Insights 2010: Eddie Opara

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Eddie Opara is a founding partner of the Map Office, which is a New York-based studio specializing in design, strategy, and technology. I had no knowledge about Opara or the Map Office prior to this lecture.The speaker who introduced Opara already knocked me over by sharing a multitude of diverse projects that Opara has been involved in. Well into the lecture it was clear that Opara is someone who has worn many hats and is fearless about tackling the unimaginable. He has worked in fields ranging anywhere from branding to motion graphics, interactive installations and beyond. Furthermore, Opara’s passion for the transformative extends into how his practice and the projects he has taken on has evolved over time.The most important message I learned from his lecture was the significance of collaboration and that you don’t really own anything.

Opara’s stories of his childhood days in the district of Wimbledon were definitely entertaining but also thought provoking. Opara was born in Great Britain and taught by Jesuit Priests. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about being taught by Jesuit Priests is academic rigor. These thoughts didn’t matter as much when Opara said, “They always taught me to think not as an individual but to help people as a whole—to understand people in many different ways.” He emphasized this means of being a part of the community and sharing throughout the lecture and it really resonated with me. From middle school till undergrad, I feel that this piece of wisdom isn’t stressed enough or even brought up. This is why many times we encounter young adults and adults who hoard information for the sake of competition and ownership of innovative ideas. Society plays a significant role in garnering self-importance versus illuminating the value and learning that occurs when sharing and helping people as a whole.

One individual that negatively affected Opara during his childhood was whom he referred to as “The Iron Lady” or Margaret Thatcher. My teacher says, “Boys we have taken away your milk. You have no milk to drink today.” He was really upset because every kid in Britain had a glass of milk or a bottle of milk at lunchtime for nutritional purposes. He disappointedly said, “At this time she came into power and took it away from me. They called her Margaret Thatcher the milk snatcher. It was demoralizing to me.” This was when his mother started to talk to him about the Labour Party which valued this notion of sharing information, sharing what you do as a person, collaborating with people, and “not being an individual that is just all out to get money.” This was a period of time in Great Britain when money was scarce and people were fearful of having their health service,  education, and everything taken away from them. Even though his family was well off his mother believed in the specific system of the Labour Party.

Influenced by his childhood experiences and his mother’s values, Opara developed his strong and very flexible views of sharing—which is really refreshing to come across. When he designed the runway wallpaper for Prada, Opara enthusiastically permitted and trusted his boss to manipulate his design in any way that he saw fit. It was great to hear Opara talking about how he believed in his boss as well as reflecting that he didn’t hold his design as something precious and fixed. Even in Brooklyn Museum’s wallpaper design, Opara also touches on the significance transformation on modularity. He discusses the beginning stages of getting into a brand and the importance of understanding tat brands can never stay still and that they need to be adjusted over the course of time by the community at large. “You’re not in a sense in control anymore.“

He didn’t even seem to be bothered that his Prada Wallpaper design was used two years after its creation (without his permission I might add) at a party at the Taipei tower. He said, ”This idea of not only sharing your content, but to take it and do something good with it, always intrigued what the result is going to be.” I respect that Opara doesn’t care who uses his design, doesn’t value authorship and actually was excited to see how people transformed his design. I feel that authorship and individual recognition is something that most people crave for. Due to the competitive environment we grow up in, people fail to recognize that a pool of talents can help quickly solve problems and create the unimaginable.

So this idea of sharing, idea of collaboration—that you don’t really own anything, everyone owns what you do is pertinent part of who I am. And so, the Idea of Map came about in that particular regard.” Learning about the origins of Opara’s design studio gave me a whole lot of context to his design approach and helped me evaluate the different ways in which his team tackles design challenges.Opara ends his introduction to the design values of his office by saying, “We believe in this aspect of everybody does everything. You’re not just a book writer and you’re not just an engineer. We come together as one. We work the system out. We work the problems out.”

I have noticed that design disciplines have worked independently until recently. Although co-creation and interdisciplinary collaboration is necessary in the work environment, it isn’t stressed enough in educational institutions. Many kids don’t grow up learning this valuable information (especially in immigrant families) because putting food on the table and succeeding equates individual success and climbing up the ladder. Even in undergrad I came across toxic and competitive environments where the attention was placed on star students versus the collaborative efforts that produced new and original ideas—ideas that were not possible to be accomplished by one person. Being back in school, I continually think about the  following questions asked in this video: how does one understand to share, to collaborate, to amalgamate a group of people that can work well and develop many different things in many different ways?