As spring kicks in, we prepare for some big news events on the horizon. The EU Referendum, The Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio and the US Presidential Election, to name a few.
As designers, its not often that we get to flex our skills on such weighty issues. Sure, we’re used to working on deadlines, but when – like this designer – your deadline involves literally the news headlines of the day, it’s a whole different ballgame.
As one of the only design directors of African heritage to have been working at the highest level in British television broadcasting, I have no doubt he deserves a few major headlines of his own. Let’s go over to Mr Kojo Boateng.
Kojo Boateng, multi-disciplinary designer
What’s your background?
I’m a graphic designer, with skills in television graphics, motion design and user experience design. I was formally design director at ITV News/ITN and led a team of designers on some of the biggest breaking news stories of the last decade, as well as working as part of the special projects team at ITV.
More recently I have been working for a range of start-ups and larger businesses in user experience and product design.
How did you get started in design?
When I was younger I was always into drawing and design, although I had no idea you could do this is a job. I was interested in cartoons and graffiti as well as advertising and graphic design even before I knew what being a graphic designer was.
I originally wanted to be an architect, but was encouraged to explore graphic design by my art teacher. I was 13 years old at the time and picked my options based on the qualifications needed to get into art school. Graphic design was about five years, architecture was seven years, plus one. With graphic design, I would actually get to see my work made more quickly than architecture, so it was a no-brainer.
I wouldn’t say I was the most academic, but I was a grafter. I scraped by in my GCSEs and got accepted at Croydon College to do a BTEC in Design. After that I trained at the London College of Printing for four years, which included a month working industry. I was really interested in becoming a filmmaker so went on to complete an MA in video at Middlesex University. This meant I ended up studying for 7 years anyway!
After college I spent a couple of years working freelance for a range of clients in the music and television industry.
Then I got a job at ITN working on their Channel 5 News breakfast programme. The start-time was 4.00am which was tough going, but I was keen to learn. I did that for a few of years and and worked my way through the ranks at ITN and became design director of ITV News in 2007.
I worked with an award-winning team of designers and journalists on some of the biggest moments in television news of the last couple of decades, including the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks, the Royal Wedding and coverage of the Stephen Lawrence trial. I collaborated on the most recent rebrand of ITV News with Lambie Nairn and ITV Creative.
What challenges did you face in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
Getting started in the design industry is tough, particularly if you don’t have the experience.
I wrote hundreds of letters and had lots of meetings. In the end I chose to create my own web magazine, called funktion.com, to learn html. I was also designing album covers and had some corporate clients whilst also looking for full-time work.
I think one of my biggest challenges is finding people who have the vision to trust in your skills and can help you to grow. Like they say in TV Show The Wire “Everyone needs a Rabbi” and I’ve been fortunate to have a few great people to mentor me along the way.
But overall the biggest obstacle is challenging myself to follow my convictions and not be afraid of change or potential failure. I’ve learnt that to fail, is actually OK, as it can lead you to the next thing, and make you a better designer and a better human-being.
There is a lot of unconscious bias which I feel means lot of talented designers who don’t fit the mould don’t get a chance in the industry. I’m sometimes troubled when I hear companies say they are looking for the right “cultural-fit”, as I think in design some of the best ideas come about out of situations which have not been planned.
As a creative director I always look for creative potential and someone who has a talent I can nurture. It’s a gut feeling, but I’ve not often been wrong. But it can be risky. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for some very good bosses who had a big influence on me both as a designer and creative director – partly because I was challenged to deliver the impossible on a regular basis – they gave me space to grow and allowed me to see that anything is possible. There are no rules.
Who and/or what are your greatest inspirations and influences?
I’m inspired by my mother, who is a great source of inspiration. I have a network of close friends, some of whom are designers, and we have supported each other throughout the years.
When I started my career I worked for The Watch-Men Agency – a marketing consultancy that really put culture at the heart of what they do. Before I worked with them they had mythical status as an agency. I continue to work with them from time-to-time, but they had a huge influence on me, and many of my peers.
Hip-hop culture remains a constants source of inspiration for me – and by this I mean the four elements of Graffiti, Rap, Dee-jaying and B-Boying – partly because, like jazz, it’s come from a place when nothing is was meant survive, but is in fact a part of global urban culture which has had a massive impact of music, fashion, language and image-making.
What is your best piece of work, or the project you are most proud of?
There are a couple of projects I’m most proud of. During my time at ITN, had to do a relaunch for ITVs News at Ten. It was around the “News at When” era and at the time it was big deal as Sir Trevor McDonald was returning to ITV, with a new newscaster, Julie Etchingham.
I created the logo, on-screen packaging and content graphics as well as overseeing the title sequence with my creative director Glenn Marshall. Working in television is really a team effort and everybody has to bring their A-Game; it has to work like clockwork and there are no second chances. It was my first major project as design director and I learnt a lot about about managing designers – if that’s at all possible – and co-ordinating projects with many moving parts.
I’ve since worked on many television news rebrands and a range of large-scale broadcast projects, but this is the one I’m most proud of.
It put me in good stead when I was asked to art-direct the 2010 General Election. Knowing we would be going head-to-head with the BBC on Election night with a tenth of their budget did not phase me – we had to play to our strengths. ITN is a company which is pretty agile because of its smaller size.
Working with an amazing team of directors and producers we created a fully interactive virtual reality studio which had a way in which the presenter Julie Etchingham could interact with what was happening on the night. She had to remember 650 constituencies, but was able to seamlessly provide updates on-the-fly throughout the night.
We didn’t want the graphics to get in the way of telling the story of the night and were able to use this technology in a really flexible way, which still had somewhat of a wow factor at the time.
What would be your dream job?
I like the idea of creating a product or app which makes a real positive change to people’s lives, or creating a project which goes beyond the screen and in someway uses spatial design.
Who in your field do you believe deserves credit or recognition?
I think any designer who works in television news deserve credit. It’s not glamorous and doesn’t get you a nomination at the big design awards events. It’s a particularly niche area of design in which most people think it’s only about creating name-straps for breaking news.
While most design and advertising agencies have a few weeks or months to complete a project. Broadcast news designers are distilling sometimes complex information in a matter of few hours, and iterating on those designs as a story develops. And they have to work with some of the most difficult clients. Journalists! It’s not a job not for the faint-hearted.
I studied at London College of Printing with Eddie Opara, who is a partner at Pentagram in New York, I admire his work-ethic and his ability to stretch boundaries whilst delivering some really innovative design for his clients. It’s great to see a successful Black British graphic designer who has been able to reach the top of his field.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I often give advice to young people who want to break out into the industry. I would say the best piece of advice would be to study your craft and never stop learning.
Get honest – brutal – feedback. It will make you tougher and make your more critical about your work. But with that said, you can’t deny gut instinct. How you carry yourself as a human being is just as important as your portfolio and having a strong network of friends and peers is the best way to find work and to keep getting hired.
I also think there should be a focus on senior designers in the middle of their careers, who want to expand into other areas of design, like digital.
What’s next for you?
In the last couple of years, since leaving ITN, my focus has been on user-experience design and design for digital products. I decided a move from designing for the large screen in your living room to the small screen in your pocket made sense, given my mix of skills in motion-graphics and information design. One of my first projects was a design for creative consultancy Human After All, which was part of a programme organised by the General Assembly.
Thinking about a user needs has really re-wired the way I think about design and my process. I now work with a range of clients in the UK and US, doing motion graphics and product design.
I have a side project I’ve been working on for the last few months, which is a series of posters based on Harry Pearce’s “Conundrums” – where he creates typographic word-play, using only one font, two colours and a box.
My project builds on this concept, but focuses purely on the names of rappers or rap albums. It’s really lots of fun and has allowed me to use a side of my personality I don’t normally inject into my client work. It’s selfishly just for me and it’s amazing just how many I have been able to create. It’s quite addictive and I hope to develop the posters into a book and other products.
THE FIRST DESIGN BIENNIAL IN HAVANA called 1ra Bienal de Diseño La Habana — otherwise known as BDHabana 2016—will take place May 14–20, 2016. Open to design students and professionals worldwide, the Biennial’s first edition will feature exhibitions, symposia, and events in Havana, and in Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. Coordinated by Roberto Miguel Torres, the Biennial will explore issues of design and industry, creative innovation, and workshops to promote design as an element of socioeconomic development.
ROCKERS, SOULHEADS & LOVERS; Sound Systems Back in Da Day explores the golden era of African-Caribbean sound systems from the 1950s to the early 1980s in London. Told from the perspective of local people, this vibrant exhibition curated by Michael McMillan in collaboration with Dubmorphology (Gary Stewart & Trevor Mathison), takes the form of an atmospheric audio-visual installation, conjuring a Blues party environment within the galleries. It brings to life an important cultural history, explored through a display of historical objects, personal accounts, film footage and photographs, reflecting upon how these dynamic cultural practices have had a significant impact on British music and dance ever since. Exhibition runs until 21 May 2016
BLACK GEORGIANS: The Shock of the Familiar interrogates the seams between the all-too-often prettified costume period dramas and the very different existence of hardship, grime, disease, and violence that was the reality for many. Revealing the everyday lives of Black people during the Georgian period (1714-1830), it offers a rich array of historical evidence and archival materials that present a surprising, sometimes shocking, and inspiring picture of Georgian Britain. Runs until 4 June 2016.
COMING HOME presented by the newly created Foundation residency programme, Arthouse is proud to introduce the work of its inaugural artist, Victor Ekpuk. A Nigerian-born artist based in Washington, DC. Ekpuk came to prominence through his paintings and drawings, which reflect indigenous African philosophies of the Nsibidi and uli art forms. From 9 – 30 April 2016 at Space: Renault Showroom, 43b Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria.
AFRICAN ART AGAINST THE STATE highlights the long and extraordinary history of activism, intervention, and resistance that has characterized a great deal of African art-making from prehistory to the present. In underscoring how artists have used expressive culture in Africa to produce advocacy and even agency for disenfranchised and marginalized groups and communities, the exhibition will utilize a select group of objects from various traditions and artistic moments to highlight how art has been used as a mechanism of mediation across both space and time while giving teeth to the adage that sometimes images can speak louder than words. Exhibition runs until 28 August 2016.
If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.