Q&A: Amazon's Michael Nesmith on being a deaf art director

Amazon is one of the few tech companies to offer full-time ASL interpreters, with full benefits, to its deaf employees.

Michael Nesmith is a veteran art director, having worked at various agencies throughout his career, but when he joined Amazon three years ago, he was greeted with a new experience – the presence of full-time sign language (ASL) interpreters that sit with him at meetings.

Nesmith, who worked with the Amazon Devices Marketing team, has been primarily focusing on the FireTV product family. Most recently, he launched the FireTV Stick 4K and new Alexa Remote.

Campaign US caught up with Nesmith to hear more about his work, the process of collaborating with interpreters and how the ad industry can improve its offerings for those with different abilities.

Tell me about what you do at Amazon. 

When a new product is about to launch, I present art/design direction options. Once we narrow down to one, I build shot lists and lead a production team on a film/photo shoot. When I get the new assets, I build the product’s detail page and other marketing visuals. Then I oversee the production of various smaller assets with a production design team.

Describe the process of working with your interpreter at Amazon.

I usually have an anchor interpreter with me every day and his desk is next to mine. Everything in the space gets interpreted; even office banter and side conversations. On some days, I have two interpreters at the same time for cross-training. Every morning, I usually brief my interpreters on what to expect in meetings during the day. They also have access to my calendar and will look at the number of people involved in each meeting. When there is a small meeting (1-3 people), I will just have one interpreter. If the interpreter sees on my calendar that there is a large meeting, I would have two instead of one. Having an interpreter has really helped my team and me connect more effectively. It’s opened the door to being able to joke and convey personality in a way that wasn’t as easy before. 

How does being deaf affect or not affect the creative process?

It can be extremely challenging when I come in a meeting with new people who have no idea how to work with an interpreter. Most times, they look at the interpreter and assume they’re the ones talking. This can be challenging especially as a deaf person leading a project, or a photo shoot for example, when everything moves quickly and decisions are made on the spot. I find it helpful when I am meeting with first-timers, I give a quick 101 on how to work with a deaf person. Sometimes when I’m focused on my workload, I delegate this "orientation" to my interpreters. They go on-site (meetings, photo shoots, etc.) a bit earlier to brief everyone before I arrive. On the other hand, my language is in a completely different medium. It is visual and tactile. In the creative industry, the visual aspect of the work is extremely important. This is where I feel my visual intuition gives me an advantage.

The ad industry - and many others - have a long way to go when it comes to properly supporting different abilities. What do you think needs to be done still in the ad industry?

I think we’re in the middle of a cultural shift around stigmatizing people in general.  This applies to industry professionals as well as our target audiences. It’s still not perfect, and some days are harder than others, but minorities and oppressed people are gaining a voice and giving valuable insight on social culture that’s being heard more and more. The industry gains a lot by paying attention and tapping into this shift in order to capitalize on creative talent and reach out to a broader audience. It takes it a step further by including people with different abilities because any fresh perspective on human behavior is valuable. Investing and supporting people with different abilities is hard for many companies but the payoff can be huge. 

How can members of the deaf community find the best, most supportive, inclusive employers today? 

There are many employers out there who are open and willing to learn. It took me a very long time to realize that when I’m looking for a job, I’m not only being interviewed, I’m also interviewing the employer. Social media also helps us discover/connect with other people who have similar experiences in specific industries. They’re most likely paving the way in terms of accessibility accommodations in their jobs and they do not want to be alone. Reach out to them.

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