Next up on Revision Path, I got a chance to talk with Senongo Akpem, a brilliant interactive designer in New York City. We talk about his design inspirations, his projects, and even touch a little bit on the issue of diversity in the tech and design communities. It’s a really great interview that I think you’ll enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
I’m a designer in New York, and I’ve lived here for about three years. Before that, I lived and worked in Japan for about seven years. My work revolves around two poles — illustration and web design. For the past five years, I’ve made my living designing and building websites, and I love the mix of science, psychology, and the visuals that comes with that. I focus a lot on user experience and how people access information online, so it can get quite technical; but there are patterns to follow, so it’s fun. In my free time, I do a lot of illustration, primarily for my project Pixel Fable. It’s an interactive archive of African children’s stories and fables. For each story, I do all the web design and illustration, so you can imagine that each one takes some time. Much of the oral tradition in Nigeria — my home country — is disappearing slowly, so Pixel Fable is my attempt to save and expand on the strong storytelling tradition in Africa.
What is the best thing about your job/what you do?
That’s a hard one to answer, but I think it comes down to finding information. Sometimes it’s creating a web interface that allows people to find the info they need more quickly, and sometimes it’s an illustration that lets children put a face to a name in a story. In a recent site redesign I completed, we watched the analytics after it went live, and we saw big drops in the number of pages visitors were looking at, while the total number of visitors rose. This told me two things. First, people were finding the info they needed more quickly, so they didn’t need to look at so many pages anymore. Second, more people were seeing the site for the first time and deciding it would give them the answers they needed, so they stuck around. This is incredibly satisfying, and data like this really makes the job worth it.
Talk to us a little about what an average day is like for you as a designer.
My day varies. I have a lot of meetings with colleagues in the UK and other countries, so I spend a bunch of time on Skype in planning sessions. I usually come in around 8 or 9 in the morning, get coffee…all those sorts of things. I try to not check email until I get my daily schedule in order, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Then I spend most of the morning in meetings and planning sessions, and the afternoon is spent either writing code, doing testing, or designing. I like to block off the end of the day to do design work; I find that my best ideas come then. I get home in the evenings, and will often work on side projects like Pixel Fable or other freelance design projects, but it depends. I try not go go straight from work to my home computer.
How do you get inspiration for your designs?
For Pixel Fable, much of my inspiration comes from Nigerian wax print cloth and nature, but I also spend time looking at what other illustrators are doing, and how they construct images. I try not to look at the subject matter of a drawing, but at the technique used to create it. Did the artist use heavy black outlines? Did they use flat blocks of color, or subtle shadow? Analyzing other designers techniques is a great way to learn, and it frees you from the pressure to copy. I do look at the inspiration sites online. Some designers don’t, and I can understand why. I just find it so fascinating to see how other people solved a visual or technical problem in their work. Judging from those sites traffic numbers, other designers do the same thing. I recently launched a web project called Lost Nigeria that made it onto one of those HTML5 inspiration sites. You could see that all the visitors from that site came on, poked around for a minute or two, and then left. Contrast that with visitors from Facebook or Twitter — people who know me personally and are not concerned with my design “skills” — they spent four or five minutes looking at the photos and descriptions. So inspiration for designers is often very different from inspiration for non-designers. I guess you just have to keep your eyes open all the time!
What hardware and software do you use?
I’m a pretty conservative tech person. I have a few tools that work, and generally stick with them. Adobe’s Creative Suite, of course, and then Coda and CodeKit for front-end development. I have a Mac and a Wacom tablet that I use as well. I know I should experiment more with hardware and software and make my workflow more efficient, but it’s hard to find the time to learn new stuff. My goal for this year is to learn how to use GitHub though, so I do try!
There’s always a bit of discussion happening around the inclusion of more people of color in tech and design communities. Can you talk a bit about what your experiences have been like, and what advice would you give to those seeking to make these communities more inclusive?
I actually haven’t spent that much time in the United States as a designer. I went to college here, but was out of the country for most of the first decade of my working life, so I may have a bit of an outsider’s perspective. The world of tech and design, as we usually define it, is largely the product of one particular segment of society. There is no getting around that. In the US, this has traditionally meant a huge number of white American men. While proclaiming inclusiveness on one hand, I think the practice of unconsciously excluding women, minorities, people who are blind or disabled, etc. is something that needs to change. And it is changing! More people are speaking up and asking for a spot at the table, and this creates waves. The waves are generally in the parts of our community that have had the luxury of not thinking about this before, but welcome to the 21st century. My advice is not to those in privilege. Those “discussions” usually end in accusations of racism, or absurd reductionist logic. My advice goes to the young men and women of color who are considering a career as a designer or a developer or whatever. Role models do exist for you. They may be harder to find, but they do exist. Use social media to find people who are doing what you want to do, and learn from them. Reach out to them with questions, with ideas, even just to vent about feeling like an outsider. We have all been there! Know that you will be “the only one” in a lot of situations, but someone has to go first. Know that when you walk into a board room or an office, you speak for yourself, for your experiences, and for your skill. You don’t speak for “your race” or “your gender”. You speak for you. Use the experiences you have as a human to build a better web. There are billions more women, men, and children coming online in the next 5-10 years, and companies need your expertise to create value for them. Be great, and remember to call bullshit when you see it.
Recently you spoke at both Future of Web Design NYC and WebVisions NYC. Tell us more about those conference experiences.
The Future of Web Design talk was a crazy whirlwind of panic and preparation. I reached out to Denise Jacobs one day, who I met on Twitter a year or so ago. I asked her for advice on conference speaking and pitching talks, and she promptly turned around and introduced me to one of the Future of Web Design organizers. Luckily it all worked out, and a few weeks later I was on stage talking about culture and media queries. The experience was surreal. On one hand, I felt very prepared — I had rehearsed a million times in my living room, and had my slides on about seven different flash drives just in case I lost one. On the other hand, the crowd was very experienced, had paid good money to be there, and I did not want to disappoint them or the organizers. It was nerve-wracking. WebVisions was the same, although with one conference spot under my belt, I felt a bit more liberated to be myself. The WebVisions crowd is smaller, and allowed for a more intimate setting than Future of Web Design. My talk was on storytelling and multi-screen experiences.
If you could choose any space in the world and create a design for it, where would it be and what would you make? (Separate from Pixel Fable and Lost Nigeria, of course.)
This will sound somewhat strange, but I would love to do the signage and interior design for the rail system in Nigeria. For many years, it was a completely broken down system, and was hardly used at all; recently a bit more investment has been flowing into it, and it could spark a real trade boom. Nigeria has so many problems, but that doesn’t meant that things like graphic design or interior design need be ignored. On the contrary, as the nation moves further into the 21st century, that will become even more important. I lived in Japan for a number of years as well. The rail system there is one of the best in the world, and the signs, design, and wayfinding systems are all beautiful. The major railways have signs in English and Japanese, and are simple and efficient, just like the trains. I would love to bring that to Nigeria as a designer.
How do you think web design needs to improve going into the future?
Web design is really growing up. A lot of the battles over browser compatibility and web standards have been won, and focus is shifting to content. I think the next great steps in web design will involve breaking out of the computer screen to start controlling larger parts of the world’s infrastructure. Touchscreen technology means more and more things are becoming access points, so how HTML evolves to fit attributes like texture, depth, taste, or smell, will determine the future of the web. Other than that, there’s an unhealthy focus on acquiring user data and then selling it to the highest bidder. Most of the app acquisitions in the past year have had less to do with user interface and experience goals and more to do with customer data. I hope that as designers, we push more for portable data systems and personas. Doing this will require a completely new focus on data integration and the ability to mold interfaces to preexisting conditions. It’s all very fascinating stuff, if you ask me.
Lastly, what is your favorite web working tip?
I do a lot of responsive design projects. One of the most difficult lessons I have learned is that you need to actually build versions of your websites to see how they work in various contexts. Designing three layouts of a homepage in Photoshop may feel like progress, but it’s not until you code up working prototypes that you are able to see if the design works or not. The added benefit is that you gain skills in front-end markup, even as you work on a visual design. Never stop building.