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Leadership

Eddie Opara: On Criticism Versus Trolling, Fragmentation of Design, and Joining Pentagram

The designer with one foot in America and one in Europe discusses what it takes to be a Pentagram partner, the poor design of US passports, and why we must pay more attention to graphic design.


The pilgrimage to visit Pentagram partner Eddie Opara starts at Grand Central Terminal. You push through the wall of commuters going in the opposite direction, which is when you might catch yourself thinking—too late—an unusual thought for a New York City Monday: “I forgot to bring sunscreen today.” The train hums out of Grand Central and river town station platforms begin to flick by. Past Wave Hill gardens, new developments rising along the Hudson River waterfront, and the Domino Sugar refinery in Yonkers. New York City’s skyscrapers blur behind into the morning haze from the bay. And in no time at all, you’re in the world of Eddie Opara.

Opara lives in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson, though he notes that the community prefers the word village. “They want the idea of what a ‘village’ is: idyllic, quaint, murder mysteries,” he says. He moved here three years ago, into an airy Eichler style mid-century modern and commutes to the Park Avenue Pentagram offices for work. Even Opara admits, while neighbors wave as we stroll around a wooded koi pond and listen to laughter from the elementary school where his child studies, it’s a darn bucolic life for a designer.

At the age of 47—the same age as Pentagram—Eddie has three decades of design wisdom to offer. But even in this sage time of life, the enthusiasm of a precocious young designer often comes to the surface. From reliving the delight of starting his own company, to his amazement at an invitation to join Pentagram, to his scorn for U.S. passport design, and his hopes for the future of the graphic design industry, you’re guaranteed to enjoy an [expletive-punctuated] walk in the woods with Eddie Opara.

***

Q. You grew up in London in the 1970s. What was that like?

A. I was born in 1972—the year Pentagram was born. I grew up in a middle-class, immigrant family that worked really hard. My mother was a nurse. My father worked for a time in advertising and they pushed us to be good English kids.

Q. When you started your own design firm, the Map Office, what were important philosophies that you wanted to put in place?

A. The idea of being the all-rounder is really important. If you’re going to work for me, you should be your own personality but you should do the same things that I do. That includes every type of medium within the area of graphic design. You code a bit, you can animate, you can do print, spatial, everything. Then, you can talk more about the work. You can take on more ranges of work and interests. I find that really intriguing.

Q. What were the early days of the Map Office like?

A. I was working out of my house in Brooklyn, a brownstone in Bed Stuy. I had the office in the front room and I’d be in my pajamas, eating bacon in the morning with our one employee, both of us just designing stuff. I’m like, “This is the life. This is it. I made it. I can work from my bedroom and then go to a matinee or the cinema and chill out.” Of course, I only did that once. And the Map Office just kept growing.

A black and white photograph of a man in glasses beneath a bright light

Opara started his company, the Map Office, with just one other designer working out of his Bed Stuy living room.

Q. Why not keep going with that? Why move the firm to Pentagram?

A. I got to the point where I really needed more help.

Q. From a business perspective?

A. From a leadership perspective. From somebody who’s the equivalent of you. You can talk to them about jobs and issues and money and designers and life and everything. And there was nobody. You’re on your own. You’re isolated.

Q. How does getting an invitation to become a partner at Pentagram come about?

A. I got a call to come do a lecture at Pentagram. I was like, “Why me?” in my head. And I gave this lecture and I got a lot of questions from Paula Scher, Michael Beirut, and Michael Gericke. At the end we had some dinner and I thought nothing of it.

And then a few weeks passed and Paula said, “Do you want to go for lunch? Where do you want to meet? I said Café Suisse because I love their chicken schnitzel. I nearly choked on that chicken schnitzel. I was having a bite and Paula just asks me, “Do you want to join Pentagram?” I was in shock.

Q. Was starting at Pentagram everything you dreamed it would be?

A. It was like when I first bought a house and I turned the key in the door, opened it, closed it. And then I sat on my couch and started fucking crying my eyes out. Because I was like, “How am I going to deal with all this shit? I’ve got no fucking money.” That’s how it felt; I’d bought a whole fucking brownstone and it had to be ripped out. But all the partners have said the same thing: how the hell am I going to be a part of Pentagram and do this? It’s tough. It’s not easy, but its great and exciting and risk-taking.

A man on a staircase looking away from the camera, wearing a camouflage shirt

Opara photographed in his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, where he moved three years ago.

Q. You studied design in Europe. What was a formative part of that experience?

A. In my third year in a four-year course, I moved to Holland. It changed everything. I was just blown away. Design is so integrated into their life and into the landscape of the Netherlands. It’s super accepted. Britain, it’s gotten there too, but it’s taken a little longer. American, no.

Q. What do you see when you look at design in America?

A. I see fragmented [design]. There’s no starting point. There’s no understanding of “We the People” when it comes to aspects of design. It should be an endeavor that is both independent and also from the government: local government, regional, state government, federal government. And it should all be coalescing together. Countries like Germany, Holland, Britain, Switzerland, and France have integrated design through the idea of “we need to help our people understand how we communicate with them.”

America doesn’t have that. It runs on the ideals of stars and stripes. It doesn’t take into consideration the heuristics of design for the people. I find that to be detrimental to the way that America works. If you’ve ever seen a tax form in Britain, it’s so insanely simple. The UK government site won the national design award in Britain because it’s so good. It’s so clear. It could save America a lot of money, because everything would be optimized clearly. But no.

“We, as designers, have used rhetoric that is not robust, interesting, or intriguing enough.”

Q. Is there an example of what could be better in the U.S.?

A. To know one’s country is to know one’s passport. America’s looks like—maybe after this my American passport is going to be stripped away—it looks like a U-Haul truck. The eagle’s head looks like the actual size of an eagle’s head. It’s enormous. It’s unwieldy. It’s like going into a grandmother’s living room with the plastic on the couches and the sacrament smell in the air. It’s a little like that.

A headshot of a man in glasses wearing a camouflage shirt

Opara believes we need a more robust language for design.

Q. Does that mean local governments should hire more designers?

A. Yes, state and local should hire way more designers. They should be highly qualified, highly trained. Plus, they should be bringing in external experts based on the principles other than “you’re the cheapest person based on our scope of work,” which is how they normally pick somebody.

Q. You once worked on a project where you did a poster about Democracy inspired by Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. How did you approach that?

A. I sat down and I said, “You know, if this is about Democracy, let it be. Let me sit down with all the guys and let’s go over this.” We were questioning the types of democracy: who’s to say that American democracy is the best one? If you don’t question it, somebody could have tainted your democracy without you knowing it. Would I do a project like that again? Absolutely.

“Designers do not solve problems. No, we do not. We deal with situations at the current time. So, we are never finished.”

Q. You mentioned that the idea of things being unfinished is core to you. What does that mean?

A. As designers, let’s be as optimized as possible with the way we state certain things, because otherwise we will confuse everybody. How many times have you heard, “What does a graphic designer do? And they say, “We solve problems.” But if you solve a fucking “problem,” how come we have so many different design style cars? Or chairs? Didn’t we solve that “problem”?

It’s really that we’re dealing with situations. Designers do not solve problems. No, we do not. We deal with situations at the current time. So, we are never finished.

A man in a striped red shirt with glasses

Opara is wrestling with where graphic design is going.

Q. What keeps you up at night right now?

A. It’s hard to wrestle with understanding where graphic design is going. I’m a major critic of these sites that have popped up that immediately criticize designers—it’s just trolling people with “that’s sad,” “my kid could have done better,” and “you’re fucking shit.”

What’s occurring is a tension between design criticism and design trolling. Design trolling, I believe, is winning. The intelligence of design criticism is not strong or important enough for these people to take seriously. If you think about how design in general is changing: you have all these management consultancy companies that are coming in. I’m concerned that design may actually be run sooner or later run by the McKinseys and PWCs and Deloitters of the world. It’s an interesting threat.

Q. How did this kind of design trolling start to dominate the conversation?

A. We, as designers, have used rhetoric that is not robust, interesting, or intriguing enough. It’s not looking towards the future enough. We get caught up arguing amongst ourselves over these fickle pieces of commentary from the trolls and then writers start blowing that up.

Now, the New York Times and even the Guardian cover art and design. But, where’s the design? It’s all art. I don’t think there’s enough people talking about what we do. I find that to be wrong and worrying.

Q. There’s a running theme we’ve been talking about—from more designers in government, to media coverage—there should be a more robust conversation around design. Why is it important that we pay attention to graphic design?

A. It’s as simple as this: if there are no graphic designers, how do we communicate visually? How do we understand what’s in front of us? That can change the way one sees the world. I think that’s more than important.

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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