Revisiting UCC — "Creating Culture, Communities, and Movements" with Jeffstaple & Karen Okonkwo
Photos by Christina Choi
Photos by Christina Choi
Unexpected connections are the simplest way of describing creativity. In its most basic form, it’s pattern recognition, and at its most complex, it’s a tangled web that humans have become surprisingly great at deconstructing.
Imprint and MAEKAN: Unexpected Connections is about celebrating those who have embraced new intersections around them in both positive and inventive ways.
Our format invites fascinating people from contrasting disciplines to talk and find an unexpected common ground. How does the tattoo artist connect with the sneaker designer? How can designers of different backgrounds link experience to great work?
Unexpected Connections is about the rich opportunity for exploration when two different vantage points are joined together.
Up next is social entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo, who cofounded TONL, a company leading the drive for greater diversity in stock photography, and Jeffstaple, designer and streetwear industry icon. Hosted by Charis Poon, they discuss the intricacies of creating movements that shape culture as well as the role that emerging technologies play.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Charis: Karen Okonkwo is the co-founder of TONL. TONL is a company that is striving to transform this stagnant idea of stock photography by displaying images of diverse people and their diverse stories. Jeff and Staple Design have really done everything from clothing collections to retail spaces to creative agency work and collaborated with companies like Nike, Microsoft, Sony, LVMH. So I want to start by asking you two whether you see yourselves as parts of movements, moving towards pushing standards forward in your different industries.
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. You know, for TONL. The reason why we started to embark on TONL was, because we started to recognize that a lot of people of different ethnic backgrounds were being portrayed in negative lights irrespective of just pictures. And for us, we just decided that it made sense for us to find a way to enter into that conversation the best way that we could.
Can we walk in to new stations and beg them to share the real stories of these victims? No, we didn’t have that sort of control. But what we could control are the people out there who are currently not being represented with their ethnic backgrounds. And so we decided, of course, to start TONL, to be able to push the envelope of really sharing the real stories of people. So we definitely feel like we’ve been a part of the movement of real imagery that is relatable and really tells a true story about people.
Jeff: I think for sure. The model for Staple is a positive social contagion. So it’s all about people believing in themselves, moving forward, spreading that like a contagion. You know, that’s why we named it that. And for me, it’s more about like creative, independent thinking. I think 20 years ago when I started, it was very like it was the norm to just get a nine-to-five and get a bachelors and a masters, especially being Asian and going out and doing your own thing based on something that you are just passionate about, 20 years ago was very rare. And now it’s become the norm and I’d like to think that part of that culture I helped flourish in.
And the other one is also a race, people of color thing. I think the route that I took was much more subversive and quiet about it, probably also due to the times as well. I couldn’t come out and be like, “this is an Asian-owned brand and we’re going to kill it.” That just wouldn’t have vibes with people, you know? But my thing was like, I’m going to build a brand that is so dope that people can’t neglect it. And then when they dig deeper on like who made it, they’ll be like, oh, wow, it’s a person of color made it. And that was the strategy that I talk. So it’s sort of twofold for staple.
Charis: Yeah, I can see you nodding. Is that kind of similar to the way you position TONL?
Karen: Yeah. Because it’s just kind of weird timing because we did not launch TONL because there was this huge attention on diversity. It’s almost like TONL came out and all of a sudden the floodgates of diversity started happening in different forms of media. And we really were just being authentic and recognize something in that moment in our community irrespective of what was starting to trend. So I totally resonate and when it comes to that, just being yourself, letting it happen naturally and people start to hear who you are.
Charis: You’re both of you have kind of started talking about seeing other people do similar things and that was my next question is, have you seen the movements you’re part of gain momentum or lose momentum?
Jeff: It’s it’s really black and white evident for my culture because when I started, there was about 20 stores in the entire world that supported what’s known as street culture. And the other thing that was indicative was that like, I was raised and grew up in New York City, even as I was walking around and I was wearing a brand that was like a street culture brand and you saw another person, you would be like, “yo, what up? You know that brand?”.
Wow. And you would dap it up and have a conversation. Can you imagine if you did that with everyone that wore a Supreme hat today? It could be crazy. And now you look at, this week was ComplexCon, which is now a multibillion dollar industry. So I’ve seen the change dramatically of like being a niche culture to being something that’s mainstream.
Karen: And to be honest, when it came to Tonl and stock photography, let me actually just educate the crowd too because some people don’t know what stock photography is. And it’s basically all of the corny, homogeneous, very stale images that you see on Google. And what happened was I didn’t see us whenever I was searching very basic things: Girl drinking coffee, boy driving.
It was scary to me that in order for me to even find say, an African-American, I had to type in African American boy. But aren’t all boys different ethnic backgrounds? And so in doing our market research, yes, there were other brands who were out there who were trying to combat having more racially diverse imagery online. It just was a matter of how they did it, though, that made it different for us. And I still believe that we positioned ourselves in a different light because of the way that we did our marketing.
Charis: That reminds me of the same thing when Jeff was talking about ComplexCon because momentum can be positive or negative depending on your perspective. And I’m wondering if you see people who maybe on the surface say they are doing what you are doing, but you can see a difference in how you approach it and what they what they are doing.
Jeff: Yeah, I think it draws a lot to the political atmosphere that’s happening now too where like people are joining teams and they’re like drawing lines in the sand. And ComplexCon is a great example of how success can also damage your whole entire culture. I think too with your business, I know it’s sort of starting out, but I could see how there’s like a famous saying that people say like, “if it wasn’t for like Obama, Trump would never make it into office. It’s because of Obama that we have Trump.” And it could be like it’s because of TONL that people who think like you. It’s good, but there’s people like, yeah, wait, “why are there colored people on stock photography? There should be none.” And then like they go harder the other way.
Karen: That’s true. I think that what we have namely experienced is how much we maneuver unconsciously. And what I mean by that is — I was just talking to you backstage and he was like, “wow, Karen. I went online and I looked at TONL and it didn’t even occur to me until I went to TONL that I’d been looking at life racially one-sided.” Because we’ve all been conditioned to see the world as white.
And so I do believe that what is happening is that people’s eyes are starting to open and they’re starting to take more accountability with the spaces with which they maneuver. It doesn’t make sense for you to live here in America, understanding how racially diverse we are, to only have one set of people in the office, one set of people being pushed in the movies, one set of people being pushed in the magazines. And so what we found is a rise in accountability from all walks of life when it comes to showcasing more diverse people.
And so actually doing TONL has really helped me have different levels of patience and have different levels of communication when I am communicating with other creatives because a lot of creatives don't have that business acumen.
— Karen Okonkwo, on maneuvering in different spaces.
Charis: I mean, what you’re talking about imagery is really true in streetwear and fashion too: the kind of imagery associated with that can also cause people to have unconscious maneuvers. Have you experienced that?
Jeff: All the time. I mean, my business is predominantly made up of people of color and I always get asked that question like, “do you deliberately hire people of color?” It’s like you would never walk into IBM and be like, “do you deliberately hire Caucasians?” Like, you know? Why are you asking me that question? But I get the flip side. I get the exact flipside where trade publications. and fashion will be like, “why are there so many Asians in streetwear?” I was like, “I don’t know. I’m not doing a tally at home,” like “Bobby Hundreds. More for us.” I don’t know. I don’t think about it. But you obviously are thinking about it a lot.
Charis: So how do you respond to people?
Jeff: I literally say, “I don’t count.“ I’m sorry. I don’t have the breakdown. I’m not keeping track. Really.
Charis: Well, one thing to move on a little bit. Karen, you said in a previous interview that it’s important to you to know your ‘why.’ And I just want to crib that question directly and ask you guys what your why’s are.
Karen: So I can answer that personally. And my why actually seeps into everything that I do. My why is to continue to be someone who is providing for others who are underserved. I recognize that when I was a very little girl — I lived in Phoenix, Arizona and I don’t know if any of you guys have been to downtown Phoenix back in the day — but there is a lot of homeless people on the street. And I just knew in my heart that the empathy that I had for them was different than others and you know what? Sometimes just like you were saying, we’re conditioned — I’m Nigerian-American and we’re conditioned to go to school, get good grades and get into a good job — that we start to kind of defer and suppress our true authentic selves.
I had a really big ‘aha’ moment in 2014 when I went to Oprah’s Life You Want tour and it was this huge stadium with thousands of people. And somehow, she had the power to quiet that room and force everyone to write down what your why was. It brought me to tears because I had been living this corporate America life, you know, living the good life financially, I was living in a good city and just in that moment is that “you’re not living your true purpose.” So that really is my why: it’s to care for others, to serve on them. I do that through TONL because there are people who have literally come up to us in tears saying, wow, I actually get to see myself now.
It sounds so simple and trivial and weird and most people are like, “No one has thought of this before?” But no, because if they had, you wouldn’t have received such a reaction. We wouldn’t have received such a reaction, and so my why again is to serve the underserved.
Jeff: That’s deep. I’m sorry. I mean, like my why? I think there’s two different questions there because one is like, what’s your why from a business owner standpoint and the wise, there are obviously like increased revenues and decreased, you know, like expenses and stuff.
But I think really my why is how I can make myself happy every day and I know that comes off sounding very selfish. But what I learned a long time ago was that if I’m not first happy about myself and about my being, then it’s scientifically incapable for you to then make others happy. So you have to work on yourself first.
And you know, Dave, the previous speaker was getting into when he started talking about politics and voting and stuff and Trump. There’s a lot of problems in the world. And like, you can try to solve those problems. But if you have problems like here in your home that you can’t solve, you have zero chance of solving any other problem outside of that. So I’ll just go about this mantra where every day I wake up and it’s like, “am I doing something that makes me happy?”.
And literally, if a doctor said to me “Jeff, you have one week to live,” I’d be totally fine.” And that’s a barometer. Like how many people in the audience, if a doctor told you you had one week to live, would you be freaking the fuck out? Or would you be like taking care of your personal matters and like saying to yourself — like, if a doctor said you have one week to live and you quit your job, you should quit your job right now.
Like, why waste your time? Because that could happen. If a doctor told me that I’d be like, “cool. Like, I’ve done enough, I’ve seen enough.” I’m very content and happy, you know. So that’s the barometer that you should live by, I think.
Karen: I don’t know if you guys have heard of Simon Sinek, but he has a book. It’s called “Start With Why.”
Charis: It was mentioned earlier this morning, actually.
Karen: That should be affirmation for you because I wasn’t here earlier. So I didn’t know that was said. And I don’t know what was mentioned, but Simon really loves to reference Apple a lot throughout the book. He said that the reason why Apple became so successful was because they did not focus on the fact that they have computers in devices. They focus on why. They focus on the people and they never took their eyes off of the people and who they were serving. And the way that they market is in that fashion, which is has made them the largest computer and telephone company in the world.
Jeff: It’s the largest company, period. Bigger than oil now.
Karen: What about Walmart?
Jeff: No bigger. (Karen: Really?) Yeah, it’s bigger than Exxon now.
Karen: Wow. God bless Apple. They’re the pillars. So you can’t even hate on them because they knew their way. Plain and simple.
Charis: And I mean, your why, even though you’ve said it’s about “knowing that I’m happy today and every moment,” it is also fuel for pointing outward. That’s the end game, right.
Jeff: That’s a secondary thing. Karen put it really greatly about what her why is. And, you know, I was zooming out and zooming in one more where you have to take care of yourself and then you could do everything else.
Charis: Right. Also because the first question I asked you guys was about being innovators in a movement and that requires sustaining yourself first. You mentioned being Nigerian-American. And Jeff, I know that you grew up in New York being parts of different kinds of communities and subcultures.
So both of you have these backgrounds that have made you really natural bridges between people. You’re very fluid in a way. I want to ask you, what makes that possible? How do how are you so good at connecting or being a part of any group you find yourself in?
Jeff: Racism. (Karen and Charis laugh). That’s why I’m so fluid, because the first 18 years of my life, I was ashamed of being Asian. I was shamed by my family because I wasn’t the proper Asian, but I was also shamed by my schoolmates in my community because I was different than them. Right. And I mean, literally like racial slurs were an everyday thing for me growing up in New Jersey and not in a negative way, which I know sounds weird, but like it’s like, “yo, chink. that was a great three pointer!” It’s like, “oh, thanks.” It was just normal for them.
It wasn’t like they were trying to belittle me. It was just vernacular. And it wasn’t until I went to New York for New York University, where I stopped hearing daily racial slurs, that I was like, “oh, wow, this is different.” And I’m seeing people like what you said, the power of seeing your reflection. It’s amazing. And so that I think the reason why I can flow back and forth between the different cultures and niches is because how had to deal with those things every day. So race is I big up racism a lot.
Karen: Your environment really plays into that. For me as a Nigerian-American, the first thing before we were taught anything was that you need to be the best. So B’s are bad. I remember it was like a movie. I ran home. I had all these B’s and all these A’s. I thought it was so cool. I showed my dad and he just looked at me like, “B’s are bad.” And I was like, “the other kid got C’s and D’s.” So the standard was already set really high to “be the best.” And so being the best, you maneuver in spaces and you start to realize that it’s going to take more than just like on the books to be the best person.
To be the best person is also how you treat people. And I learned very quickly that raising your voice, that people being highly offended easily didn’t go well. I’m not saying that you don’t deserve to be offended by the way that people speak, but I always taught myself that use it as an educational moment. You truly do not know where people are at. You just don’t. And I’ll say this and unfortunately and hate to say this because I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian — excuse me, white and Mexican neighborhood. People will be correcting me, they’re like, “you’re just being nice saying Caucasian. Say white.”
I felt like I wanted to understand everyone. That was always my way of doing it and ended up being in student council where there is different ethnic backgrounds there and people from different walks of life. And I just love to connect with them and understand their stories. So I just don’t think you get very far staying in your little bubble.
Oh, excuse me. This is what I wanted to say before, is that I found that people who have stayed within the same race, ethnic background — same same same —and then they get shot into a different world, they just crumble. And I watch it. I watch it happen: they maybe misread certain situations. It’s really sad because I’m like, if your parents would have done better, if you would have done better to just exert yourself into different groups, you would know how to speak to people differently. So that’s kind of a longwinded answer. But I just forced myself to get to know people.
If there are people out there who really want to stick to their own craft, I don't think it's a bad idea to align yourself with someone who may be more suited for business. And of course, you can decide that on paper what that looks like in terms of equity and what type of responsibilities you hold. But sometimes to stay true to yourself, it means giving up the thing that you're not that great at.
Jeff: And just the flip side of that story, too, is I had the pleasure of early on in my career being able to go to Japan a lot. And I remember the first time I went out there, I was so excited because think about it: I grew up in like rural New Jersey. Then went to New York and assimilated with more of like my people, whatever that means.
But then when I was going to Japan for the first time, I was like so stoked because I was like, “yo, this is like the motherland of my people” only to find out that there is another set of racism out in Japan where it’s like, “yo, my brother.” It’s like, “no, you Chinese. You ain’t us,” you know what I mean? And I was like, “wow, there’s even racism out here too,” you know? So it’s like learning how to navigate even amongst like your your own skin color. I’m sure that the same with if you go from Nigeria to another neighboring country, I’m sure it’s like, “oh no, you Nigerian.”
Karen: We always say that we’re the best.
Jeff: I know. Same with the Japanese, they are the best.
Charis: Yeah. Well, do you find yourself shapeshifting in different spaces?
Jeff: I don’t shape shift in terms of race. I shape shift like in terms of culture. OK, so like I know the difference when I’m talking to like a graffiti artist versus like a COO or CMO, and I think part of my success is being a translator to that.
Vice versa, if you talk down to a graffiti artist about money and ROI and KPIs and stuff, they’re going to go mute. Whereas if you talk to the CMO about keeping it real and “stay true to yourself,” they’re gonna be like, “stop wasting my time.” So you want to achieve both of those goals. And the successful person is going to be able to act as the mediator between those two worlds?
Charis: No, I think that’s definitely being able to speak two kinds of languages as well, maybe multiple kinds of languages. And I imagine you must have that same experience with photographers and then maybe Getty and ShutterStock or big companies that you have to work with.
Karen: Yeah. You know, me and Joshua — Joshua Kissi is my business partner. And we joke and say that he’s the right brain, I’m the left brain. Obviously, we crossover. I’m am a creative as well and he is very business savvy. And so actually doing TONL has really helped me have different levels of patience and have different levels of communication when I am communicating with other creatives because a lot of creatives don’t have that business acumen. So there’s certain things that the mark is missed and I had to quickly learn and realize, okay, they create. Like, this is their end all be all. This is what they look at a hundred percent of the time.
So let’s speak in a way to them that they can absorb, but also not to make them feel bad or like they are missing out on any details. So, like you said, there’s different ways to maneuver when you’re doing business. You can’t just straight talk to a lot of people.
Jeff: You also can’t talk down to people. You can’t talk to an artist and be like, “you just keep drawing pictures”. You can’t do that.
Charis: Reminds me of Business of Hype, actually. It almost sounded like you described the show that you do. And the reason why you do that show. (Jeff: Oh, really?) At least maybe you can correct me because that intention of talking to creatives about the nature.
Jeff: The reality. The podcast Business of Hype is really about how a lot of people just say “follow your dreams. Listen to your passion and you’ll be successful.” Like, sure. That’s the first step. But that’s the one yard line to me. And so I’m trying to talk to creatives in an open, honest environment where like, “tell me what the 99 other yards for you to get to that touchdown.” The realities of it. And I think I’m poised in a unique position because I think when I interview people, they don’t feel like I’m an investigative journalist trying to get at like their numbers and their secrets. It’s just really a heart-to-heart.
And so a lot of the gems that come out of that podcast are like really, really incredible: shit you’ve never heard, as in you’ve heard these people speak, but you’ve never heard them say this type of stuff. I think that’s why people resonate with it.
Charis: If there are existing standards right now in imagery, in diversity, inclusion in streetwear and fashion, what do you want the new standards to be?
Karen: Well, when it comes to stock photography currently, or at least when we entered last year, the standard was: throw any images out there. Most people who do stock photography are just trying to make a quick buck. That was one of the first things we noticed is that the images were just all over the place. So what would be ideal is that everyone held a standard at a minimum of just showcasing more different people.
It’s not even just about race or ethnic background. People of different sexual preferences, people of different abilities. People who are breaking down stereotypes of gender roles. These are the things that we need to see. And currently, we don’t see them. So the standard needs to be that we are actually showcasing what the world looks like. Obviously we’re doing that now, so it’s to our benefit that our competitors are not really doing it very well. But there’s the piece of the pie. There’s enough for everybody to to be able to tackle that.
Charis: Right. Because the intention is not just for companies to be applying those ideas, but for all of us to have that expectation.
Karen: Absolutely. Yeah. Everybody has the expectation of being more intentional about diversity, really. It’s plain and simple. It’s getting out of your comfort zone, getting out of your space of the same faces you see every single day and actually genuinely trying to understand your neighbor.
Jeff: I think my future intention is to have a day where the creator is sitting at a conference table and he or she carries as much weight as the CEO.
I think we’re we’re slowly making headway, but I remember in my lifetime where the designer or the creative director was seen in the same lens as the dude who works at Kinko’s like, ”yeah, you print that out for me, you’re the designer.” Or even my mom, to be honest. She doesn’t understand what a designer does. I showed her a magazine that I designed and she was like, “oh, did you like did you write all the articles?” I was like, ‘no.’ She’s like, “you took all the photos.” I was like, ‘no.’ “Oh, you printed everything.” I was like, ‘no.’ She’s like, “I don’t understand what you did. You didn’t do anything.”
We want it to adapt to the times. And what I mean by that is I personally would never put a stock photo on my Instagram as it is not aesthetically pleasing. So when we were thinking about our filter, we were like, how viral could we get this photo? Not just using it in a presentation in the boardroom or using it in an article you're writing, but actually putting it on your feed and using it.
— Karen Okonkwo, on updating and improving the standards of stock photography.
Charis: What would it take for her to get it?
Jeff: It’ll take like a Chinese newspaper to define what a graphic designer is. I don’t know. I’d like to believe it. But I think it’s getting there. I think actually you mentioned Apple: I think Apple had a lot to do with putting weight on design and aesthetic as a thing of importance. I think a lot like 99 percent of the people that buy Apple products probably don’t understand beveled edges or the golden ratio or kerning. They don’t understand that stuff, but they know inherently that when they pick up this thing versus a Dell, something feels better about it. They can’t articulate it.
And I think even though this costs 200 dollars more, “I’m putting my money behind this because it makes me feel better.” That is design. And I think executives are starting to understand that. So when you have a conference room and you’re sitting there with like CEO, CMO, head of finance and designer. Designer used to be like the gimp in that room, meaningless. Like “go do this.” But now I think we’re raising our voices and starting to have more of a position of power and that’s what I’ve been pushing for.
That doesn’t just go for graphic designers or product designers, but even musicians. You look at musicians now versus before where the dream was get signed, get a record contract. But now you look at people like Chance The Rapper or Frank Ocean. It’s like, “fuck a contract. Like, I’m doing this on my own.” And you could see the difference in a career when you do it on your own, or even like a like a Jay-Z, who’s doing it like not only on a lyrical level, but on a more of a like an executive corporate level.
One of my favorite lines that Jay-Z said really early on, is he said, “I’m doing this for what they did to the Cold Crush.” What he meant was — and this is what why I do it. I do it because I remember the days where people shitted on creatives and I’m doing this for what they did to the Cold Crush. So you will see one day.
Charis: What you said about Apple products making people more aware of design, maybe think about how actually what you do a TONL is not just about diversity, but also elevating stock photography as an entity. Because definitely stock photography is the basis of names, unfortunately, and is generally considered really corny. So it’s also about educating people that can be well-designed too.
Karen: Yeah, because we want it to be universal. We want it to adapt to the times. And what I mean by that is I personally would never put a stock photo on my Instagram as it is not aesthetically pleasing. So when we were thinking about our filter, we were like, how viral could we get this photo? Not just using it in a presentation in the boardroom or using it in an article you’re writing, but actually putting it on your feed and using it. We wanted to see that. And we do see that because of how careful we were about how we take the images and then, of course, how we filter them.
Jeff: That’s a cool barometer. It’s gotta be good enough for your feed. That’s cool.
Charis: I think that’s something for us to aspire to. You guys talked about looking into the future — standards you’d like to see. I was wondering what can we day-to-day in all of our positions do something to work towards that?
Karen: When it comes to diversity?
Charis: Or well, you both looked into the future. You want this expectation for diversity in imagery across the board in all channels and then Jeff, you’re talking about the designer having equal status with CEOS. There’s everyone at the table, no matter what the role is, has a voice that is worth the same weight. And both of you are leaders and entrepreneurs moving things forward, but not everyone in this room has that same opportunity, but can still do something, right?
Karen: Yeah, you guys can be liaisons. I mean not to have a shameless plug, but in knowing that TONL is a vessel for diverse imagery, that’s where everyone should go for their images. And so when you do that, you have no idea how powerful that becomes, because then what’s happening is that you’re shifting the way that visually your corporation or your small business is being seen internally and externally.
I had a friend who started a group for the food and design field in Seattle. And I was looking at her feed and I know her personally. And I know that she’s not racist, I know that she doesn’t have any sort of biases against anyone. But her feed did not show that and I think to myself, “one day, somebody is going to call her out on it because we live in a world now where people are holding others accountable.”.
Sure enough, I get along text messages from her basically and you can tell that she’s crying in what she’s saying “look at what someone said to me. It was it was an Asian woman saying something like, wow, your page is so white.” And she was mortified and she was like, “Karen, what do I do? I’m not racist. I can’t even believe she would say this to me.”.
And I said, “it’s as simple as switching up your imagery. When you’re taking these photos and not even just being fake about the photos, but actually in real life, going out and finding “influencers.” I know we hate that word. But for this purpose, finding people who are influencers in their community and saying, “hey, I would love to treat you to coffee, tea, food. Would you be open to taking some images? Because I want people to know that I’m open to seeing different people of different ethnic backgrounds within my community.” I even had a photographer do that. She said, Karen, “I need to build a portfolio. Please, can I take photos of you? You can have them for free.” Just because somebody called her out on it. So what we all can do is be really intentional about where we find her imagery and how we push it.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s a tough question to answer because I don’t know where everyone is at in their individual lives, but I would say overarchingly, I go back to making yourself happy first and foremost. And you don’t have to achieve your own business for 20 years. There’s no shame in anything. Like, I don’t care if you work at a coffee shop. I mean, everyone here is partaking in commerce, right? And you know, when you go into — I don’t care if it’s like a Walgreens or Starbucks or if you’re in an Uber — you immediately inherently know the difference between someone who loves their job and someone who hates their job.
And sometimes I’ve talked to the Uber guy and I’m like, “you’re being an asshole to me, but you hate your job. Just quit your job.” Or anything, you know. I say Uber because I was talking to my accountant recently and he was like, “you need to be careful with your expenditures,” which is his job to say. But he’s like, “what happens if one day you lose it all and you end up driving an Uber?” I said, “I’ll be a millionaire Uber driver because I’ll be the best damn Uber driver in the world.”.
I’ll figure out how to flip that and turn it into something amazing because it just comes down to like having pride in your craft no matter what your craft is. So I don’t think we’re sitting here saying to go out and start your own business and stuff like that. No. Just like have pride in what it is that you do, you know?
I think there's always gonna be an "anti" to whatever the major trend is happening. So if you look at music right now, vinyl sales are at the highest they've ever been. And book publishing is now coming back. [...] So as A.I. starts to really take over and you just don't even walk in the store and you just shop all from your phone. I think the idea of like walking into a community center space is going to be even more valuable and people will pay for that.
— Jeffstaple, on the opposite effects that accompany major technological changes.
Karen: Yeah. And to that point, one of the things I think that works well for Josh and I is that we don’t try to be more than what we are. So Josh is very much a creative. I’m very much on the marketing and business development side of things. We go together like bread and butter. If there are people out there who really want to stick to their own craft, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to align yourself with someone who may be more suited for business. And of course, you can decide that on paper what that looks like in terms of equity and what type of responsibilities you hold. But sometimes to stay true to yourself, it means giving up the thing that you’re not that great at. And so that an angle that I think a lot of creators can go is they can hire someone like me or.
Jeff: It’s great advice because just last week this kid came up to me at ComplexCon, and he was like, “Jeff, I want to ask you a question. I’m in finance. I work on Wall Street, but I love what you guys do. I want to be part of your world. Like, how do I make the transition from finance and my world to like yours.” I was like, “what? Do finance in my world! That’s how you do it. Like, we all don’t know what the fuck we’re doing with money.”
So like, get a job in your favorite brand in the finance department and I would have thought that was the easiest advice. But like you could see it clicked in his head. He was like, “of course! Yes!”.
Charis: That’s something both of you seem to be talking about is self-awareness. You’re really aware of what’s going on in your feed or going on in your life. Just asking yourself.
Jeff: I think he got so enamored with the idea of how do I design a shoe? How can me, who’s like just doing accounting, design a shoe. It’s like you can get there in two pivots. Yeah, but he was just so fixated on this one goal. I think social media has a lot to do with that like fixation on this like fake goal.
Charis: Actually, I’m glad you brought up social media again because you mentioned your friend’s feed. And I was thinking about the role that accountability has in the kinds of identities we craft or that sort of ideas that we perpetuate. Do you see that?
Thai you know who you are is a result of other people keeping you accountable in certain ways or that you want to hold other people accountable?
Karen: It’s tricky because I don’t take my personal social media that seriously. What I mean is I stick to the same filter aesthetically, but I’m not that like, worried about “Hmm, I wonder if this is on brand with Tonl and I wonder if this is on brand with my marketing biz. And, you know, I just I just stay true to me outside of that. But unfortunately and fortunately, we do live in a world now where every move you make, so long as you are on a social media platform, you are going to be held accountable for it.
And so there are certain things that maybe that I say amongst my friends I maybe not be so ready to share in mine. I am very vocal, I will admit that. I don’t usually hold back much, but I do think that we hold a responsibility of backing up at least the things that we are vocal about. So if I’m saying that I’m vocal about certain, political issues, probably should see that demonstrated on my social media because then it’s like, where is the alignment there? So there’s a balance that goes into that. And ultimately, I do think that we are all to be held accountable for whatever we put out there.
Jeff: Yeah, you’re right. Everyone knows about the pros and cons of social media. I personally keep it very separate from my personal life. I try to do a job of — and I apologize to anyone who follows me — but I try to create an illusion that ,you are seeing my life, but actually, you’re seeing about 10 percent of my real life when you see social media. (.
Charis: Oh, the secret is out now.
Jeff: Yeah, I don’t care, because I still value the act of breaking bread. Some of my friends are like, we sit down and have dinner and they’re like, “man, I feel like I don’t have to talk to you about anything as I see it on social media.”.
I was like, “no, you don’t see shit.” Like we could actually still have a real conversation right now because I’m not expressing some of the things. So it’s like. And that’s good and bad. For instance, this week was Election Day and everyone was like, “I voted. I voted for this. I support this.” And I didn’t say anything. And people were asking me to. But I keep my personal views separate from my brand. It’s one of those deliberate choices that someone has to make. Twitter is where it goes down, though. (laughter) Twitter is the real me.
Charis: Same for you?
Karen: Josh got me all in Twitter. I wasn’t on Twitter. I mean, I’m a long words person not a short characters person. I’ve seen it get people in trouble.
Charis: Yes. So if you want the real deal for both of you, follow you on Twitter. Not Instagram. Got it. I am moving to Q and A from this audience in front of us. This one’s for Karen. Do you think TONL would have had the same immediate success if had started a few years in the past?
Karen: Yeah, that’s a good question, and the answer is I don’t know.
Jeff: Valid answer.
Karen: Only because the reaction that I’ve gotten from most people is that they didn’t even realize that this was an issue, even though we know that diversity is trending now. And so I don’t know, but I would like to think that it would have had the same sort of trajectory because people’s eyes are open when you show them the facts.
It is as simple as me telling you to take your phone out right now and go to Google, go to images and just type in “kissing” and then tell me what you see. It’s right there in front of you. But I will say that it has lent itself really nicely that we have been a part of the movement of diversity and inclusion and all of the other movements, which is namely holding people accountable. So I think that it’s lent itself really well. But I don’t know. I don’t know if it would have had the same —
Charis: Totally valid. One for Jeff: what role do you think tech and the Internet of Things will play in the future of fashion?
Just last week this kid came up to me at ComplexCon, and he was like, 'Jeff, I want to ask you a question. I'm in finance. I work on Wall Street, but I love what you guys do. I want to be part of your world. Like, how do I make the transition from finance and my world to like yours.' I was like, 'what? Do finance in my world! That's how you do it.
Jeff: A lot. I think within 10 years it’s going to totally change the face of it. I just saw something on. You should look at it. It’s on Mashable, which is like that blog. But like, it’s a woman wearing a dress and it’s just changing color and pattern. It’s E paper made as a dress and like that’s even like so 1.0. But 3D printed cotton and threads and Google’s working on this thing called Jacquard, which we’ve actually had the opportunity to collaborate on, which is thread that is connected to your devices.
So in the future, I actually think starting a fashion brand is probably like a really bad idea to go into as a business because within our lifetime, you will just be able to print out or make it in your house what it is that you want to wear. It won’t be that you have to go to a store and buy it anymore. And that even goes for like the highest of high like couture designers.If you’re a big fan of like Balenciaga, you will now just end up buying a Balenciaga 3D printing machine in your house and you just print out your favorite Balenciaga shirt.
Charis: What happens to the role of a designer then?
Jeff: Yeah, it’s done. That’s why you shouldn’t go into fashion, yeah. Someone still has to make the initial CAD that gets printed out so that person will be still important. Still has to be an edit.
Charis: Actually, I want to apply that same question to you, Karen. Have you seen TONL be shaped in specific ways because of technology and the future of technology as you see it?
Karen: Well, a lot of people have come up to us asking us if we wanted to create some sort of facial recognition so that it automatically will file our images in accordance to visually what someone looks like. Which is kind of cool (Charis: Also kind of scary?) Yes, it is actually.
It was really interesting. And it was very early on when we started TONL, so we were just kind of like, “okay. That’s a cool idea. You know, not really interested right now.” But I recently spoke at Dreamforce, which is Salesforce’s huge event that they have every year in San Francisco. And I started to realize that just A.I. is going to take over the world.
So if you’re not creating your businesses in such a way that implements artificial intelligence, you’re going to be behind. We started to think, okay what are ways that we can implement A.I. when you come to our site? A very basic example of A.I. is just not remembering your username and password, you know? But how cool would it be if you had a certain habit of buying certain types of images on our site?
And then all of a sudden, you get on there and it’s like, “Hi, Lisa. Here’s a compilation of all of these images that we think you would like, because you can match that sort of buying pattern. So I think that it’s going to definitely be important for us to align with the trends that are happening in technology. I don’t know if you guys have heard of the Future Consumer Report. It’s by WGSN and basically it said that by 2040, I believe it’s going to be no longer called e-commerce. It’s going to be called m-commerce, meaning that everything, every little thing that you do is going to be based through your phone. So how are you going to shift your business so that it is more mobile friendly?
And those are the questions that we’ve been asking ourselves, which is the conversation I was having back in the meeting that we were having as I was walking on stage.
Charis: That might still be ongoing. That reminds me of a good question for Jeff because you’re working on physical spaces. How does the rise of m-commerce affect that?
Jeff: I think there’s always gonna be an “anti” to whatever the major trend is happening. So if you look at music right now, vinyl sales are at the highest they’ve ever been. And book publishing is now coming back. So there’s always going to be like this antithesis to what’s sort of going on. So as A.I. starts to really take over and you just don’t even walk in the store, you just shop all from your phone. I think the idea of like walking into a community center space is going to be even more valuable and people will pay for that. My friend Jan Chipchase has always said, “today you pay to plug in. Tomorrow you’re going to pay to unplug.” Like you’re gonna have to pay a premium to unplug from the Internet of Things.
Once Elon Musk has his whole auto-driving thing done and everyone’s in a self-automated vehicle. People are going to pay top dollar to drive a car on a racetrack so that they can feel what an engine feels like and they could actually play again, you know. So it’s always going to be like this “anti”. I think so. I think we’ll be fine. I think the role of an editor will still be really key. Like a human editor.
Charis: So even with the inclusion of A.I., your consumer’s information, they would still want to rely on a human editor to pick photos in the future?
Karen: I think that no matter what, you’re always going to need that human interaction . We’ll always have that high above anything else. Even though I know we’re the generation of “I wanted it yesterday,” there’s nothing that compares to a human interaction. So we’ll always find a way to continue to implement that. And that really is a part of our ethos, too, which is storytelling. You can’t storytell through a robot. So we’ll still be around.
Jeff: I got into the biggest argument with the creative director of Instagram about the the sort of like “curated by Instagram” versus like the algorithm versus the chronology. And like his whole thing was like, “it’s the same stack of photos. We’re just telling you which ones you should see first and then you’ll still get to the ones that you’ll get to at the end.” And I was like, “I know, but I don’t even want my wife to tell me which photos I should look at first. Like, I want to decide.” Right?
What inevitably happens is — I’m sure this has happened to everyone — where it’s like you’ll talk to catch up with a friend and it’ll be like, “I haven’t seen you posting.” I was like, “no, I still post.” Then you look at their feet and you’re like, holy shit, I missed like 12 posts because Mark Zuckerberg decided I didn’t want to see those posts, you know? I think that element we really need to check that. I mean, sure that the programming might get better and they might be more fine-tuned. But I still I want to be able to have my finger on it and decide.
Charis: Okay. That’s actually all we have time for right now. But thank you both so much for this conversation.
Karen: Wow, that went fast! Thank you!
Charis: Big hand to both of you. (applause)
Jeff: Thanks, everyone.
Even though I know we're the generation of 'I wanted it yesterday,' there's nothing that compares to a human interaction. So we'll always find a way to continue to implement that.
— Karen Okonkwo, on the importance of designing human interaction into digital experiences.
- Opening Remarks
- “Future of Creativity”
- “The Role of Science in the Realm of Creativity”
- “Today & Tomorrow: The Evolution of a Digital Creator”
- “Creating Culture, Communities, and Movements”
- “Building Communities and Constantly Reinventing the Tried and True”
- “Pushing for Truth in Storytelling and Narratives that Inspire Action”