Design Is Spiritual

Commentary — Feb 24, 2022

Eddie Opara contributes the afterword to the new anthology “The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection.”

The work and experiences of Black designers have been largely excluded from traditional design history and educational curricula. The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection (copublished by Allworth Press and the School of Visual Arts) is a new anthology that spotlights teaching practices, research, stories, and conversations from a Black/African diasporic lens in writings by 70 designers, artists, curators, educators, students and researchers. Pentagram’s Eddie Opara contributes the book’s afterword, which looks at design as an inherently spiritual practice that uses imagination to uplift and transform.

Design Is Spiritual

By Eddie Opara

In his book Black and British: A Forgotten History, the British Nigerian historian David Olusoga declares, "From the sixteenth century onwards, Britain exploded like a supernova, radiating its power and influence across the world. Black people were placed at the centre of that revolution. Our history is global, transnational, triangular, and much of it is still to be written." [1]

My personal history starts with Godwin Anaememotu Opara and Teresa Waymere Jatto. My mother and father arrived in the United Kingdom at different times­—at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s—as migrants coming to the "mother country” to work and for further education. This was postwar Britain. Since 1948, there had been a massive labor shortage, and Britain needed workers. At first, there was a feeling of constitutional ignorance of the government. They did not intend to bring over Black students and workers from the colonies; they only favored white workers from white commonwealth dominions and war-torn Europe. This quickly subsided, common sense prevailed, and so my parents, like millions of others from the global colonies, came.

My mother and father married in 1963 and had three children, I being the youngest. Even though they were British subjects, my siblings and I were the finished articles. As children of migrants, some of you reading this will understand that failure was not an option for us. You have been blessed, given this opportunity to blossom— “Do not let us down, do not let yourself down.” I struggled through lower education at a somewhat progressive Jesuit school, eventually finding my feet in graphic design, an area that I couldn't quite fully comprehend at the time. Stereotypically immigrant progenitors demand that their offspring acquire professions that are learned, somewhat profitable, and have gravitas. Luckily my father was in advertising for a short duration of time whilst in the UK and understood what I needed.

On the eve of my departure to the United States, as I left the shores of my birth, my father, who was a pious man, exclaimed to me that, "Design is spiritual. It's a way of life." An inspirational edict, one that I have been trying to unravel and instill in myself for the past twenty-six years. Over a quarter of a century has passed, and my faith and perception as a designer are being tested. Who am I? What do I do and what do I stand for? Where does one start? Each era presents us with challenges. But the pandemic, the upheaval in society, and our world's rapidly changing climate conjoined have inspired many of us to be more introspective. I find myself returning to my father’s words— “Design is spiritual.”

I was asked not too long ago to define what design is. Design is the ability to produce the desired outcome or intended result by being freed from constraints or difficulties, through the application of rational thinking, creative skill, and appraisal, thereby acquiring a transformational and progressive outcome. You would think that one’s political and cultural attitudes would align to these ideas. They do not. This challenge effectively defines the experience of being a Black designer in America, and perhaps the world.

In addition to knowing what design is rationally, one needs to also know it spiritually. Why are these two subjects intertwined? Being spiritual is an experience, a belief beyond one's self, to render an individual bond to others, their well-being, and the world at large. It is the belief that there is something greater binding us all together. Using spirituality to cope with challenges in life benefits our health and well-being. [2] Through spirituality, we find the tools for gaining transformational and progressive outcomes.

Design and spirituality, it seems, are not so different. In both, we are uplifted through our imaginations. Writer, educator, and design researcher Stuart Walker proposes that imagination is fundamental to both design and spirituality: “Intuitively apprehended inner sensibility that seeks meaning... both employ the language of metaphor, analogy, and symbolism, and both [are] spurred by sudden insight, ideas, and unexpected connections." [3]

Where the black community has historically been perceived as the lowest common denominator through poverty, prejudice, and invisibility, imagination is the tool we collectively use to construct a higher efficacy for social development. Through design, as a form of spirituality, we reach our full potential, for both community and inner fulfillment. [4] We are a sea of hungry creative individuals, awakening to a new era, defining a better tomorrow for all-Black society. With Design, we have found our calling. With our imaginations as tuned instruments, we need to pursue a better path for our design. As Black designers, we acknowledge the urgency to take up a new mantle, one of being numinous about the work we accept and create. Determining what kind of society we want to live in, and the values we want to live by, for us to be successful, we must serve our communities; and within our communities to utilize the precise definition of what is needed, from the core of what design is—a spiritual practice.

Through a migrant's eyes, I see America as a cradle for hope and aspirations. As a migrant to these shores, I see that what it often takes is the will to leave the safe confines of home and of our studios, and move through spaces that be unfamiliar. It may take us beyond the shores of the United States to experience new lands, and to migrate to places with different ideals and principles, where there are vast communities whose knowledge we need. It may take finding places where design is practiced as a form of spirituality, and where we give and receive guidance in new ways. We can follow the words of David Olusoga as we go forward, as black designers, we are now the “[supernovas], radiating [our] power and influence across the world. Black people were placed at the centre of [this] revolution. Our history is global, transnational, triangular and much of it is still to be written.” [5]

Works cited:

1.   Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017.

2.   Akbari M., and S.M. Hossaini. “The Relationship of Spiritual Health with Quality of Life, Mental Health, and Burnout: The Mediating Role of Emotional Regulation.” Iranian Journal of Psychiatry. 2018;13(1):22-31.

3.   Walker, Stuart. Design and Spirituality: A Philosophy of Material Cultures.

 4.   Ibid.

5.   Olusoga, David. “The Reality of Being Black in Today’s Britain.” The Guardian. October 29, 2016.

This essay originally appeared in The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression and Reflection, edited by Anne H. Berry, Kareem Collie. Penina Acayo Laker, Lesley-Ann Noel, Jennifer Rittner and Kelly Walters, and copublished by Allworth Press and SVA. The book is available to order from Allworth and Amazon US.

More news