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With February’s release of “The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Reflection & Expression,” Vann Graves, Ed.D., executive director of the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University and contributor to the anthology, adds another accolade to his already long list of accomplishments.

His segment in the anthology, “Another Brick in the Wall,” discusses the importance of tangible skills and experiences, building a wall of credibility.

Graves, who was born and raised in Richmond, joined the Brandcenter, part of the VCU School of Business, as executive director in 2018. He previously served as chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson, executive vice president and global executive creative director at McCann New York, and vice president and creative director at BBDO New York. A Fulbright scholar and decorated combat veteran, he holds degrees from Howard University, the Pratt Institute, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Graves fondly described his first experience with VCU when he was attending Open High School in Richmond.

“We were able to take college courses while at Open High, and I took a VCU English class. I distinctly remember that opportunity to this day,” he said. “VCU has always been special to me. It’s part of my hometown and an important part of who I am.”

He explained that his role at the Brandcenter is to ensure that students understand creative, business strategy, innovation and how to evolve into or grow as creative problem solvers.

“As part of the Brandcenter, I stand on the shoulders of giants. As a creative and educator, I am proud to be able to carry the torch forward,” he said. 

Graves talked to VCU News about his contribution to “The Black Experience” anthology.

Can you talk about your contribution —”Another Brick in the Wall” — and how that discussion fits into your work at the Brandcenter?

I was asked to contribute to the anthology as someone who studied communication design and worked as an art director. The anthology editors acknowledged my experiences as a Black person in this industry who’s witnessed and endured the good, the bad, and the ugly. They asked me: “What is one thing you would tell people about your experience?”

I got the wall idea from my parents while growing up. Being Black, people will sometimes look beyond you and fail to see who you are as a unique individual. You need to build your wall with significant and tangible things that people recognize, and that allow you to subsequently prove yourself.

I call these achievements “bricks” — the accomplishments you list in your resume are perfect examples of your bricks. They consist of the things you spend your time on; the things you mill to perfection. Look at what you have on your wall — degrees, hard skills, experiences … whatever it may be. Today, the first thing people do after meeting or hearing about you for the first time is Google your name to see who you are and what you’re about. The more (bricks) you have to show, the better.

What are your feelings about being part of this anthology?

I was honored and excited about being featured in this work during such an important and critical time. We are living through a progressive era that has acknowledged and underscored the need to magnify Black voices — and not just our voices — our thoughts, perspectives and experiences. The human experience is not limited to, or confined within, any one race. We all may struggle to understand how we fit into the world.

It is a perfect time to reflect on how we, as people of color (especially Black), are seen in this country, how we see ourselves, and how others see us. We have been overlooked and undervalued through much of this country’s history, and that inevitably plays a role in how we go about shaping our identity. I really appreciated the opportunity to make a small contribution to this anthology and share my thoughts on something bigger than myself.

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