Posters, Spaceships + the Greater Good: A Conversation with Eddie Opara

399 days.

That’s how long Eddie Opara has been working at Pentagram since joining the New York office as partner #17 in October 2010…At least that’s how long he had been working there when we met with him back on November 3, 2011 at RGD Ontario‘s Design Thinkers conference in Toronto.

Eddie is a traditionally-trained graphic designer who began his career in print pursuing his love for poster making. He is also a self-taught software developer with a socially minded approach to design. Eddie speaks to the need for design to be open, shared, public and contributing to the greater good. And to him, design serves as a bridge between the creative and artistic, and the political, cultural and social contexts in which we live. He told us about his design ‘philosophy’ and the reason why he believes that “you’re never finished as a designer“:

Eddie explained his client work as a process of gaining a deeper understanding of his client’s needs.  To do so, he described himself as playing the role of a psychologist: Actively listening to a client and weaving together an intimate understanding of their issues by learning how the client relates to their work…Their family…To everything. In this sense, design becomes a dialogue around the making of things so that the client can better pursue their goals and ideals. It is this very cerebral process that Eddie describes as being extracted from design and connected to other disciplines as “design thinking”:

After asking Eddie what was unique about “design thinking” as compared to other ways of thinking, he told us a story from his childhood about him and his brother competing with each other to see who could draw the ‘greatest spaceship ever’ – a true design challenge in itself. Eddie would show his drawing to his brother. His brother would take a look and draw a spaceship in response. But in his response, Eddie’s brother thoroughly explained what his spaceship could do, all the features it had, and why it was so amazing. “He totally won”, according to Eddie.

Through this story, Eddie highlighted the powerful connection between mental and verbal thought in making a structure, explaining it, and enabling other people to understand it. This back and forth process of visualization, discussion, reflection and storytelling was what he described as being a unique aspect of design. It is this ability to dialogue and make that fuels Eddie’s passion for design.

As we wrapped up the interview, we also spoke with Eddie about his identity as a designer.  As Western design is a male-dominated discipline with few high profile designers of colour, we took the opportunity to ask Eddie about Stealth, his installation from the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2007 exploring the notion of identity and invisibility in race in order to understand how he expressed his own identity through his design work:

According to Eddie, design is an opportunity to bring one’s own culture to the mix as “culture adjusts the way we think and the way we feel about ourselves and how we deal with our families and our work and everything” and not doing so may do a serious diservice to the field. Finding projects that enable him to indulge in his overly creative and personal side while balancing commercial issues and objectives bring together the best of both worlds.

We look forward to seeing how Eddie’s sense of identity and style of design thinking continue to unfold through his future projects.