Samuel Mensah: “Black designers are never placed at the forefront”
Samuel Mensah The Interview
In his latest Four Corners column Jon Daniel catches up with Samuel Mensah, who after cutting his teeth in both branding and advertising has set up the organisation Youth Worldwide, which aims to help young creatives get their ideas off the ground.
Every bit as bold, stylish and vibrant as his work, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the multi-talented Samuel Mensah.
What’s your background?
I was born in Ghana and raised in London where I work today under the name SMBStudios focusing on brand innovation and visual storytelling. I’ve got experience in digital marketing, brand identity conception and design, production, visual design and art direction. I like to integrate branding and visual marketing to create overall innovative user experiences. By day I am also a designer at renowned idea agency AKQA on the brand design team.
I am also the founder and creative director of creative organization and studio, Youth Worldwide; a creative platform dedicated to discovering and supporting pioneers in creativity and showcasing emerging young creative talent from around the world.
While traveling in Ghana last summer I had an epiphany to host a youth networking forum with some of Africa’s brightest entrepreneurs as part of my responsibility to another organisation of which I am a founding member, Future of Ghana. We lectured at Ghana’s first creative university Ashesi, which was founded by Patrick Awuah formerly of Microsoft.
His story of overcoming the odds to build a university over almost a decade inspired me greatly and I realised even though this may not be exactly what I wanted YWW to be, the scale and magnitude of the impact it had on people’s lives is something that could not escape me. Upon my return back to the UK I made it a point to team up with more young creatives, begin a small team and begin working on a few cool projects that challenged and fed their skills.
We now work with numerous creatives around the world and have them as part of our network in our aim to share, showcase and express emerging creative talent in all areas on a global stage. The format of YWW has changed and will continue to evolve until we find the most optimum way of making it happen. We want to get to know more people, more leaders that can support and join the movement. Feel free to connect with us.
How did you get started in your field of expertise?
My background lies mainly in the realm of traditional graphic design. That is what I initially fell in love when it comes to design as a whole. I’ve always seen graphics as the one thing that connects the entire world visually but is heavily taken for granted by most people.
I wanted to design everything and anything when I was younger and my knowledge of design itself was limited but I was determined to dedicate my life to it since I found a purpose with it. I went on to study Design for Advertising at Degree level but really made a name for myself outside the classroom in the digital arts realm.
Designs for MTV headquarters
By taking advantage of online platforms such as DeviantArt, Tumblr, Behance and more I was able to gain popularity quite quickly with my pieces which were always quite vibrant and had a vibe of motivation and inspiration to them. Those are things I take quite seriously in my work. Apart from them looking good I always aim for my work to actually motivate the audience in some way and bring some semblance of joy in their lives.
This went very well for me and from a young age saw me get featured on quite prestigious platforms and design blogs around the world, which it was hard to take seriously at the time since it never really sunk in. Along with juggling school and interning for Gilbert & George my life 6 years ago was definitely just about design and nothing else.
Nothing much has changed really. The process of making the shift into the working world of advertising and branding with my expertise and skills was quite simple and if you told me I would be designing for Nike almost every day of my life and speaking on an OFFF Festival stage last year about my work, I wouldn’t have believed you either but the universe is interesting.
The formation of YWW has also shifted my love of advertising to other creative and design processes such as industrial design, fashion, experiential design and all things tech. I find my understanding of creativity and its applications has evolved and I want to understand more about everything now. From someone who started in digital arts and branding I feel there are no boundaries to how far things can be pushed in regards to how I apply my creativity and the overall impact it can make.
What challenges did you face/overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
The challenges I continue to face are the ones I put before myself. I challenge myself to be the best I can be and place myself in my own lane when doing anything. However I am very aware of the real social challengers that do hold people back in the industry. The creative industries are rife with classism, sexism and other discriminatory ism’s which has been slowing down and getting better in recent years but is still very far from eradicated.
I’ve been brought up with the mentality to work harder than everyone else to give people no reason to say no. Through this approach I have to say I have been able to evade systematic discrimination for the most part in my professional journey, but it begs the question why work so hard just to be seen as equal. I chose to see it as preparing myself to simply be the most equipped and capable.
YWW team exhibition team
Coming up in the industry I never studied or was even educated about one great graphic designer that was black, even though there are many out there we are never placed at the forefront. For a long time it confused and angered me. I choose to dispel this status quo forever by being that person of colour that I always wanted to see in certain positions and achieve things that were once thought of as highly improbable.
For many millennials of colour that are entering the industry, simply seeing people in powerful positions in the industry that look like them can inspire them so much and has to be championed more. They can take solace knowing that it is most definitely possible to get to the same level and even exceed that of their predecessors.
Who and/or What are your greatest inspirations and influences?
My greatest inspirations have always come from talking to people. I truly believe that conversation is the most holistic way that we as creatives can create better ideas and become better at our jobs of being visual communicators.
My personal heroes are innovators such as Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Bill Gates, Tim Brown & Elon Musk. They inspire me as being those who were able to wield their creativity in the most impactful way possible and leave a lasting effect on the world for a very long time to come. It bothers me that Steve and Bill are not classed as equally creative, when they both created things from scratch that we all use almost every day of our lives to serve specific imperative functions.
A common misconception is the word “design”, which most people think of as pretty pictures or forms. What is missing however is understanding the depth to which design goes—not only in products, but in essentially every aspect of our lives . Whether it is the design of a program, a shirt or some form of communication tool, we are living in a world that’s infinitely designed. Somebody made a design decision about everything we use, and have.
What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?
I always think the project I am most proud of is the one I either just did or the one I am currently executing. I say this because I believe you’re only ever as good as your last and you must make that the strongest you’ve ever done. The project that was most formative for me was the process of creating my first ever typeface. I was 21, just completing 2nd year of my university degree and was bored in the summer, hungry to do something I’d never done before. With my background being typography and typographic studies it meant that every font I used in my designs was in essence created by someone else.
My mind shifted when I realised I could create my own and that in fact I wouldn’t be satisfied until I made my own. The process in itself would not only be creatively liberating but also a personal liberation. To own something and furthermore create a resource that could benefit other creatives was inspirational. Once I knew I wanted to take on the task I was determined to make it happen even though I had no idea how to do it. I was luckily able to recollect that I had a friend in New Zealand called Daniel McQueen who was a font specialist and was able to turn my designs into a usable font.
Knowing this, the process of researching began and moving into the mentality of creating something classic. I wanted my first typeface to sit alongside the likes of Helvetica, Avant-Garde & Futura. Those were the ambitions I had for the yet untitled font. I named it Echelon. I remember creating a rollout for it on social media that was able to make its release in early september 2012 all the more impactful. It went on to do very well and be featured in many impressive places and most notably be used last year for Nike’s Athlete kit for Basketball giant Kevin Durant.
My subsequent font Atelier Neue, which I released almost exactly a year later went on to do well and is my personal favorite. I saw it as a way of very much cementing myself and not being regarded as a one hit wonder. I feel it proved to many potential critics that I can churn these out. The font has also been used in many notable places; most recently for the BFI’s Black Star film campaign.
What would be your dream job or project?
My dream job ideally is not to have to have a job at all. That is the best reason to explain why I formed YWW. It was an escape to what I’ve always wanted to do, which is simply work on super creative briefs and projects whether it’s about making products or crafting films.
My dream project is a collection of many small projects culminating in a cultural shift of creative liberation and acceptance by a generation who can take it further than we ever imagined. It is most definitely a process that will not be achieved in a few years or decades but most definitely in our lifetime.
Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition, and why?
I feel we live in age where because of the internet and social media, everyone is able to have a platform and take advantage of the benefits. They are able to gain recognition and become creatives that are creditable.
Everyone is very visible and it’s beautiful because it means collaboration has become easier than ever before. Sharing of ideas, culture, skills and creativity has never been easier.
I do aim to give credit to those that paved the way for me personally and I looked up to coming up. Pioneers like Dieter Rams, Peter Saville, Sagmeister, Milton Glaser & Tibor Kalman just to name a few.
In my field today there are amazing young talents in the YWW network that are doing incredible things. So many emerging creatives, some as young as 15 years old, that I have been exposed to, poses a unique creative approach and understanding. They say tomorrow belongs to those that can hear it coming. This truly is the most fearless generation of all time. We will find out why very soon.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in
Nobody knows what the hell they are doing most of the time. Just do your own thing. I believe everyone has their own specific way of how the universe will unfold itself to them.
What I will say is that life begins when people understand that the key is to give back. When they realise that serving and creating real change and impact in people’s lives through their creativity is the most powerful thing they can do.
Forget rules, and let nothing hold you back. That’s why I love the next generation. They don’t care about paying homage or being constrained to the past, they are more focused in making new, making their own path. That energy is so empowering.
I would also encourage creatives to embrace failure more. I used to be very self-conscious about failing early on in my career. I have now realised how vital it is to understanding the journey of growth that comes with getting to a certain level. Failure will come but you will get over it. If you are not failing you are honestly not innovating enough.
What’s next for you?
I continue to be dedicated to my passion of collaborating and showcasing creatives. I will continue to build the YWW network and aim to create impact with the greatest creative talents the world has to offer. Most importantly I aim to have fun.
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By Jon Daniel via: designweek.co.uk