A Cup of Coffee with Pentagram’s Eddie Opara

Posted inDesigner Interviews
Thumbnail for A Cup of Coffee with Pentagram's Eddie Opara

Illustration for Print by Peter Arkle.

When we sat down with Eddie Opara a few months back it was roughly his third day as the newest partner of the design firm Pentagram. In the fall of 2010, Opara merged Map Office, the design studio he founded in 2005, with the likes of Paula Scher, Michael Bierut, and Abbott Miller; and he brought his entire team from Map: senior designer Brankica Harvey, software developer Raed Atoui, and designer Frank LaRocca. Opara is the first partner to join the firm since Luke Hayman in 2006, and, at 38, the London-born son of Nigerian parents is the youngest—and the first black—partner at the firm. Over a cup of coffee at the Gershwin Hotel in New York, we talked about his favorite fonts, an all-time collaboration wish list, and his not-so-fond memories of “Margaret Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher.”

Do the partners at Pentagram haze you? Does Paula Scher put thumbtacks on your chair? No, everyone has been extremely professional and gracious and patient with the new guy.

You must feel like a new kid at a really prestigious school. Oh, definitely. I can’t get the stupid grin off my face. I’ve been smiling ear to ear for three days straight now. Everyone there must think I’m a bit odd.

As the newest and youngest partner at Pentagram do you feel any pressure? I definitely think it’s a big deal for me. And not just because of my age, but also being British and being black. I understand that there’s a certain spotlight on me and know I have my work cut out for me.

How long does the process of becoming a Pentagram partner take? It takes a full year to be vetted by Pentagram.

But you were able to bring your Map partners with you, right? Yes, and many of the same projects we worked on together, so it’s not been too terrible of a transition.

I’ve heard you say that Margaret Thatcher contributed to your desire to be a designer. Can you explain? Good old Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher. When I was a kid, England was really suffering economically. There were huge deficits and strikes. And one of Thatcher’s cost cutting measures was to take away schoolchildren’s milk. It really had a huge impact on me. I loved milk and she took it away and I remember thinking from then on that I wanted to be part of a movement that gave back, that collaborated for the common good. It’s a strange impetus, I know, but childhood impressions are very powerful and that one really stuck with me and helped shape my attitude toward my work and my life in general.

You were schooled by Jesuit Priests. What sort of impact did they have on you? Yes, from the age of about 6 to 17. They taught me to have a sense of pride in my work and to realize that there’s a time to be playful and have fun and a time to be serious.

You recently said that you’re a proponent of creating “narrative design.” Can you tell me what that is? Did I? (laughs) I guess I’d say it’s when your design tells many different stories at once and when many people can identify with the work you’ve done. Where, for example, a child can be just as satisfied as an adult experiencing work you’ve created.

I have to ask: what advice do you have for young designers? Don’t be scared. To say what you think, to restructure something, to take the lead. Just don’t be afraid. And make sure you do your own work. “A creative director can’t just say ‘show me what you’ve done.’ You’ve got to be able to get in there and do the work yourself.”

If you had only two fonts to work with what would they be? Oh no, this question. Probably Freight (by Josh Darden) and Foundry. But what I really want to do is re-cut Helvetica Text and expand the family.

What are two daily tools you can’t live without? OmniOutliner and Illustrator.

Who are some designers you’d like to collaborate with? Alex Lin is an extremely talented designer that I would love to work with some day. As is the sculpture Do-ho Suh. And of course, Rem Koolhaas.

Will you design a Power Point presentation for a talk I’m doing? I’m trying not to laugh at you right now.

What they said:

“Eddie is at the intersection of print and digital media. He brings a rare sense of craft to both sides of the equation. He is as much a programmer as he is a classically trained designer, which means there is incredible depth to his thinking about form, message and technology.” – Abbot Miller

To see more of Eddie’s work go here.