Fresh from revamping the iconic studio's online folio, Pentagram's newest partner tells Garrick Webster how he landed one of the most desirable jobs in design
Pentagram - just the name is enigmatic - the company's reputation is the stuff of legend; You might even say it's daunting. Yet ambitious designers around the world would love to get a shot at working there. We tracked down Pentagram's newest partner to see what it takes to get one of the most enviable jobs in the industry.
Eddie Opara is 39 years old, British-born and started at Pentagram's New York office in October. He gained experience with ATG, Imaginary Forces and 2x4, before founding his own small studio, Map Office, in 2005. It won't surprise you to discover the process of becoming a partner was a little more complicated than the common process of going over your CV with a creative director and nervously explaining your portfolio.
"I was asked to give a little talk. We have these talks here at Pentagram where designers come in and present their work as a lecture so that the company can see," he explains in his easy-going manner. It seems that Opara's lecture struck a chord with his audience and he was asked if he wanted to join the firm. It's an offer that few designers in their right mind would wish to refuse but Pentagram is run by all its partners in concert, and they all had to scrutinise and approve his appointment. "I had to deal with and talk to all the partners in New York and around the world," he explains. "That was 16 different partners and they all had to say 'yes'. It's definitely not easy!"
When Opara came to Pentagram, one of the first things he had to do was put together a little black book of his best work. It seems quite a paradox - assembling your portfolio after getting the job. However every partner at Pentagram has a black book to show potential clients and a peek inside Opara's proves fascinating.
"I wasn't like, 'Oh, I'm just going to do books.' Or, 'I'm going to do books and environmental design.' I had a lot of work that I wanted to put in there - a real mish-mash of stuff - to show what I can do," he recalls. "I definitely put in the Stealth project, which was an interesting thing; I remember it catching Paula Scher's eye."
Stealth was partly created for the Studio Museum in Harlem and partly an internal project at Map Office. On the one hand it highlighted the way African- Americans are treated as though they are invisible by other parts of American society, using a line from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: 'I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'
However, the Stealth Bomber provided the visual impetus. The aircraft is a contradiction - although it functions invisibly to the enemy, it is a striking and memorable thing to look at. The project was made out of paper and Opara and his team capped it off by playing with type and optical illusions. "The further away you are, (the more) you can see the text. The closer you get, you can't see it at all. We utilised that and combined it with the way it folds - a bit like origami - to look similar to a Stealth Bomber," he says. "Then we added another layer to it so that you could use it as a wall covering. Pin it to a wall, and in a tessellated format it looks like this insane sort of optical illusion is going in and out."
The outcome was taken into his commercial work alongside an identity Map Office created for a luxury apartment project in New York called 88 Morningside. The Stealth idea was simplified and applied to the walls of the sales office.
Also in Opara's black book you'll find 'Tic Toc', a book created for the London offices of advertising agency JWT. It not only celebrates JWT's work globally, but analyses various business and aesthetic-based statistics. Data visualisation is one of Opara's favourite areas at the moment, and he's very enthusiastic about the project.
"We charted what title colours they used in their ads and then we broke them down into global regions. We also monitored and measured the use of typography - sans serifs, serifs - over their ads. It went into the charting system," he explains.
"I think they use a lot of serif typefaces, which is really quite bizarre, and they use a hell of a lot of black and white in their ads and not enough pink or yellow. You should use more yellow! And then some people are like, 'Who gives a shit?' But, you know, we give a shit," he says.
When Opara got the job at Pentagram, he dissolved Map Office, but brought the four-strong team with him. Their work with JWT continues and one current brief is another internal, data visualisation project. Sucking brand and marketing data out of JWT's systems, they're writing a piece of software that uses different types of imagery to demonstrate trends and patterns. It's like infographics, but for Opara it goes beyond creating the charts or maps you see in newspapers, or on posters.
"What I'm interested in is how dynamic it is and it could be taken to the point of having a social aspect - like social media, social networking - linking to other different data sets to find out about what the hell's going on in brand marketplaces, or in the world today. It's boundless really," he says. "It's one of the things we started at Map Office and nobody really knew what the hell we were doing. Maybe people will notice us now. I don't know."
Data viz is just one of many areas Opara designs in. On the day we spoke to him he'd had two deadlines, and was working with his team across 15 projects simultaneously. Identity systems for educational institutions in the US, as well as architectural companies, and a kiosk system for the lobby of a major corporation are just a few of their current commitments. But he loves shifting between media. When he first arrived in the US in 1995, he'd already focused a lot on print design. New media was coming to the fore and he jumped right in, learning about the web, programming and animation. He's since done everything from huge motion projects for the screens on Times Square to books, interiors and websites large and small. Working in the overarching area of branding, he's found ways to pull design disciplines together for his clients.
He calls himself a dabbler but is there an Opara aesthetic? "I don't know if there is one, but I've actually asked friends, 'Do we have a style?' They say, 'Not necessarily, but the funny thing is I know that you did it.' Which is really quite bizarre," he smiles. "I also try and look for designers who are interested in more than one medium to focus their attention on. Right now, out of school, there are a lot of kids who can basically do up to three media really well; really versatile. That provides an aspect of longevity."
Yet sometimes the simpler media, like books, produce the most impact. Inside Opara's Pentagram black book is a print project called The Narcotic Farm. This book investigates one of the first prisons for drug addicts in America, which was built in the 1950s. In the prison, the addicts were tortured and experimented on in appalling ways that reminded the designer of Eastern Europe, or Nazi Germany.
His cover featured a wraparound picture of some cows but underneath that was a consent form. "You fill that in and sign your name at the bottom. It's just on a matte black cover and the title's raised and it's glossy black text. I've always really liked it because you're entering into something that wasn't very transparent."
Since Opara joined Pentagram, the company's website has moved away from a blog-style site announcing new projects to become more of an online archive of work, new and old. Visitors can view over 4,000 Pentagram projects, all presented via MiG, a content management system designed by Opara and his team from Map Office. It appears on the Pentagram site like an RIA - Rich Internet Application - and visitors can choose to organise the work alphabetically or chronologically. They can also narrow it down by particular medium (such as editorial, exhibitions and interactive) as well as by the client's sector (such as manufacturing, transportation or energy). The site is curated by the partners themselves - each day one of the 17 has to upload a fresh project; whether that's new or old is up to them.
Working with Pentagram's history has got Opara thinking about what could be done with it beyond being an online portfolio, or archive. "Let's say we're doing an iPhone app for this material, which is definitely feasible now. I would be thinking, 'Okay, American Folk Art Museum. Where the hell is that?' Let's say I'm in New York and the app actually tells me where it is, and I can go and see the different Pentagram projects in the city. Just off the top of my head, that's flipping fantastic!" he enthuses.
Despite the excitement of joining, Opara is the type of designer who keeps his feet on the ground. His aim is to tackle the hard work ahead, and perhaps try a little more environmental design. "What I've learned since arriving is that we have large institutions, large companies asking us to do work," he points out. "I have to find a way to have my methodologies, my way of designing, work well enough for those particular clients. I think it will definitely come over the course of time. That shouldn't be a problem."