Get to know Senongo Akpem
Mar 12, 2020
Next up in our Meet the Author series, we’re getting to know Senongo Akpem—author of our latest book, Cross-Cultural Design. He tells us how he uses his commute to get centered for the day, which tools he relies on to get through the week, and what he does to take a break.
ABA: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?
Senongo Akpem: Mornings usually have us rushing to get out of the house, but one thing is always the same: the hour-long train ride into Manhattan. Paradoxically, crammed together with thousands of other New Yorkers is probably the most quiet time I get during the day. I spend the commute reading, writing, or watching sci-fi, letting my mind wander and exist in a different world for a while. Whether or not that is the right foot, at least I find the time to dream a little before heading into the real world every day.
ABA: In your opinion, what should someone consider before starting out in web design / development?
SA: Are you willing to be super critical of your work and your production of it, for your entire career? I don’t mean that you will always make bad work, only that in order to be a truly effective designer, you are going to have to endure that little voice in the back of your head endlessly dumping on your output, in order to keep getting better. At Constructive, where I work as the design director, our team recently completed the redesign and rebrand of the Legal Aid Society’s website. Through the whole process, I struggled to find a visual voice that represented the organization, to build a digital aesthetic that supported their disparate audiences, and to design an interactive product that did not let down my team. It was nerve-wracking. Now that the site is live, and I can see it functioning correctly, the edge is taken off my self-doubt a bit. If you are just starting out in this biz, welcome! You should find enjoyment, not only in simply creating things, but in pushing your work to new places. If that sounds fun and/or intriguing, then web design is the place for you!
ABA: Is there anyone you’re following the work of right now, who you’d recommend others pay attention to?
SA: I talk about this a bit in my book, but I encourage designers to focus less on targeting specific designers, and more on finding the channels and communities that feature cool/talented people. I subscribe to the Other Valleys newsletter, the TCDaily, the Tech Cabal newsletter, the Eye on Design newsletter, and others that share industry info. If I see a cool startup or revolutionary design idea, I can then do some digging of my own to find out who’s designing for it online.
Over the past few years, I’ve become interested in generative/procedural art— starting with Allison Parrish’s work making all sorts of cool text-based bots. I also love getting advance previews of the work my friend Derrick Schultz does training neural networks and mashing up art. Though it’s slightly different, I also love the work of Sougwen Chung, who uses robots and AI to do wild paintings. All that being said, you should totally still read books. Recently, I have really enjoyed Bi-scriptual, African Modernism, and Accessibility for Everyone by Lauren Kalbag.
ABA: In moments of self-doubt, how do you recharge and rally to keep going?
SA: Everyone has a “tell,” the thing they do when they are stressed out or uncomfortable, or just tired. When I see my “tells” start, when I see myself getting tired, I find ways to mitigate that by stepping back, or sometimes even doubling down and working harder. When things are rough, I give myself time limits.“You are going to write for ten more minutes and then you can take a break”, or “I need to edit five more photos in the next twenty minutes, and then call it quits for the day…” stuff like that. I am not saying it’s effective for everyone, but these types of little tricks keep me going when I’m struggling. Perhaps it’s that little voice in your head again. If it’s advising caution, saying,“be careful, you are going to wear yourself out!”r questioning your course of action, “are you sure you want to do that?” It might be an internalizing of experiences with your parents or authority figures from childhood. When things get tough and I’m doubting myself, perhaps I imagine my mom, doing her mom thing, gently pestering, making sure I am doing ok. That bit is comforting.
ABA: Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night? What is it?
SA: Our planet is burning. Global warming, burning forests, pollution, mass extinction of wildlife, insects, fish: all that is happening now, and accelerating. The population of the earth has basically doubled since I was born. Even though there are bright spots, like the coming eradication of guinea worm, science on the International Space Station, the internet cataloging huge amounts of scientific knowledge on climate resilience, the new Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument covers 1,508,870 square kilometers… The (short) list does go on. I am terrified of what is happening. As a designer, I wonder if I will even have a career in twenty years, or if society will break down by then. Will web designers be needed in the apocalypse? Perhaps I also fear that what I can do right now is not enough. The scale of climate change and our social challenges are so great that it feels like our industry has not come to terms with our role. We can’t do this alone. Only through collective action and clear communication can we save what is left of our one and only planet. Sleep tight, and tomorrow lets get to work.
ABA: What tool, object, or ritual could you not live without to get you through a week?
SA: What does it say about me if I can’t think of one?! I’m on my computer a lot, most of the day in fact, so my design tools (GDocs/Sketch/Creative Suite/GitHub/etc) are essential to doing my job. When I have time, I use Procreate on my iPad to draw, which is always fun. And I use Slack regularly for work and to keep in touch with a few other creative communities.
ABA: Is there a piece of professional or life advice you’ve gotten that has always stuck with you? What is it?
SA: Always a tough one. Advice is like a shoe, totally useless when it doesn’t fit you. I can only speak to the things that have made my career as a designer more interesting, and hopefully that resonates with people. One thing I have heard a lot is to make time to do things that make you happy. Whether that is creating weird single-serve sites, or writing, or exercising, or just binge-watching Netflix, you absolutely have to take a break from “regular” work to give your brain a chance to recharge.
Learn more about all our authors—check out the rest of our Meet the Author series!
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