In Conversation with Antonio García of Dadwell & Co.

 Tom Krawczyk

Antonio García wears a lot of hats. The design leader, public speaker, adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute, vice president of Diversity & Inclusion for AIGA Chicago, and collaborator at colored (to name only a sliver of what’s on his plate), decided to take a year-long sabbatical as a way to “hit a creative reset button.”

While rekindling his creative spirit, Antonio launched Dadwell & Co.—an independent media project at the intersection of creativity and fatherhood. We spoke with him about his leave, the fears associated with “taking a break” as well as fatherhood, and what he’s learning while interviewing fathers on The Dadwell Podcast.

 Bethany Fritz

One Design: First and foremost, I really enjoyed the first episode of The Dadwell Podcast where you interviewed David [David Sieren, Design & Strategy Director at One Design]. I was engaged the entire time—I'm really excited to keep listening and hear from everyone else.

Antonio García: Oh, wow. I hope I live up to it. I appreciate that, thank you. You have no idea how much that means in the thick of things. There are just some days where I get in my own head about it—a lot of negative self-talk—and suddenly I'm wondering, ‘Does anyone even care? Who gives a shit? Does this matter to anybody but me?’

One: Well, we think you're doing something right. We'll jump into Dadwell a little later—for now, let’s start from your background. I know that you do a lot of things, from street art to music to UX design. Could you run through the laundry list of what you’ve done and what you're currently doing?

AG: I've been in the design industry, or in the design world, for 20 years now. That feels crazy to say out loud. But it's been an all sorts of capacities; in the beginning, it was very much hands-on and production work and design fundamentals—usually on the digital side. It's been motion design or web design—the majority has been in interaction design and UX and UI work. As my career evolved and I did more team building and leadership and client engagement, my regular involvement in the ‘making of things’ has shifted to the deliberate planning and execution of things—more on the strategy side and moving teams to create great work on behalf of clients.

I started teaching around the same time that I started leading teams, which was really helpful because one served the other. As I led students through classwork and design fundamentals, I was at the same time leading design teams through project work and design fundamentals. That made me a better leader and then, in turn, made me a better teacher.

I have always had some bundle of side projects or side hustles, and those have pushed me outside the boundaries of design. That could be DJing and bringing new music to people, that could just be illustration work that brings joy and delight. Writing, public speaking—all of those things feel creative. But those are all in addition to the eight to six design work that I was doing for agencies.

And most recently, I left agency and studio life—maybe for good, but at least for a year—to pour myself into Dadwell & Co., and hopefully if there's time, some illustration work around children's books and some other things that we can get into.

One: I remember first hearing about this potential sabbatical about a year ago at the national conference for AIGA, and here we are.

AG: Yeah. I made good on that promise.

One: I want to hear a little bit more about you finally taking the plunge. What big fears did you face since deciding and following through?

AG: Oh—so many, and I'm facing them every day. They're not anything that I've faced down and have triumphed over; the fears are waiting for me from the minute I opened my eyes in the morning. The obvious ones are financial—to leave gainful employment and a steady paycheck, to shift over health benefit to Maris, my wife. To live as a family of four with a mortgage and Montessori and daycare on one income. The biggest one is just the brutal math of it. The numbers just don't add up—the spreadsheet is horrible, you know?

One: How do you reckon with that?

AG: In the beginning I thought, ‘Oh, what will this time away from the industry look like should I return to design? What does that gap year look like on a resume? How will I tell a story around that, how do I explain that?’ And that quickly fell away because as soon as I described what I'm up to for this year, it makes total sense. I'm surprised that people have such an appreciation or people say things like, ‘Oh, that's so brave.’ Or like, ‘Wow. Good for you.’

I'm struck by that because it doesn't feel like that when you're doing it. It honestly feels really irresponsible sometimes, or very selfish. Every day that I'm working on this, I'm not making money and not providing financially for my family or in terms of security. That feels particularly scary. But I think everything else is falling into place.

I guess the only other thing I can say, and it's not really a fear, it's just something I'm kind of curious and wondering about is—what am I going to do when this year is up?

One: You mentioned you ‘might go back.’ What would convince you to go back and what would convince you to not?

AG: I hope that I am a very different person at the end of this year. That's really the point of the time, taking a sabbatical. Maybe in the traditional sense in academia, you take a sabbatical so you could do some really heavy duty, deep research and exploration, and then you would return to your field of study more enriched from that departure. I think that will happen here too.

But ‘taking a sabbatical’ usually means that you're still getting paid by your academic institution, or you're still getting paid by your employer in some capacity. And then, when you're all done, you have a job waiting for you and you return to it and you get right back into it. That's not at all what this is.

That was offered to me, like, ‘Hey, let's figure out a way to keep you employed and keep paying you at Rightpoint. There're probably projects you can help us with and then when you're all done, you'll come back and just take over your position as a Group Experience Director and keep leading the UX for six studios.’

A week into that I was like, ‘No, fuck that.’ There's no way I'm doing that. Not any disrespect to them, I just knew after a whole year of this, there's no way I could go back to doing the exact same thing. And I'm glad I'm not still on the payroll because that means somewhere along the way I'd be compromising something.

So to answer your question, I don't know. I hope that I will be very different in my thinking and as a person and a creative person—a collaborator—when I'm all done with this. I hope that it opens up possibilities and doors that were previously closed or not known to me before. I'd love to see what my life could look like as a media maker, as a content creator, continuing in podcast or other more dynamic media. There's something really interesting about that.

And it doesn't necessarily have to be scaling Dadwell. It could be just new things born out of proving myself through Dadwell—a bunch of small things that all together are sustaining. Even if individually they're weird and fragmented and don't make a lot of money and whatever. And then if I imagine myself returning to the design world, it would really have to be on my terms and it would have to be a different model than the traditional agency studio arrangement.

One: How did you even get to Dadwell? What was the process that led you to decide, ‘Ah, yes. This is what I'm going to do on my year off.’

AG: I talk a little bit about it in the prologue for the show, but I think that it was a combination of things. It was knowing that we had another baby on the way and that that would fundamentally change our family structure and systems we had in place.

I was turning 40 in February. There's a kind of natural life audit and taking inventory of what you've accomplished and what you still aspire to do and what you believe you've got energy and capacity for, and so there's kind of that very personal sorting. And then I think an increasing dissatisfaction with the work that I was being paid to do. And again, no disrespect to clients or colleagues—I feel really privileged and in a way almost ungrateful. There are a lot of people who would kill to have the title I had and make the money I had and do the things that I do. I know that. But that still doesn't change that I wasn’t enjoying it, you know?

It was all of those things kind of crashing into each other and I felt like, ‘Wow, if I don't do something significant soon, if I don't do something big, I don't think I'm going to make it.’

Either my family life is going to come apart or be a lot harder—or I'm going to have this existential dread of turning 40 and mid-life crisis, and that just seems really expected and pathetic. Or, I'm not going to like work, I'm not going to like what I wake up and spend 40 plus hours a week doing, and I'm going to come home grouchy about it and then take it out on people that I love.

So I think the first idea was, ‘I'm going to take a break, and I'm going to take time off.’ And I've never really done that.

I talked to other people who had taken time off, and they're like, ‘Honestly, anything less than a year; don't bother. It really needs to be a big chunk of your time. You're going to spend the first months just decompressing from the last 20 years of work.’ You know? It's a lot. ‘Take a whole year.’

I had to ask, how do I fill that year? There were all these little side projects I want to do, but are they actually side projects, or are they just ideas? And really just talking through that. It was Maris who said, ‘You should do some kind of project around things you're struggling with most, which is your inability to reconcile creativity in fatherhood.’ She didn't name it a podcast, but I think she pointed me in the direction of, ‘Why don't you spend some part of this year therapeutically exploring that?’

That was the big idea. ‘Maybe I should interview a bunch of fathers about how they do it, and that'll make me a better dad and a better creative person.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, why wouldn't I record those or document that in some way? Because I'm sure it'd be useful to other people.’ And then that was like, ‘Why wouldn't explore a medium that's sort of new to me, and quite popular like podcasts?’ And then it sort of evolved, and it was like, ‘Surely, as a designer, I got to brand this thing. I can't just do it.’ You know?

And it wasn't any sort of formal brainstorm and normal concept development thing that you'd do in a design environment. I think it was very organic, and it was through a lot of conversations with people and friends and colleagues kind of building on the idea and making it better, and I think that's how I got to it.

 Tom Krawczyk

One: Totally. You mentioned in your Medium post that there was this kind of wide open hole of these stories being shared in a significant way. Why do you think that is?

AG: As a society and culture, I think we have done so much harm in the programming of young men. We've done a lot of damage, perpetuating these certain masculine ideals and notions about fatherhood or about what it means to be male. It's in every facet and corner of society and culture. This is a really tiny, very niche sliver of what I think is a much bigger thing—one that I'm not equipped to tackle on my own. But the way that men are told they're supposed to handle emotions and feelings and hard stuff is to remain stoic and strong and to subvert that stuff, or worse; to allow it to fuel misogyny or violence or all sorts of really negative behaviors.

The show, in the tiniest, most humble way, is just trying to make space. And make space for a pretty specific type of male—a guy who has a family and is also entrepreneurial and creative. Already, that's slicing it pretty thin. The reason I chose that is it felt manageable to me, as a host and media maker. That's familiar territory enough that I think I can do a decent job convening men and giving them space to talk about these things and to provide them prompts and provocations through the discussion and the conversation to try to open that up and explore those things in a safe way that then other people, who are likely struggling with the same sorts of things, now have some ideas, hope, inspiration, commiseration that they can tap into through the show.

That's my really microscopic contribution to what I think is a way bigger epidemic in maleness. Or, at least, sort of heteronormative maleness.

One: Definitely. I guess after hearing all of their anecdotes and all 18 fathers’ learnings, what are the pervasive, still-present fears about fatherhood that you haven’t been able to shake?

AG: The good news is that they're starting to melt away. That was always the idea—let me learn from people who I think have an angle on it different than mine, or who I think are doing a better job at it. I haven't figured it all out—I'm still really deep in analysis and synthesis. I've only edited 4 of the 18 interviews, and so there's still a lot of material there to spend time in and learn from.

I don't have any concise themes or big ideas yet, but I'll say personally, the biggest thing is just sharing space. Bearing witness to 18 men and their stories. If it doesn't solve anything else, I had an opportunity to know these men in different ways than I did prior to the show. And to hear what they've struggled with—I'm not alone. None of us are alone in what we're doing; that the thing I’m most stressed with today will be resolved and, unfortunately, replaced by something all new to stress about. That kind of continuous cycle, those sort of waves, that's very natural and human, and that was something I was railing against—trying to get to some part where I'm just never worried anymore, or very confident forever after.

That's not the point though—that's maybe what I'm coming to grips with, is that there will always be something. And really, parenting and fatherhood is a continuous letting go of things that you hold very tightly to. Whether those are fears or memories or moments, or whatever—it's a continuous cycle of letting go.

One: Yeah, wow. Fully accepting the things that you can't control is a very big feat. Definitely easier said than done.

AG: Yeah, there's a reason why that’s part of the opening lines of every 12-step program.

One: [Laughs] That’s true. Sure, sure. You found the way, the support system, the drive and the motivation to rekindle your creative spirit, but are there any other parts of that puzzle that you feel would be helpful if somebody was in a similar situation? What would they need to know?

AG: Oh, yeah. I mean, everybody's financial situation is very different, so it's hard to speak to that. I certainly empathize with somebody who doesn't have a partner or spouse, or doesn't have some savings or has a bad credit score or whatever. It would be not impossible, but definitely harder, to take time. Especially a year off, where you're not really earning a paycheck.

Dadwell is not a revenue-generating thing. I have no advertising. I've got no show sponsorship. I've got no paid employees. Everyday that I'm working on it, it feels a little bit like I'm just burning up our savings.

So aside from the financial things you'd need to get in order to make that possible, I would say that—and this is true for anybody who works from home—there's something really valuable about getting feedback on your work, even if it's purely exploratory and experimental and more art than it is design. Being really intentional about that, and making time to bring those things out into trusted circles of advisors and other people to take a look and give you feedback is really important.

Also, making time to spend time with other people; getting out of the house and grabbing coffee and lunch and these sorts of breaks is really important, and making those meetings not about work.

Your physical health is really easy to neglect when you're hustling really hard too, and that's whether you're working at a studio or not. The pressure is on to produce something, to yield something of value, especially when you're on sabbatical, because it feels like you're just sort of freeloading on your own dime. And if you're not making something, then what are you doing? You can just work yourself to the bone, so you have to do something physical or sweat or do yoga or run or do anything that brings you physical fitness. And then on the other hand, I think that it is important to treat yourself. Hustle really hard, but then take a break and watch a show or go see a movie or play a video game or just read a book or comic, or do something nice for yourself with regularity. The balance of working really hard and taking enough breaks is good for anybody who's just in a fast-paced work environment.

One: What did you treat yourself with most recently? Have you watched a really good show, or have you eaten somewhere great?

AG: Oh, jeez. Yeah, I started marathon training for what will be my 10th marathon in as many years.

One: All right, humble brag. That's awesome.

AG: When I'm at my worst as a husband and father, Maris is really good about reminding me of how long it was since I last went for a run. And that's almost always all I need to do.

Some people come home, and they drink a couple beers after work and they unwind, or some people come home and they veg out in front of the TV for a bit. Whatever works and is not harmful to you, I'm for it. And for me, it's running. I know that if I can get a run in, every day is a good day. The endorphins, adrenaline, physical activity, sweating, getting away from the computer, I'm just a totally different person.

The last thing that I'd say I treated myself with was on Father's Day—I went for an 11 mile run. I came home, made a really good breakfast for Maris and me, and we got to eat it in peace because our kids were taking naps. Then I went to the Puerto Rican Peoples' parade in Humboldt Park with my family and got culture and food and salsa—it was great.

Then I just did something all by myself. My kids and Maris went to Grandma and Grandpa's house for pizza, and I stayed home. I watched a horror movie that I've been meaning to see for some time and just never had the right time to do it. It was probably not the horror movie to watch because it was so fucked up. It messed up my brain the rest of the day.

One: Which one?

AG: It was Hereditary.

One: Yeah, yeah. [Clicks tongue.]

AG: Holy shit.

One: Don’t jump off the call because I made ‘the noise.’

AG: You know, it's about death and the occult and depression and schizophrenia—

One: —family trauma.

AG: I was like, ‘Damn, this is not a Father's Day movie.’

One: The only other question that I have is a question that we've been asking everyone we talk to in relation to Unread. How do you stay curious?

AG: Teaching. Students often ask, as young people, ‘What do we really have to bring to networking events? When we're surrounded by industry professionals, as students, it feels like we have more to gain than we have to give.’ And I always remind them that they have all of their curiosity and youthful energy and passion and lust for life and zeal and optimism and hunger and hustle. They've got a level of energy and excitement and wonder about things that the industry professionals tend to lose as they mature in their careers.

A second is my own kids. They have such a limited worldview and awareness, but they're constantly trying to connect ideas and experiences and these disparate things to build a bigger view of the world. To watch that happen, and to be pulled into that with their incessant questions and wondering why things are the way they are, it forces you to answer that and to not take the world for granted or assume you know all the things or ignore the everyday mundane because you've got 40 years of seeing that thing and it's not new to you. It's new to them, and all of a sudden you're called to examine it more deeply or from a different perspective or with fresh eyes.

The third is, regardless of where you are in your experience, there are people with 30, 40, 50 years of experience more than you to learn from. So while I get a lot of energy from young people, I also try to seek mentorship from more seasoned folks, industry veterans, or people who have just seen more of the world.

There was this really great quote that said once a year, you should take something that you are so certain of—some point-of-view about the world—and let it go. That opens you up to new thinking and possibility, and also helps you shake off and shed these orthodoxies. It sounds really interesting and simple to do, but man, is it hard. I can't say that I've done it yet, but I really like the idea of it. This year is very much a year of letting go of a lot of things that I have held onto and built belief systems around. To trade those things for something new is exhilarating.

Explore all things Dadwell & Co. here, and follow along on social media as Antonio interviews more kick-ass fathers. While you're at it, make sure you listen to the first episode of The Dadwell Podcast featuring Design & Strategy Director at One Design David Sieren.

Still wanting more? Take a look at the The Curiosity Issue of our biannual journal, Unread, where we chatted with another creative, engaged father Jim Coudal of Field Notes.

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