2 Minutes With ... Mike Nicholls, Founder and Creative Director of Umber Magazine

A designer's journey to his own print publication

Mike Nicholls is a creative director, brand strategist, publisher, visual designer and illustrator. 

As Umber magazine's creative director, he visually designs and illustrates the perspectives of each release's contributors, from curation of content to final magazine design. As a founder, he is responsible for content creation, community engagement and managing the magazine's team.

We spent two minutes with Nicholls to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations, and recent work he's admired.

Mike, tell us...

The town where you were born, and where you live now.

Born in Brooklyn, raised in Charlotte, N.C., and now I live in Oakland, Calif.

What you wanted to be when you grew up.

I always knew I was going to be creative. At one point I considered professional basketball. However, my senior year in high school I knew I was going to be an artist. Plus, I probably wasn't going to make the varsity team.

How you discovered you were creative.

My dad is visual artist. Even though I didn't grow up with him, I always drew and thought about creating things. Everything from designing motorcycles and sneakers to mimicking my favorite cartoons and comic strips.

A person you idolized creatively growing up.

There wasn't anybody, really. Maybe my older cousin because we would draw graffiti and Peterbilt 16 wheeler trucks. Outside of that, I was pretty much a loner. I just found myself drawing all the time. On second thought, whoever's name appeared in cartoon credits, Hanna Barbera and Lou Scheimer. LOL

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

My dad came to my college graduation from design school in Chicago. At this time, I haven't seen him in at least 10 years. We're sitting on the CTA Blue Line looking at the wayfinding system and we realized we both loved the Helvetica typeface. That was an extremely pivotal moment for me. I knew my love for design was more than just passion; it was legacy.

The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.

The first one I can remember is the Jackson Five during their Triumph album tour. That was when Michael got back with his brothers for one last album before he officially went solo for good. I guess I was 5 years old, haha. I'm too big of a geek and fan of music to pick a favorite, especially now. There's so much good music out. Bells Atlas, Eddou XL and Mavi are my go-to right now.

Your favorite visual artist.

I would say the two that immediately come to mind are Barkley Hendricks and Alphonse Mucha.

Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction.

Spider-Man. He was the hero I identified with from when I was very young. Then as I got older, I realized he was just an awkward nerdy kid who was bestowed with great power and ultimately great responsibility. LOL

The best book you've read lately.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me definitely struck a cord with me, as I too have a young son. He's only 9 years old, and because of recent murder of George Floyd, I had to have a deeply emotional conversation about race, our Black bodies and the police. It was difficult, but at that brief moment I saw the man he was going to be. Reading Ta-Nehisi's book definitely prepared me for that moment.

Your favorite movie.

The first Matrix.

Your favorite Instagram follow.

Let's come back to that, I'm about to take a sabbatical from IG. ☺

How the Covid-19 crisis has changed your life, personally or professionally, in recent weeks.

As a bit of a recluse, I've been socially distancing most of my adult life, so that's been on brand. One thing that has changed is my perspective on what is essential for my well-being. "Do I really need that? Will my life be any better if I do?"

Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on, and why.

I created my own printed publication called Umber. Launched it via Kickstarter in 2017, had the idea since 2006. My vision is to globally highlight Black and Brown (BIPOC) creatives through print media. I left my job in Silicon Valley to focus on it and my design practice. Working for a magazine company has been my dream since high school. Instead of asking for a seat at the table, I made my own.

Your favorite creative project from the past year, and why.

Last year I curated, designed and illustrated Umber's Sound Issue, with a lot of help from writers, photographers and editors. My joy is design, my medium is printed ink on paper.

Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.

I was really inspired by Danyel Smith and Elliott Wilson's HRDCVR Kickstarter campaign and eventually gorgeous hard cover magazine.

Someone else's creative project that you've been envious of lately.

The rapper Freddie Gibbs has had a great run lately, He's put out four great albums, two of them produced by hip-hop producers I really love—Madlib and Alchemist. Hopefully before I turn 50 I'll put out my own hip-hop album. LOL

Your main strength as a creative person.

I can actually draw pretty good. Pencils before pixels all day.

Your weakness or blind spot.

Cartoons. Still to this day, I'm a sucker for spending my Saturday mornings in front of YouTube looking for classic '80s nostalgia.

One thing that always makes you happy.

Music warms my heart, feed my soul and makes my body move.

One thing that always makes you sad.

Not making homemade buttered popcorn at least once a week.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in magazine design.

I would either do fashion design or be a professional disc jockey.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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