Black Stories/03: Donald Burlock Jr.

Donald Burlock Jr., Sr. UX Designer at Amazon, joins Sr. Media Producer Justin James Lopez for a chat about investing in your creative core and molding your own path. Let's hear his story!

Donald is a creative leader, committed to helping cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams evolve together to deliver game-changing customer experiences, whether app-based, hardware, or installations. He strongly believes that informed design strategy, elegant UX, and ambitious content are the pillars by which brands can build equity, authenticity, and relatability.


During his more than ten years in creative strategy and product design, Donald has worked on many challenging and worthwhile projects, including the design, development, and global launch of the highly awarded Dolby Cinema program; content marketing and social media strategy for an augmented-reality motorcycle helmet; an onboarding app sequence for a med tech device; and brand content marketing programs for several global brands, including GE, Coca-Cola, Dolby, Cisco, and many startups in Silicon Valley. Prior to coming to the Bay Area in 2013, Donald spent time innovating with the design firm IDEO in Boston.


You can find Donald's first book Superhuman by Design: Keys To Unlock Your Creativity For Life Changing Results available on Amazon!

  • Full Episode Transcript
  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Hey y'all. Welcome to Amazon's Black Stories podcast, where we highlight the stories of Black designers, researchers and creatives from all around the world. I'm your host, Justin James Lopez and today I'm joined by Donald Burlock Jr. He talks about the importance of trying new things, asking questions and also investing in your creative core. Now let's hear his story.

  • All right. So I'm really excited for this one. Donald, let's talk a little bit about who you are today. You're clearly at Amazon, you're a designer, but tell us a little bit more about what you do here.

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Thanks Justin. First of all, incredible opportunity to be here with the audience. I feel like I'm in the room with everyone, which usually is not the case when everything is remote, but I really truly feel like I'm in the room with the audience and in the room with you right now. My background is in actually mechanical engineering. I transitioned to design about a decade ago.

  • And so I started out working primarily with engineers in the automotive field. That's where I cut my teeth and got going with things. And then... And we'll talk about this part of my pivot, my big pivot that led me to design is very much one of the big reasons that I'm doing what I'm doing today. It was sort of how the pivot happened? It was when it happened? And then it was even more importantly where it led me in terms of place, in terms of the people I was interacting with. And all of that has informed where I'm at today right now.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. So mechanical engineering. So we're starting in mechanical engineering. And you said about a decade ago, you shifted to design. This is interesting. Was design always a part of the equation or was it a late addition to your life? Like, did you just jump into a mechanical engineering career and decide, "You know what, actually, there's this other thing." How did it actually come into your life?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Yeah, amazing story. Because it is in many ways, I think relatable to a lot of people who come from the Midwest from the part of the country where I grew up. I grew up somewhere where things are in many ways Black and white. When you get a standardized test, when it comes to your ethnicity, you have to check a box. When it comes to a sport you play, you check a box. When it comes to a career path that you pursue after school or joining the military, it's all about checking a box.

  • And I think it took many years for me to come this realization that you could define paths that weren't a part of shading in a box. That's really important because up until my mid 20s as an engineer, I felt like that was the only path that I could really pursue that allowed me to have some degree of creativity. I knew I was somebody who enjoyed the sciences to a degree, not so much on the chemistry and biology side, but I was someone who loved to tinker with things mostly with robotics and things of this nature.

  • And so I ended up pursuing an engineering degree because that seemed like the right path. It was a very clear step that would allow me to move into a career field that was very prominent in the Midwest, which was the automotive industry. So I started in the automotive industry, which a lot of people don't know, right? Like when you have this pivoting your career, a lot of times people only know you for whatever it is that you're doing right now. And I think the best part about being a designer is many designers who I meet, who have been designing for years, if you sit with them, they'll tell you, "I didn't start out in design. I started out in journalism. I started out in engineering. I started out as a copywriter." And you're like, "Wow. Okay. But now you're doing these incredible screen flows."

  • So I think that journey for me was partially because I was coming from a place, I was coming from an environment where you had sort of a chosen path, if you will. Chosen in a sense of like, if it wasn't on that piece of paper and you weren't checking the box for where you were trying to go, people would kind of look at you sideways like, "Oh, you're trying to do music or you're into fashion and fashion photography." And like, "Huh. Okay. That's interesting. Good luck with that. Maybe do that on the side, let's get a day job." That was sort of the attitude that I grew up with.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • It's interesting because I recently had another guest, Gloria [Osadue] also at Amazon, she's a researcher, but she kind of mentioned this similar pathway of being guided towards of safe path, right? The path that makes sense to other people, but may have not made the most sense to you in your life. And you also mentioned this idea that I would describe as this way, right? Like I was always told when you're making an excuse for something, right? Anything that comes before the butt doesn't really matter. Have you ever heard it?

  • And you talk about that when you're saying but it's in a career perspective, people only look at the pivot, right? But for you, does that experience being in mechanical engineering or moving towards that path? Does that bleed into the work that you do now? Or is it a very real thing that it's only after the pivot that matters?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Oh, it totally and influences the work. It influences the work and then it influences who I am in a very unexpected way. So what I mean by that, Justin is it has shaped my attitude such that I'm very excited about having moments where my thought expands, my perspective expands. And why is that? It's probably because I spent so long with these sort of safe predefined paths. And so now when I brush up against someone or I brush up against an environment where people have lots of expansive thinking, the perspectives are really wide. People are connecting dots in really interesting ways. I get goosebumps. I get really excited because this magnetism that happens because I spent so many years where I was deeply curious internally, but didn't find myself brushing up against environments and people and places that were also quite curious, right?

  • So I go from sort of predefined space to a space where everything is expansive. And that for me is what has carried through from those years where I'm like, "Okay, I'm working as an engineer, but whoo, this is really interesting. Now I'm entering into this field where there's all of these different stimuli that are impacting the work we're doing, the people we're working with. How do I get more of that?"

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Coming from this space of having to check a box, right? You having to check that box in order to be accepted almost in the work that you do or... How scary was it to pivot in that way and say, "Well, you know what, I'm going to dive into the gray area." How hard was that for you?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • It's exhilarating. It's actually like doing anything else that really pushes you to the edge, whether you're skydiving, whether you're about to go swimming and you're swimming in the ocean for the fur time, there's this teetering on fear and at the same time excitement and exhilaration. And depending on your personality type, you end up finding yourself sort of falling more towards the excitement. And then at some point it takes over the fear and you're into it.

  • And perhaps you're afraid the entire time because you're in the unknown, right? There's so much ambiguity when you make that pivot. But I think the thing that is so fascinating to me, the thing that is... Something that I carry from learning how to engage the fear is being comfortable with this phrase that I call jumping off the porch. I don't know where I got this from, I think I borrowed it from someone along the way. We always borrow things along the way.

  • But the jumping off the porch analogy is all about going from what you said earlier, safe, this sort of safe, a bit more understood path. I won't say it's predictable. Right? Most things aren't in life. We don't have control over everything, we know that. But there are these paths where it seems a little bit more predictable. I'm going to go and pursue this type of job. It has a very clear title and description. And then this is the career path that's going to lead me down. As opposed to you're choosing something, let's say for instance, in an emerging field and perhaps the description of the opportunity isn't that clear or the work that you're doing, as soon as you land at this company that you really want to be at isn't that clear.

  • That ambiguity, that is to me, what gets me going sometimes because it inevitably puts me in a position where I might discover something really fascinating about myself and I'm going to discover something really fascinating about the world.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. I believe you. And I honestly really do subscribe to the same idea of like, when you think of the fear, the excitement. Many people don't really even realize the feelings of fear, anxiety, excitement actually have very similar, if not, almost identical physiological responses in your body. It really just comes down to how you look at it and you mention like sometimes you may be feeling like fear of the entire time because it's just so unknown to you. At what point does this... Because there's hard skills that you get from different types of fields.

  • And I think that that is also associated with the safety that we as a society, right? When you think of mechanical engineering, you think of software engineering, you think of the medical field. In a creative field, there is a lot of ambiguity, right? There is a lot of like, "Is this good work? Is this not good work? And it's arbitrary." And maybe you're not at that part in your journey yet, but at what point in your journey do you start to go, "Aha, this is what Donald's good looks like in design, in creativity." Because it's all ambiguous, right?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • It's all ambiguous in a way. And I say it in this fashion because ultimately if you are allowing yourself to be as creative as possible, then to your point about the physiological experiences that inevitably you have, whether you're afraid to give that presentation because you forgot to dress well, or you're not as prepared or you're just incredibly excited to be on the stage and share something with someone. What tends to happen is if you, and I've discovered this, if you really lean into growing your creative core, the aspect of yourself that enjoys the exploration that leans into the curiosity. If you strengthen that aspect, then you have more moments where you're enjoying a really experience, a new conversation, a new interaction with someone.

  • You might still feel tense, right? To a degree because it is new. But at the same time, you start to feel this intuition, right? That this is the right journey. This is the right thing to do. That's why I talk so much about creativity. And I talk about the action that comes from strengthening your creative core, because I think what that does is it allows someone to embrace ambiguity, right? And we're specifically talking about ambiguity because I think sometimes when we talk about certainty and uncertainty, we can get into a really technical discussion.

  • But ambiguity in general that says you are going into perhaps unknown territory, right? You are pushing up on the boundaries and interfaces of something that you haven't done before. And we experience that in all aspects of our lives. Usually we talk about it in terms of our career, in terms of the work that we're doing, but it's actually just part of living, right? It starts when you're first dropped off at kindergarten and it continues all the way through the rest of your life, right? And how we learn to embrace that ambiguity, I think is by strengthening our creative core, the thing that we innately all have, but sometimes as we get further along in life and in our careers, we dismiss as not as valuable perhaps as when we were younger.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. Now, I want to address the elephant in the room for many of us when we move into not just design, but just the corporate world, right? You mentioned being from the Midwest and growing up in a very specific way, very specific culture. What was your experience shifting to not just the corporate world, but like shifting to... You're in San Francisco now, right? Like you're in the... So in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley you have and what it... And specifically, right? Like I said, elephant in the room, let's address it. What was it being Black in that room and shifting into that world? What has been your experience?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Oh my goodness. You know, I think initially there was a degree of shock, right? Because I had experience to some degree moments of discrimination, moments of bias in a negative way, right? Being in the Midwest, working professionally as a young Black engineer, even in the automotive industry. But generally it was sort of understood. It was understood that there were going to be these moments where it is what it is, that was kind of the understood at attitude. But something interesting happened when I started growing my career as a designer.

  • When I decided to study design, I didn't realize this, but my confidence in who I was and the confidence and the type of work that I could produce was also growing. Design encourages this type of aptitude within people because inevitably you have to present concepts and ideas to people who perhaps don't understand what you're talking about initially. And perhaps you have to convince them that the solution or the idea or whatever it is that you're showcasing is the believable one to move forward with. So your confidence grows as you put the process of designing to action, right? This is why design thinking has become so popularized over the years is because it drives a degree of confidence in something that you're presenting to the world.

  • So I say all that to say that there was an incredible amount of confidence that I had on the backside of design school. And when I came into the workforce again, initially at IDEO in Cambridge, and then I over time decided that I was going to make this move to the Bay Area. I had an incredible amount of confidence in who I was and what I could share and what I could bring to the world. And nobody could tell me that that wasn't the case. So I think it was shocking initially to find myself in a design environment where I imagined that everyone would be outside the box in terms of their thinking.

  • The hyperbole is always empathy. The hyperbole focuses on understanding the end needs of a user, of a customer, like really digging in and understanding, "Well, how do we help people," right? Is the right solution for the environment, et cetera. So I'm thinking these people who I'm about to work with who taught this hyperbole and design, well, they should be the most empathetic understanding people. They should appreciate diversity in all of its degrees in terms of who you are, where you're from, what you know, what you're bringing into the room.

  • And quite often, unfortunately I would find that that was not the case. I would discover through my interactions initially coming into the consulting world. And then by way of consulting, eventually becoming associate creative director, Adobe laboratory and working with people in the Bay Area that I would often run into situations where my expectation of interacting with the most creative people turned out to be quite disappointing. And I realized that sometimes I was interacting with people who didn't believe that I could deliver really amazing concepts, or they perhaps had some doubt about how I was going to present and didn't believe that I could win the room for whatever reason.

  • I think there were degrees of racial implications in some of the conversations as well, right? Like the sort of doubting conversations that make you wonder about yourself, right? Like part of this imposter syndrome cycle that we talk about a lot is if I'm constantly expressing doubt in you like, "Are you sure you got that right? Are you sure you can do that?" Well, then it chips away at your confidence, right? Like this wonderful reserve of confidence that you could use to feel your potential, all of a sudden starts to shut down just a little bit, a little bit more and a little bit more.

  • So there was never really a moment where somebody was overt and it was explicit in terms of some racial interaction or some kind of microaggression that was so vivid to me where I thought to myself, "Oh my gosh, this is clearly that. Here we go." Mm-mm (negative). A lot of times it was, "I'm going to express doubt in you." "Well, why would you have doubt in me? I showed up I'm here. I got hired. I went through all of the rounds of interviews. I've clearly shown you that I have a portfolio and a skillset that could lend itself to this project."

  • But for whatever reason in the first minute of us sitting down, you have doubts about who I am and why I'm here. So it's masked, it's masked and it's multi-layered Justin, there's insecurity express, there's this sort of doubtful kind of a expressed story that's kind of spun up in the room like, "Hey, yeah, we brought them in because we just really wanted to add to the mix. Like, "Okay, that sounds great." So you start to experience things culturally. And what I mean, culturally is within the context of an office or in the context of a company. And those are the things that for me were so eyeopening. It was eyeopening because it was very insidious at times.

  • It's like very much... It's not overt. I can't really tell you to too many stories about where it's overt, but I can tell you the ones where it's not, and it's a little bit more insidious. Those are deeply hurtful. And you do have to be really careful. You have to be mindful of those experiences.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. It's interesting because you think of the concept of that overt versus that implicit scenario that you're feeling and in a certain way you, I don't know, I can't speak for you, but I know for me in my experience coming from like more of a mixed culture and having so different things, people are constantly trying to out what I am, who I am, what do I identify with, before they interact with me to make sure that their interactions are justified or whatever. But it's almost like for me, I would prefer the overtness because at least you would know where the person stands and where their perspective is coming from.

  • And the other part, as you mentioned, it hurts because it's almost kind of like gaslighting, right? Like you almost feel like you're-

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • It is gaslighting. Yeah.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • You feel like you're going crazy there. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that in your career?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Well, first it, it talked a lot about creativity in the form of three Cs consciousness, connection and community. This is recent. Like the last few years I've been working on this... I don't know if I want to call it sort of a theme, but it really is. Right because creativity, I think at the end of the day, is this fuel that continues to propel us forward. I specifically talk about consciousness, connection, and community, because these are the things that have helped me continue to be creative, right?

  • So to answer that question and have this dialogue about where we're going here. I needed some way to address the types of experiences I was having in such a way where I wasn't defensive, because it's very easy to become defensive. It's really easy to shut down. And I think it's also easy to begin to lose that confidence and move out of roles or opportunities prematurely. I certainly experienced that. I think even my time at IDEO is a good example because in many respects, I think that because I wasn't able at that point to handle some of the sometimes implicit experiences that were going on chipping at that confidence, inevitably I was that much more open to moving to a different company, a different culture.

  • And so I talk about consciousness because I think it's important to build the awareness of what's going on in the environment and how people are addressing you. It's important. I think, because I had to understand what was really me and then what was really someone else? What were they struggling with? Right? Their issue of a Black designer in the room giving them feedback about perhaps something that they created made them feel in some way threatened or disrespected. That's not my problem, that's their issue, but I would make it my issue.

  • And I would feel like, "Oh, maybe I need to change the style of how I'm giving feedback." Well, maybe there's some things I can improve, but it didn't change the fact that I was in the room in the position to give feedback and I should have given feedback because that was my job. I would experience things like that and I would put it directly back on myself.

  • So over time I had to build a consciousness by way of making connections with people who were helping me understand, "Hey, this isn't always you, you have to acknowledge these are things that are happening because of some of these other people who are in leadership right? And they're doing things that are perhaps not making the environment nearly as inclusive or as perhaps comfortable as it could be." Yeah. So it took a lot for me to begin to really embrace some things and see some things differently.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. It's like allow people on the space to be who they are, right? And I think that that's something that I learned in my career as well. Like just constantly having to look at yourself and, "How could I have changed this scenario?" And maybe the answers you couldn't have, right? The way people, as you mentioned, the way people treat you very often has everything to do with them and very little to do with you sometimes. So you also have a book, right? And how much of this is in your book? Let's talk about your book for a second. Superhuman by Design.

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Yes. Superhuman by Design. Yeah. First book and recent it's so I think very relevant for the conversation we're having is there's so many stories, Justin, that I want to tell, and this is the beauty of this podcast, right? Is because if you've stuck around in design long enough, if you've stuck around long enough in the creative career, inevitably, you're going to talk about these things. You're going to talk about bias. You're going to talk about how to deal with success, how to deal with failure, right? The implications of being the only one in the room, right? No other person in the room except you who carries your culture, who lifts the very essence of you, right?

  • Lifts this essence to a degree such that this is perhaps the one experience that everyone else in the room is having with you as a Black designer, right? As a Black person, right? They may not have any other interaction with anyone Black for that week, that month, maybe that year, that's a real thing, right? Imagine you're coming into that room and that's the way you feel. Having a platform to talk about those stories, that's what became important to me. Because I realize one, that my story has value. And then two, I realize there's a lot of people who have similar experiences and perhaps don't know that there are people who can put voice to it.

  • And so when I started to write Superhuman by Design, initially it was just sharing my story in design, in Silicon Valley, looking at different startups, being the only one in the room, working through imposter syndrome, the high eyes and the lows. But this is the beauty of a book. If you get a really good editor. I found someone who has a lot of professional wisdom and experience, and they said, "Hey, put some structure around your story. And then that way we can extract things that are applicable to both designers, who are still very new, who are kind of coming up in the game to people who have had a lot of years in design and are looking for something that sort of pulls it all together and then even more, can you extend it so that anyone can read it who's remotely curious about the value of creativity, the value of creativity in themselves, what they could do with.

  • It took a lot about superpowers which is our innate abilities and things that were uniquely designed to have and bring to the world. And then the superpowers that we can go out and get. And so the book went from almost like a memoir, like a sort of inspirational/aspirational storytelling time to... Oh my goodness. That's only like a portion of the book. Like that's a section, it grew into this. Let's make this applicable, let's pull out application that people can use that they can take with them on Monday morning. Heck they could use like that day. You know?

  • And so the journey of the book now has been taking these layers apart, right? Taking these layers about creativity and design, my story in Silicon Valley, just overall lifestyle, the things that I've had to learn in terms of my spirit, in terms of my body, in terms of my rest, in terms of my recovery, right? In terms of finances. Like taking all of this stuff, relationships and looking at it through a design lens, which has a lot of structure, right? Has a lot of thinking to it and saying, "Well, how do I first address my designers?"

  • So I'm like, "My fellow designers, let me speak to you." Right? "My fellow Black designers, let me talk to you." And then I go from there and I'm like, "I want to talk to everybody. I want to unlock in everyone their own creativity, because if I can start to do that, something incredible emerges, right? I've seen happen time and time again, in the room, you can take the person who in many cases is the most closed, maybe the most isolating in their attitude, they have these really judgemental very sort of like anti you for this moment in the room kind of attitude. And if you are able to see that person in the course of like 30 minutes, an hour, and next thing you know, they're up, they're moving, there's action."

  • They're like, "Hey, we could do something. Yeah. What if we could do that?" The electricity from that is that jolt is incredible. That is an incredible feeling that I love and I want other people to experience. That's why I wrote the book.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. Superhuman by Design. Where can we get that book?

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • It was an order to put it on Amazon. That's where I had to start.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • It's on Amazon. There it is.

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • There it is. Yeah. Honestly, I had every intention of having that book on Amazon even before I was fortunate enough to join Amazon. I thought, "What better place to put this message?" Right? Like I still sell the book sign copies through my website and such, but I want you to get this message fast and Amazon's going to deliver it to you really quick. And I want people to talk about it. And the thing I love about a book on Amazon is I read the reviews, just like people do for all types of products. I read the reviews and I want to see in those reviews, people share their experience with the material.

  • And I was like, "I want the book on Amazon because it doesn't matter how much it shows up on Facebook or Instagram and LinkedIn." All of these communities are really great, but I want the conversation to be where the sale is, where the conversion is. People who are buying the book are also looking at those reviews and they're thinking like, "Wow, this person took five minutes. And they discovered something really interesting about like how to apply creativity to their finances. Like they weren't thinking like that before. And oh, they took a picture of some of the things they highlight it."

  • And I'm like, "That's why I want the book on Amazon."

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • I love it. Well, it's always a pleasure, Donald. It's always a pleasure. And thank you for joining us for this episode of Black stories. For everyone listening, this is an amazing story about imposter syndrome, about being the only one, how to work through ambiguity, how to work through pivots in your career, but also pick up the book Superhuman by Design, by Donald Burlock Jr.

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • I wish everybody could see it. I want to hold it up just because it feels good. It's got this bright yellow cover, so you will recognize it on Amazon.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • All good. We'll link that in this [inaudible] episode. And thanks again.

  • Donald Burlock Jr.:
  • Thank you, Justin. And thank you for allowing me to just be up here with you and your audience today. It's a really incredible feeling. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.