Maurice Woods once dreamed of playing in the NBA, a fact that's easy to believe when encountering the 6' 10“ designer. Far from imposing, he has a quiet demeanor and soft eyes that light up when the conversation turns to a subject he's passionate about. And the only passion greater for him than designing is using it to change peoples' lives. Through his Inneract Project, which facilitates design mentoring for kids from troubled neighborhoods, he has truly found fulfillment.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Woods would be the first to admit that he was not a star student. Luckily, a basketball scholarship gave him the opportunity to attend the University of Washington in the early 1990s. Although he had a solid high school career and his sights set on the NBA, he didn't get much exposure at first. Time was running out, and as a junior he had to declare a major. ”It was my mother,“ he smiles, remembering the first of many times his life has taken an unexpected twist. ”She was looking through the catalog, going 'Let's just try to find something. Graphic design. I know you liked to draw when you were young, why not try that?' I was throwing a dart at a board.“
On the lessons of design:
There are a lot of great designers out there but very few who understand how important and powerful design really is. Design powers the world. Our world relies on it to help us live productive lives.
In his design program at UW, Woods met two instructors who he considers his design mentors: Doug Wadden and Christopher Ozubko. Although they were hard on him, it was a tough love that Woods came to appreciate. ”I used to hate being in Doug's class, because he didn't like anything,“ Woods says with a laugh. Crits were brutal, work was torn off the walls, and he would have to try again and again. ”It gave me the power to self-vet.“ Slowly his confidence grew. Instead of bringing all his concepts to class, he'd bring the best three.
If there is a single person that Woods credits with design inspiration, it is Tony Gable. Renowned in the Pacific Northwest as both a jazz musician and a designer whose work spans Malcolm X to Microsoft, Gable was a guiding light for Woods. ”I remember going to an art store in Seattle and seeing his posters and asking 'Who designed this?' I actually went out of my way to find him and get to know him. It's no secret—there aren't many blacks in design. But at the time he was one of them. I was able to relate.“
Yet basketball still called. The team had a new coach who played him more regularly, so Woods benched FreeHand and Quark for a time. After graduation, he was offered the opportunity to play professionally in Europe, and he took it. ”Basketball was something I felt I had to get out of my system before I could commit one hundred percent to design.“
He played abroad from 1995 to 2001, traveling to Spain, Greece, France and even Japan. But he never stopped designing, and towards the end he was taking his laptop on the road, designing cards to send home to his wife and doing small client projects. Upon returning to San Francisco, he found life was hard. After working from three in the afternoon to eleven at night at Costco, he'd return home and work on freelance projects until three or four in the morning, plus weekends. This went on for two years, and the pace was grueling. Yet basketball had instilled in him a relentless work ethic. ”I was very competitive—not with others, but with myself. I have to be the best. That's something that sports drives you to.“
On the impact he hopes to make:
I don't actually want to be remembered for the work I did for a company, organization or institution. I would like to be remembered for how I used my influence or skills to help nurture young folks into responsible, educated adults. I get more out of that than any project I have ever done or will ever do.
Woods wanted more direction, so he started to think about graduate school. A conversation with his former teacher Doug Wadden convinced Woods to return to Seattle and enroll in his alma mater's graduate design program, with the help of financial aid. He recalls, ”Graduate school helped me advance my career. Client work had me in a monotony. I was stagnant. My clients didn't understand design, and I didn't know how to explain my concepts and solutions to them.“
In graduate school Woods found his footing, and his master's thesis, Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design, was a groundbreaking work that addressed the difficult question: Is there a design aesthetic that belongs to African Americans? There have been countless surveys of Japanese animation, German typography, French film and Danish furniture; Woods wanted to do the same for black designers in America. His thesis examined both fine and graphic art. Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), perhaps the most famous African-American painter of the 20th century, informed Woods' thoughts on color as power, though he never got to discuss the matter with him. ”At the University of Washington, we had a gallery named after him. When I was an undergraduate years before, I walked right past the guy and didn't even know it was him. And I'm kicking myself now. We could have had a conversation,“ Woods chuckles.
It was another, smaller grad school project that ended up planting the seeds for what would eventually become the Inneract Project. One day his instructor Annabelle Gould challenged the class with an assignment: Use design to change the world in a unique way. Having found his own path to the profession through the example and mentorship of men like Doug Wadden, Chris Ozubko and Tony Gable, Woods knew exactly what he wanted to do: pass the torch and continue the tradition of teaching kids about design and guiding them on a career path.
After polishing up his proposal in class, he hit the streets. Because he had been coaching youth basketball in the Seattle area, Woods was already a familiar face at many community centers. What wasn't familiar was the subject matter. ”I got the door slammed in my face a bunch of times. They were like, 'Graphic design, what is that? Get out of here.'“ But he remained persistent. His offer was to teach middle school kids for free. He found a venue, printed scores of posters and plastered them up at schools and youth centers, and eventually launched his first class with just two students. Five or six others had signed up but didn't show.
On diversity in design:
We must bring design to the community, and you will see more minority representation without having to have a special program set aside. The design community should probably have more of a presence with youth at a younger age.
Undaunted, Woods brought on another 30 kids by the end of the first summer. The goal from the start was to get young people excited about creative possibilities. Rather than focus on technology and technique, Woods wanted to show them, not so much how to design a poster, but that there is such a thing as even designing a poster. ”I wanted young people that have creative talent, even if they don't want to get into design, to know at least that it's an option.“ Soon, folks were calling him. His former teacher Chris Ozubko offered him space, along with graduate students to teach the classes. Woods was teaching the teachers—he'd prepare materials and teach the starting session, while the grad students serving as TAs would be tapped to teach the sessions after that. They in turn would then teach fellow grad students. This cycle continued while Woods left Seattle to look for work back home in the Bay Area.
Tony Gable placed a call on his behalf to Kit Hinrichs, a partner in the San Francisco office of Pentagram. ”I know it sounds corny, but I believe that it was fate,“ Woods says of first meeting the noted designer. Although Hinrichs didn't have an open position at the time, he loved Woods' work enough to refer him to Michael Bierut at Pentagram's New York office, where he interviewed but was not hired. For the first two years after grad school, Woods learned the ropes doing agency work for large clients such as Nike and working as a designer for Neal Zimmerman at Zimmerman Design, Inc., and Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners (BSSP). Eventually, Hinrichs hired him as senior designer at Pentagram and brought him along when he opened his own firm, Studio Hinrichs, in 2009. ”He respects my work, and I respect his work,“ Woods says modestly.
In fall 2008, Woods re-established the Inneract Project in the Bay Area at the request of AIGA San Francisco. In Seattle he had relied on University of Washington graduate students, but he had to expand his mentoring network to include working professionals. There are now more than 100 volunteers in the pool. Woods wants to develop a modular program that can be started in any city with a simple resource toolkit, and hopes to set up headquarters with ample space for multiple interdisciplinary studios and classrooms.
”It's important for me to feel good about what I'm doing, to connect with young people in a way that changes their lives. Doug and Chris and Tony, these guys were there in my corner, pushing me to move forward,“ Woods says with earnest appreciation. ”It's my job, as someone who came from a rough neighborhood, to tell other kids they can do it.“