You Have ToKeep Climbing
Eddie Opara is a London born, award winning designer, author and educator. He is currently a partner at Pentagram design studio and a senior critic at the Yale University School of Art.
Opara breaks into a wide grin, birds chirping in the background as he recounts the memory: “I was a bit loud at church, just really mischievous and my mother and my aunt would basically give me pieces of paper and a pencil to shut me up!”
Hearing him recount his journey from covert scribbler to the youngest and first black partner at Pentagram, the largest independently owned design agency in the world, one is reminded that the most creative route is rarely the most direct. At 16, he had mapped out a career in architecture until an internship forced a rapid rethink: “I was like, ‘how long does it take to become an architect?’ He said, ‘maybe four to seven years’ and I’m like, what the hell!” When they told him he wouldn’t actually build anything until he was 40 or 50, he knew his future lay elsewhere.
Headshot of Eddie Opara, photographed by Julia Hembree from 99u.adobe.com
It takes bravery to relinquish a dream and change direction, to move from a path with a clear but undesirable destination to one which is uncertain. However, Opara seems to revel in the disruptive aspects of life and creativity. It is apparent in his love for Scandinavian design - its “amazing balance between the aspects of dynamic chaos and practicality” - and his admiration for Dutch-Indonesian graphic designer, Gert Dumbar, both fostered during a semester spent studying in Holland. It’s also visible in the chuckle he gives when asked to reflect on his own design process: “I don't really fully believe in the idea that designers solve the problem. If we did, why the hell do we actually create more stuff? I mean, if we solved it, why don't we just copy everybody else?” Indeed, he may not have entered design at all were it not for a chance interaction with a classmate who, upon seeing a downbeat Opara return to school post-internship, decided to weigh in. “He said, ‘you should be a graphic designer’ and I said, ‘why the hell would I do that?!’ ‘Look at the way you draw your oranges and apples,’ he said, ‘they’re perfect circles!’ And it all came back, all those ads I would draw as a kid in church - it wasn’t landscapes and buildings, it was commercial products’. Opara’s grin returns. “So, I was like, okay, well maybe I’ll give it a go.”
Alongside his position at Pentagram, that decision to ‘give it a go’ has seen him win numerous design awards, author a book (Colour Works) and become a senior critic at the Yale University School of Art. His partner at Pentagram, Michael Bierut, once said of him: “You look for someone who has the kind of mind that can adapt to all kinds of situations. Eddie is a perfect example of that kind of person.” It is unsurprising therefore, that when asked to reflect upon the design industry and his place within it, Opara speaks with an enthusiasm and authority that only comes from a life devoted to creative endeavours.
He sees his work as less about designing a final product and more about designing systems: “Imagine that you have a form. It has certain principles and is based on the written language that has been relayed in regards to your [design] strategy. That becomes the root for you to grow so many other things. So you’re building a platform, you’re building a system not so dissimilar to how computational elements work”. Opara believes these systems “should always be open and should be smart” and sees informal communication as a key part of creation and evolution: “It's good to have conversations, have arguments and then go away very quickly and do stuff. Have the conversation. Don't have meetings. Just walk over to somebody, have a chat, tell them why you're pissed off, tell them what the trouble is and then you start to unravel the issues together.”
When he speaks like this, advocating immediacy, averse to the very suggestion of waiting, it is easy to see the boy sketching beneath the church pew, or the teenager striding from the architectural firm all those years ago. It is also when the drive which has taken him to the top of his profession comes sharply into focus.
When Opara was taking his first steps towards a future in graphic design, his father was living in Nigeria. His tone grows solemn as he explains the situation: “So, you know, it's the seventies, right? What are good jobs for well educated black men [in the UK]? There really aren't any. So what do you do? You go back to Nigeria, you get a really great job and you send money back - remittances back to Britain for your wife and kids.”
His father returned to the UK in time to see Opara start university and encourage him to follow his dream but the experience and the example stayed with him. “We were in the studio one night,” he recalls a time with friends at London College of Printing (now London College of Communication), “and our mate came in - he's not black - and he said, ‘what are you doing here?’ And I think we just said, ‘we're here because we're black, ‘cause we have to work harder’”.
We're here because we're black, ‘cause we have to work harder.
He remembers, early in his career at Pentagram, giving a tour of their New York offices to students from Howard University. “One young lady asked, ‘how many black designers do you have?’ And I was like, look around. It's just me. It's just me out of the largest independent design firm in the world”.
Since then, things have changed at Pentagram but much of its team and the design industry as a whole remains severely lacking in diversity. Opara’s own uniqueness illustrates the stark reality that in most cases, working harder just isn’t enough. “I believe that 3% of designers in the US are black. I mean three flippin' percent.” He describes the figure as a tragedy. “Do I want to change things? Absolutely. I got together with a few people already. I'm still trying to think about how to actually do this and manage it.” Then with an exasperated laugh, he adds, “You don't see your peers. You look around there's no black people, then [you think] why the fuck would I want to do this in the first place?”
You look around there's no black people, then [you think] why the fuck would I want to do this in the first place?
So how do we change the landscape? It is a question made even more significant against the backdrop of worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a US police officer. Opara, visibly hurting, reflects on the movement: “My point of view is this: make a placard and don't put anything on it. Print it out black. Every one of them should be black - no words, just black. Is it the opposite of surrender? No, it's stop, think, know us. This is god awful - tears this morning thinking about my two boys, the crap they have to go through, the crap that I've gone through, the crap that my brother's gone through, all my mates have gone through, the stories. It's god awful.”
Within design, Opara believes change has to start with how we educate and encourage individuals to pursue creative endeavours. “Go get a mentor. Doesn't matter if you're black, doesn't matter if you're white. Go get a mentor, as young as you can be. Trust me - within design, they will mentor you to be the best designer that you can be.” Beyond this, his advice is simple: people of minority who earn the opportunity to better themselves in further education need to give it everything they have: “This ain't no, like, ‘Oh, I got into university or art school, I can just lay around and just do bollocks all’. No man. This is the time where you need to strike hot”. As he speaks, Opara’s words seem to gather weight, taking on new meaning in this time of unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval. “You cannot let people get you down. You have to keep climbing. You need to be focused. And you've got to keep doing it till you die.”
Hero Image of Eddie Opara, photographed by Julia Hembree from 99u.adobe.com