Interview With Eddie Opara

I was a little reticent about posting this particular interview. Not  because of the designer himself Eddie Opara, or anything he said,  but simply because shortly after I visited and talked to him in New York, his circumstances changed as he became the latest partner in design juggernaut Pentagram. Eddie had been on my list of designers to talk to for a long while, his (then) design firm, The Map Office was doing some spectacular work across a wide range of design disciplines, from identity to print and some especially impressive and innovative work in online. Out of all the designers I have spoken to, I don’t think I have walked away after talking with one with my mind so blown by the future scope and possibilities of the field. In short, Eddie was implementing and discussing graphic design in terms that left me a little scared and shell-shocked, what he talked about and showed me what his studio was involved in left me a little concerned about my own ‘gaps in knowledge’ in regards to the technicalities  of practising design in the brave new world of the years ahead. The only problem I had was, “Is this interview still relevant?” Given the fact that he was now a partner at pentagram and no longer running The Map Office. After much soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that the talk I had with Eddie was just too cool and interesting not to share. While his move was dramatic, he took his team from The Map Office with him, so I assume it is pretty much ‘business as usual’. The interview covers his design career up to the point just before he joins Pentagram. He has a lot of interesting things to say in regards to the types of skills and thought processes he thinks designers need to keep control of their own destiny in the coming years, as well as some salient points on why the industry needs to encourage a diverse range of voices.

Chris Bowden: Can you tell me a bit about how you started out in design?

Eddie Opara: I’m from London originally, I was born in South London, Wandsworth. I did my undergrad at The London College of Printing in 1995. That year I was also an intern for Nick Bell, the former Creative Director for Eye Magazine, who also ran his own design firm in London. It was just over the Summer but it was a great experience. Later than summer in ‘95, I got a place At Yale University in the MFA program there. I had never been to the United States before, but I thought it would be really good for me to do that type of move. Once I got there, I was actually really home sick, I didn’t like the food, I didn’t really like much of anything for about a year or so, but eventually I became a little bit more comfortable. I graduated from Yale in 1997 and proceeded not to move to New York. Instead I moved to Cambridge Massachusetts with my friend George Plesko. We started working at a firm called The Art Technology Group, which is now very different from when we were there. It was a startup company from MIT, Media Labs and The Business Group, our bosses were quite amazing innovative personalities and idealists, they made us really comfortable. I had a lot of fun there for about four years until I got bored of the fun and felt as though I needed to be a little more creative visually. Over the four years they had really nurtured me in regards to understanding technology and especially user interaction. I came mostly from the world of print design, so for me to delve into interactivity was quite something. I moved onto Imaginary Forces in their New York office which is still around. A friend of mine, Mikon Van Gastel was the head of that group. The main focus of the year I spent there was a series of electronic screens for a building for Morgan Stanley in Times Square. It never became Morgan Stanley, it became the Lehman Brothers building and now it’s Barclays. It was quite an astonishing feat, a block and a half of 3 electronic screens that wrap around the buildings front facade. There was a lot of very complex work done in the motion and the idea of telling a story, being very strategic and understanding that particular type of hardware. It was successful, but unfortunately, September 11 happened, and Morgan Stanley didn’t end up moving into that building, the work was up for about two and a half months though. From there I went onto 2X4 and stayed there for about three and a half years until I started The Map Office.

CB: How did you decide upon the name The Map Office?

EO: As I was leaving 2X4, my friend George Plesko and I were travelling to another friend’s wedding in Argentina. We were on a bus going to the wedding, we were slightly sick and tired of the work we had been doing and wanted more opportunity. We were both getting older and wanted to get out there a little more, so we decided to just start something. It wasn’t necessarily the thought of starting a company at this point, just the idea of embarking on something new. We decided on The Map Office because George’s thesis at Yale had been on maps, and the whole idea of a map seemed quite interesting to us. You can interpret maps in so many different ways, they don’t always look like the general cartographical charts that you might think of in the first instance. Maps can be anywhere on any surface, they can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. That encapsulates the idea of how I work, trying to interpret things in a different manner, whether it be the story or something such as cognitive navigational structures. Whatever it may be, it is something that draws you in and guides you into many different directions.

CB: New York is something like a hub for great designers and design firms, how do you distinguish yourself amongst such a large talent pool?

EO: To begin with I really just set out to distinguish myself from previous employers 2X4 and the strong language they have in message and method. It was just me that ended up starting The Map Office, George by this point had 2 kids and a wife, so the idea of letting go of a steady job to start up a new business wasn’t really very comfortable for him. I was single at the time. I wanted to create products as well as providing a service as a boutique design firm, what those products would be at this point was something I was mainly just thinking about. I also wanted to have some fun, I wanted to enjoy every phase of the process, not just the finished piece. The idea was to not just focus on a section of culture, architecture, fashion or art for example. I wanted to make it a little more open, to see what I could do, I’m always on the look out for really badly designed work to reconstruct and makeover, let’s face it, there’s a lot of it out there. I think a lot of designers sometimes move away from that, they’re looking for an easier path. I’m not saying That I haven’t done that at times as well, but to me, an easy path for a lot of designers seems to be to concentrate on work connected to the artistic world, or fashion or architecture, things that blend with or relate already to the way we work as designers. I want to do things that are not on the same sort of path as others, that has led us to things like building our own software and building software specifically for a client as they need it. The thing about The Map Office is that 4 of the 5 of us here are developers as well as designers, it’s not too difficult for us to build a piece of software if we want to. We can build an interface for the web, as well as produce a traditional printed book, develop branding, signage or whole environments. If you put it in the context of English/Australian, it’s like being an all-rounder in cricket, you can bat and bowl. That’s the type of designers I’m looking for, people that have vast amounts of energy and range. There are a lot of designers who mostly focus in one area, that’s fine, but I like a designer who is able to stretch. You’ve got to stretch that brain and make it larger because we are dealing with so many different types of people and problems everyday. As designers we need to get our heads around the aspects of say, engineering or architecture or writing or whoever we have to work with or for. It was something that I learnt at 2×4, they are very much into the aspects of writing and planning, I try to take it a little further than the typical design firm might.

 CB: Are there any clients or projects you wouldn’t take on?

EO: If was anything to do with furs or tobacco or child slavery or something, that I wouldn’t take on. Over the course of my career, which is still quite in its early days, I’ve gone from designing enormous screen graphics, to fashion shows, to geological manuals to software content management and visualisation. That’s a large range, something that I think is missing from a lot of designers today. They need to get out there and do something that is just a little bit different from what they are comfortable with.

CB: So the definition of a graphic designer itself needs to be stretched a bit?

EO: Designers always seem to define themselves by very specific titles, I’m a user interface designer or I’m a print designer, all these finite ideas of who you are. You need to stretch it, architects do this all the time. Now is a visual communication designers time to be very robust, to be a renaissance man or woman.

CB: If designers don’t step up, then someone else will.

EO: And as usual, they will take control of it, then lo and behold, the designers will be sitting there saying “I just do the coding, or I just try to solve a problem even though I don’t really know what the problem is. We shouldn’t be doing that anymore, we need to take these projects by the balls, there’s nobody stopping us.

CB: Any projects or clients that you would love to work for?

EO: Adidas. When I was an undergrad I did a project on Adidas, researching all the history. I was fascinated with the idea of the three stripes, the functionality, the durability, it’s all there set in stone. In software terms you would refer to it as a ‘major framework’, it’s so flexible, you can do anything with it. It’s very different from, say, a Nike philosophy of whatever comes to mind, we’ll figure it out and make it fun and interesting for people to utilise. Adidas feels so much more structured, yet still enjoyable, you can have and hold onto any apparel or set of shoes they have put out for decades. All my mates, they love Adidas as well. Whatever they would want me to do, if they would get me to do anything, I’ll do it as this stage. Corporate analysis structures, rebranding elements, store fitouts, custom software, whatever, I’d do something different with it. In fact, we’ve been considering developing a piece of software in the studio, a sort of sneaker database. You would go around with a phone camera and take shots of different sneakers on the street, upload the shots and tag them. You could then look them up, see who bought what and where, or maybe check out some vintage pairs. It’s the idea of seeing the shoes in use, in the environment, not photos taken under studio conditions. There would be forums for discussions, “I saw this pair of fluorescent Adidas up on Broadway this afternoon, etc. I think that kind of thing is really great, it’s just something we’ve been throwing around the studio. Finding the time to implement it is another story!

CB: What do you know about Australian graphic design?

EO: Unfortunately, not much. I feel as though I’m in a weird bubble here as far as design overseas. I remember seeing an article in Eye Magazine on Aboriginal art and design.

CB: That’s interesting, you don’t hear much about actual Aboriginal designers back home, though their artwork is certainly co-opted a lot in design to portray ‘Australia’.

EO: It sounds a little bit like when I graduated from school, I was about to get an internship at a firm in Holland and I actually asked them if they had ever met a black designer before. The two heads of the company sort of looked at each other and had to admit that they hadn’t! I was interested in that because I was getting out of school and I really didn’t know of any myself, well, maybe one or two. In Britain at the time, in my class alone, there were at least ten of us, some of them have gone on to do really great things. I haven’t seen the same thing much since I got to the United States though.

CB: Why do you think that is?

EO: I really don’t know. I could speculate, but then speculation could get me into a lot of trouble. I do feel the desire to go into the schools, into the areas where minorities live, especially African Americans, and actually talk to them a little bit about visual communication. I know that they are out there, but they just aren’t prominent enough. It doesn’t matter whether I’m from Britain or wherever, there’s less than 2 million of us back there, yet there were still 10 of us in my class in the UK, so why weren’t there more African Americans in my grad school class in the US? Everybody these day are very visually orientated, it’s disheartening to see it’s not on the main stage for some segments of the community.

A (belated) thanks to Eddie for taking the time to speak to me. You can read more about Eddie and some of the reasons he moved to (and was asked to move to) Pentagram on this article and video at Fast Company’s CoDesign website.

Eddie Opara is a multi-faceted designer whose work encompasses strategy, design and technology. His projects have included the design of brand identity, publications, packaging, environments, exhibitions, interactive installations, websites, user interfaces and software, with many of his projects ranging across multiple media. He is a visiting critic at Yale University and teaches narrative design at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Columbia University School of Architecture and the Yale University School of Art. He currently serves on the board of the New York Chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design.