Eddie Opara learned the art of visual communication at an early age. He was always drawing. His mother became his first client when she commissioned him to create a logo for her. This proved to be a valuable experience and a precursor for all that lay ahead. From his mother's Nigerian head wraps to his early fascination with the drawings of Lebbeus Woods, Opara talks about how taking things from his past and from his culture have been integral to his work as a graphic designer.
(electronic music) - Eddie Opara was named one of Fast Company's 100 most creative people in business in both 2012 and 2014. He was also featured in Ebony Magazine's Power 100 list. After stints at ATG, Imaginary Forces, and 2x4, he established his own studio, The Map Office.
Five years later, Opara and the Map team joined Pentagram in New York. Opara is a multi-faceted designer whose work encompasses strategy, design, and technology. His numerous awards include a Gold Cube from the Art Directors Club and whose work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Opara has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design as well as the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He is currently a visiting critic at the Yale School of Art.
We're here in New Orleans at the AIGA Conference and I have the distinct pleasure of speaking with Eddie Opara. Eddie, thank you so much for joining us today. - Thank you, it's good to be here. - So you have spoken about two things that have influenced your work, one being your mum's Nigerian head wraps and the work of Lebbeus Woods who is a architect, the drawings. What was it about those two things that are really different that sparked your creativity? - Well, you know with my mum, who's incredibly close to me, it was really more about understanding my culture.
You know being born and bred in London, England, is sort of a very different distance between that and Nigeria. And when my mother would go out and enjoy herself with her friends and sort of party, she would normally have me in the room, in her bedroom, and we would actually pick out the cloth, the wrapper, that she would wear, and also her head wrap.
And it was always the head wrap, either it was actually made by a friend of hers already and then she'd place it on her head like a crown, like a queen, or she would actually make it up there. And it was the noise, and it's very, very sort of crisp material. It's very, very sharp, and it's always colorful. And as she folds it, it starts to make these impressions and patterns repetitions. And then you when you place it on your head, it's not just that it's a crown, it's this sculptural piece, this artistic representation of being a strong, African woman, and that is a very important statement of communication.
To me utilizing that in parts of the work that I was doing way back when, it was very important to use that and recognize it. And so taking things from your past and also very much from your culture is a very important factor in graphic design for, I would say, a lot of people. And so that's why I adore my mum so much. And you know there are other things about her that allowed me to go into graphic design.
- It sounds like as a kid you already had that artistic thing going. Is that fair to say? - You could say that. To shut me up at church, she would give me a pencil and paper, and I would be sitting in the stalls and drawing whilst mass was being proceeded. If you didn't give me a pencil and a paper, I was wreaking havoc, singing hymns when you don't actually start singing hymns, or being dragged out of church into the front yard area to shut me up until either service was done or there was another part of the service that I would just keep quiet in.
So the paper helped and the idea of drawings did. And she also was my first client, if you could say that. She has this women's association she still actually is part of and she asked me to draw a dove as a logo. "Right, my son likes drawing, so I think he should do this." And I said, "Yes, okay." And it was my first understanding of what a client actually does to a certain degree, and that's interfere (laughs) in my artistic endeavors.
So I actually showed her my design, and she said, "Oh, this is very nice, but can you change this "and change that?" So I went back and changed it and back again. She said, "Oh, it's very nice "but I'll show it to my friends." She came back, she said, "It's very nice, "but can you change this?" And I was like no, and then I quit. We had an argument and then I quit and then she took what I had and used it. This is like perfect crime. So very influential in my work, yeah.
- And when did you find your artistic voice? When, was it high school or college? - I would say it was art school. I was just really young. I was like 18, and I thought I was going to be an architect. But a very good friend of mine basically in art class was saying, "Why would you be an architect? "Look at the way that you paint." And I was like doing a still life and everything's incredibly geometric and so much symmetry in it, and solid flat color.
He said, "You should be a graphic designer." And I believe it. And to a certain degree I was a bit snobbish about that. And I didn't realize what design really, really meant. I thought architecture was a far more hierarchical sort of thing, and so I went for it and I got into London College of Printing. And I didn't do a foundation course so I was incredibly worried about the first impressions. I hadn't gone through that rigorous training.
And it was my teachers then, Peter Pierce, Bob Britton, Nick Bell who used to be the Creative Director of Eye, and they really were people that allowed me to channel my so-called talents and become a better creative person, better designer, as it were. And still today there are certain lessons that they've given me that I still try to utilize.
So that's when I started to gravitate and a lot of people started to see the work that I was doing. I'd left, I took a semester off and I moved to Holland, which totally opened everything up, even more so. And meeting Gert Dunbar at Studio Dunbar and having a beer with him in his studio at lunchtime was something else. At the time I didn't drink, and he basically forced me to have a beer, Grolsch. But whilst we were talking, I would just look around the room and see all the amazing posters and designs that he created.
And that aspect, that sort of easygoing personality that also comes out in a work that he'd done for the Dutch Police, the Dutch Post Office, and also the Dutch Theatre, just started to resonate with me a lot more that I needed to relax more. I needed to open up and look at the aspects of new things and stretch my hands out into new areas of design to bring back into my work.
And that was a very captivating time for me in Holland. - Well and the design scene in Holland is so unbelievable. Amsterdam, in particular, you walk around and it's just everywhere. It's got to be a very inspiring place to be and sort of blossom. - It is, yeah, it was, and it's infused into the culture. There's not many countries that can actually state that. And I do come from a country that does try to infuse design into its culture as well and it's done it very well into the past like early 21st century and that area is incredibly important to me.
Unfortunately, in the United States, I don't think those things actually occurred which is an entirely different type of culture. And trying to grasp exactly what America stands for or is representative in graphic design is very hard because it's an incredibly broad place. You know there's to be actually honest, even New York being the center of media doesn't, not to me, I don't believe that it's a full center of design or it should be.
And that's an important factor for all Americans to understand that they should reach out and grab design by their two hands and try to figure out exactly where it stands in their lives, everybody. Because it's a very important thing. That's one thing that my father said before I actually left is that, "Design is spiritual, Eddie." My family is very religious and for him to state that and I thought he said it like out of context or something but when you think back I thought he was basically saying art is spiritual.
But, no, no, no, design is spiritual. And I'm always trying to figure out exactly what that means but also that trying to find that pursuit, that sense of balance with what design does for you in your life and all around you, how it functions and helps you and allows you to communicate with things, is a facilitator, and it helps you guide who you are, and I think a lot more people should understand that. - And when he said that design is spiritual, was that an affirmation for you? Was that sort of a point where you could say, "Maybe this is something that I really, "it is great?" You had had your reservations early on, but was that a mark of like yeah, this is something to follow? - Yes, yes, absolutely.
I mean at the time, you're young. I think when he said it I was like 21, 22, and you're still trying to find out what it is that you're doing. And for your father to state that in quite simple terms, was quite something, and it allows you to think more. I was always hearing design is all about solving problems.
But nobody had ever said that design was spiritual. Absolutely not. But now if you look at it from the point of view things like an Apple phone, (laughs) or Apple as it stands, or even parts of Google to be absolutely honest, the things that they're trying to do and changing the world and how they're more than engaging in your life, but changing the way you deal with your life and allowing people to be more uplifting about who they are themselves, is truly something.
I know that's the sort of commercial end of things but are a variety of other companies doing even better things than they are. - I know it's absolutely changing lives all the time. So you went to Yale for graduate school, and when you got there, you realized that you wanted more than just print. - Yes. - And you looked more towards interactive design, technology, and research. So what kinds of projects were you thinking about at that time? - Well, when I first got there it was like a sinking ship for me.
I was sinking. I thought everybody was far more intelligent than myself. Why am I here? Or I could actually design and composite books and posters quite well, but what about meaning? And what about the aspects of critical thinking? And critical thinking to me was, it wasn't even on my radar. And it was fairly new, and I had to try and embrace that as best as I could.
It was a very, very hard time because a lot of the things that were said back to me were that, "Your work's puzzling. "You should rethink these particular things, "and these types of steps." And so my first year I think I sort of struggled to find a voice. And then in my second year, I started to gravitate more to interactive design, and also other artists and photographers and sculpturers who were in the Art School of Yale who are now well-known.
So I tried to talk to them, find out what their thoughts are or what their ideas are, tried to get into their personalities as personas, and it was very intriguing. And I would use them in my work, and I started to reflect on their life and their works in interactive installations. And people started gravitating to the work that I was doing more and more and more.
And I thought that was a positive time for me. I was quite excited about the future potential of the things I was doing. - What advice would give to somebody who is in school who is hitting one of those places where maybe they're hearing their work is puzzling or they're wondering where to go? Was there anything, looking back, that you can offer? - I think in a sense the idea don't be afraid of what people are going to say.
It's an appraisal. They're trying to help you. They're not trying to back you down. A sense of design is to design your way out of your own problems, and that's what they're trying to do. And take on that, heed their words. Not only that, try to partake in not just I'm going to design a poster or a website or do an installation, carry on doing artistic pursuits, whether it be photography, whether it be still life drawing or portraits drawings or landscapes.
Do something different and then come back. It stretches one's mind, and then, on the other side of that, write. Whether it be a little poem or a little diary for yourself, it's very important. It might feel as though you're not getting somewhere but you can go back and pull out those particular concepts and ideas out of that journal and utilize them for the future. That's an important factor. We're never ever going to stop learning, ever.
And I believe I'm still a little bit at school with some of the things that I'm trying to do.