights black designers during Black History Month. Be sure to read what’s been posted so far, and visit 28blacks.com every day this month for new interviews.
Tiffany Middleton is a Digital Media Designer at ESPN, where she most recently worked on a Super Bowl piece for their Snapchat Discover edition that compared the 2 teams’ quarterback stats from the season. Below, hear what Tiffany had to say about dealing with rejection, her experience as a person of color in the design industry, and how design can be more accommodating.
How did you get into design?
I grew up in a small town in Alabama, and design was an unknown entity for me. Oddly, I always found myself admiring cover art and layouts in the magazine section of the local grocery stores. As faith would have it, the term “graphic design” was introduced to me by an article in Teen Vogue.
Years later, I graduated from Auburn University with a degree in graphic design. Which would take me from the field of Jordan-Hare Stadium to a little trading card company outside of Dallas, and finally to Bristol, Connecticut—home of ESPN.
“It’s not always about what you know, but who you know.”
I’m from Childersburg, Alabama, a small town where sports are the only extracurricular activities for kids in the neighborhood. When people ask where I’m from, I have to ask them if they know the basketball player Gerald Wallace, because he’s our town’s claim to fame.
I spent most of my childhood playing basketball, which is where my love of sports came from. I volunteered to design our class shirts and produced my senior class video.
Tell us about your design work.
Over the years, I’ve produced a wide variety of work—social content, some recruiting material targeted towards high school teenagers, and I even had the opportunity to work on printed products for a professional trading card company.
Working on social platforms is my favorite because it can communicate your message to millions of people with a click of a button.
Is there anything that you’re currently doing that people should know about?
I started it a few years back to provide an online source for designers and creatives interested in the sports industry. I’d see beautiful designs on social media and in person and wonder who was responsible. Trenches provides a place for those designers to come out of hiding from their cubicles and connect with others in the industry. I connected with my current creative director after he followed the account on Twitter. It’s connected me with designers from Nike, NBA, NFL, The New York Times, Snapchat, Wired, and much more. It’s my claim to fame.
“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”
Everyone goes through ups and downs in their career. What are some issues you wrestle with?
Getting rejected is by far the biggest struggle of my career. I’ve applied for dozens of jobs that I didn’t get, and that made me doubt myself as a designer.
Design can be extremely subjective, so I had to learn just because one person dislikes your work, that doesn’t make it bad. I can say that it also motivated me to improve and expand my skill set continually. I make it a point to learn new techniques and new programs as often as possible.
What are you doing that’s sets you apart from you peers?
My favorite quote is “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard,” which is what I feel like sets me apart from my peers. I work twice as hard as the next designer; I do everything possible to put myself ahead of the game. Even if that means staying at work late to perfect a design after everyone has gone home.
What has your experience been as a person of color in the design industry?
I’ve always been the only African American when it has come to my design classes or jobs. It can be isolating, but for the most part, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great people who make me feel included.
Personally, it never hurts seeing someone who looks and speaks like you. I’d love to have more women and people of color in the industry.
“Learn new techniques and new programs as often as possible.”
How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations?
There’s a lack of knowledge about the importance of design. It can be more accommodating to underrepresented populations just by allowing them to be exposed to it. I’m a firm believer of knowledge being power. One cannot know what they cannot see.
What are you working on right now, either for work or for yourself?
I’m currently working on a Super Bowl piece for ESPN’s Snapchat Discover edition that compares the teams’ quarterbacks.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you think you’ll stay in design?
I love being a designer in the trenches, but in the future, I’d like to take the role of a design influencer, creative director, or producer. Sometimes you lose creative control working under creative and art directors.
“There’s a lack of knowledge about the importance of design.”
Also, I’ve always had the dream of working at Nike, so if I could end up there in the next 10 years, my life would be complete.
What advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds who are in design or hoping to get into it?
It’s not always about what you know, but who you know. The design world can be minuscule and inclusive. Making connections with people through social media and networking events can help you get your foot in the door.
You may produce great work, but if no one knows your face or brand, it can be hard to break into the industry. Use social media as a tool to get eyes on your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on your portfolio. It may be surprising, but my current and past creative directors use social media when they’re looking to hire or commission designs.
by Tim Hykes
Tim Hykes is the User Experience Designer at LaunchCode's Headquarters in St. Louis Missouri. There Tim is the lead on all digital application and embedded systems, and he manages the LaunchCode brand. He's also the Vice President of AIGA St. Louis, a member of the National AIGA Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, and co-founder of the Design + Diversity Conference. His most recent projects include: 28 Days of Black Designers and the visualization of the Design Census featured in FastCompany.