How Laolu Senbanjo Overcame Parental Objection to Pursue a Career in the Arts

How Laolu Senbanjo Overcame Parental Objection to Pursue a Career in the Arts

The city of Ilorin in Western Nigeria is home to generations of lawyers, and was founded by the Yoruba—one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. When Laolu Senbanjo was born in Ilorin, his fate was already determined. His father was a lawyer, so he, too, would become a lawyer.

Despite being groomed in the legal field, and eventually becoming a human rights lawyer, Senbanjo always chose art as his first love. This passion created tension within the family, especially between Senbanjo and his father. It was culturally understood that respectable professions were in one of the following fields: law, medicine, or engineering. “I knew if I pursued a career in the arts, I’d have to live with the fact that some people in my hometown might never talk to me again,” says Senbanjo.

Parental objection to pursuing a career in the arts is rooted in a common stereotype – being an artist means being a starving artist. But, who says that has to become your reality? And, more importantly, who determines what your career path will be — you or your parents?

To ease the parental tension and lift his spirits, Senbanjo’s paternal grandmother would recite an Oríki, which is a form of Yoruba poetry consisting of songs of praise. Your name determines your Oríki, and it is believed that if you call someone by their Oríki, it inspires them and evokes innate character traits of fortitude and perseverance. The English translation of Senbanjo’s Oríki is: “You are somebody who has what the West doesn’t have.” As a child, Senbanjo didn’t grasp its meaning, but he always found comfort in his grandmother’s words.

Throughout his upbringing, it was a constant struggle for Senbanjo to suppress his interest in the arts in order to follow the expected path of becoming a lawyer. He settled on the reality that, if he sacrificed sleep, he could pursue both law and art. However, when he could no longer function on sleepless nights, Senbanjo accepted his artistic talents and made the valiant leap to pursue a career in the arts full-time.


Senbanjo photographed during a moment of contemplation by The Cannon.

Today, Senbanjo’s style of art, Afromysterics, incorporates African themes and African traditions. He coined the term in 2007, and it means the mystery of the African thought pattern. Since moving to the United States in 2013, his unique style has resulted in commissions and partnerships from celebrities and brand titans including Nike, Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, the Grammy Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution.

We recently sat down with the New York-based visual artist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. to discuss how he overcame parental objection to pursue a career in the arts and how he maintains creative control when working with brands and celebrities.

Your family was hell-bent on you becoming a lawyer. How did they react when you expressed your interest in the arts?

From a young age, I was taught that to be a lawyer is to be seen as somebody. Even as a law student, you’re given respect from your peers and society. However, I always had an interest in sketching and music. When I was 14 years old, my art teacher told my father that I had a special gift. My father’s response was, “Okay. But that is not what you’re supposed to do.” Although I went on to study law at Nigeria’s University of Ilorin, my first love remained art. I’d stay up all night using charcoal to sketch intricate patterns and images. During my second year of law school I reached my tipping point and told my parents I was going to drop out of law school to pursue art full-time.


“Dreamscape,” one of Senbanjo’s creations. Image courtesy of Senbanjo.

My father completely flipped out, and his friends, my uncles, and my brother met with me to provide counsel. “What’s wrong with you? You have an opportunity to be a lawyer. Finish three more years, and you’ll be out before you know. You can always have art as backup. You’ll thank us,” they said. My brother added, “If you drop out, I won’t support you when we’re older.” My mother pleaded, “Please don’t destroy my family!”

The only thing my father said was, “Fumi, talk to your son. I didn’t give birth to this kind of child.” In a Yoruba family, when a father says, “Talk to your son,” it is a very strong statement because it automatically means that you become your mother’s problem, and he cuts himself off. It also creates tension outside the home because everyone will say, “He doesn’t listen to anyone.” But, when a child becomes successful, he is his father’s son.

How did your father try to dissuade you from pursuing the arts?

Whenever I mentioned art to my father, he would tell me, “You’re majoring in your minor, and you’re minoring in your major.” I often thought to myself, Who determines what my major is—my father or me? One afternoon, my father wanted to show me firsthand how artists in Nigeria live, and he drove me around the slums. “See that artist! Is that how you really want to live?” he asked. This experience messed with my psyche, and I’ll never forget the squalid conditions in which the artists lived. They were completely isolated, and society did not reckon them as people who could stand up for anyone.

So, I persisted through three more years of law school and received my degree in 2005. It never stops with African parents. You have to keep racking up degrees, but when you get them, your life is gone. In their eyes, they see you as better off because of your degrees instead of what you achieve.

I practiced as a human rights lawyer for five years, and spent my final three years working at the National Human Rights Commission. I was the senior legal officer and focused on women and children’s rights. I’d travel to different parts of Northern Nigeria visiting schools and villages to educate men and women about why children should be in school. We also served as a shield for girls who were being forced into early marriages. Girls would run to our office or write letters, and we would try to help them by taking them to shelters. My eyes were opened to this epidemic through my practice. Somehow I always found time to continue making art on the side. I loved helping people, but I also knew my art was like a monster just waiting to unleash its power. When I told my father I needed money for art he said, “Nobody has money for that stuff!” 


Senbanjo posing alongside his work. Image courtesy of Senbanjo.

What strategies did you use to overcome negative opinions of pursuing an art career?

There were moments when I felt very misunderstood and ostracized. It was painful to watch people downplay what I held as my truth. People want to tell you “This is who you are versus who you know you are.” It’s difficult for people to understand, because you can be a lot of things to different people. However, every time I picked up my pen and sketched anything, it was an act of reassurance that I could do this. This was my survival mechanism.

I was also inspired by people’s reaction and connection to my art. I could see that my work made people feel something special. I never made people feel this way with my law practice. Art is a powerful channel that can move fast and change a whole generation.

Most importantly, I had to create a chosen family. In 2010, I quit my job to pursue art full-time, and started the Laolu Senbanjo Art Gallery in Abuja, Nigeria. I put all my money into it and didn’t make much back, but I was happy. My family never bought my art, and that was painful. I befriended a curator named Osi, and he became my curator. My friend Daisy played the guitar and we would gather amazing musicians, poets, and artists at the gallery. It was my safe haven where I could create magic with people who understood me. Additionally, through my space, I got put in contact with people from the American Embassy and Jamaican Embassy who bought my art, and connected me with other people locally to hold exhibitions. By the time I applied for my visa to come to the U.S., many of the employees at the American Embassy already knew me. It’s important to find people who will support you. 

How did you develop your craft?

Whether I’m using charcoal, ink, or another medium, you must consistently find different ways to apply it. I learn through trial and error and by watching people. I have always paid attention to details and can look at any surface, even a table, and create complex patterns. The challenge is taking the ideas in my head, and putting them onto paper. It’s stressful when the two don’t match, but I’ve learned that what’s on the canvas is meant to be there. Once I nailed my style, I knew I could do it on any surface—even the human body, which I call the Sacred Art of the Ori. This Yoruba body painting ritual is a spiritually- intimate experience, and it’s cathartic for me and my muse.

When you find your gift, you have to own it. Art is pure and honest. Every time I put my mark on something, it’s going to stop you in your tracks, and you’re going to feel something. If it doesn’t, I’m not doing my job. People want a formula, but I say, “Just do you.”  

You moved to New York City in 2013. How did you go from lawyer-turned-artist to landing crazy commissions with Nike, Beyoncé and others?

Things didn’t happen immediately, and it was difficult acclimating to the culture and pace of New York City. I joined fellow musicians in Brooklyn to form a band and consistently created artwork to post on my digital platforms and website. My father would call just to make sure I was alive or say, “When you’re done with this art craze, let us know.” I experienced a series of minor successes and failures until Nike handpicked me as a Master of Air to create a T-shirt and sneaker design for AIR MAX CON 2016. I was the only black and Nigerian amongst the team of masters, so when the announcement went live, Nigerian media ran with the story.

My brother called to congratulate me, and said that our father was bragging about me to everyone. “That’s my son,” he’d say. I knew that was going to happen. 

What was it like collaborating with Nike?

It was cool, and I wish I could do an entire line with them. Both of my custom designs sold out! I’m currently working on a project with Nike South Africa, but I can’t say much else about that project. One thing about working with a brand like Nike is there’s more bureaucracy in the decision-making process, but I still felt like I maintained creative freedom. For one, they approached me because of my Afromysterics style, so they knew what they were getting. Brands come to you because they see something special or something they’d like to capitalize on. And, for me, it’s a blessing to be in a unique space talking about our culture, our themes, and putting Afromysterics at the forefront.


Nike Air Force Ones, hand-painted by Senbanjo.

How did Beyoncé find you, and what was it like collaborating on her visual album, Lemonade, which literally put your body art—Sacred Art of the Ori—on the map?

I was surprised when Beyoncé’s team contacted me, but at the same time I wasn’t. What I do, very few people can. When they called, I was hired on the spot, and there was no recommendation, interview, trial run or anything. They found me through social media, and checked all my stuff on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to be sure I was actually the guy doing what I was doing.

When I arrived on set, I was surrounded by veterans who could rifle off all the celebrities they’d worked with in the past 10 to 20 years. Even though I was new to the scene, there was a mutual respect for my craft. They had to create my title because my role did not exist. I’m not a makeup artist; I’m an “artist on set.”

Beyoncé shared her vision with me for the song, Sorry, and told me she admired my work. Then, she simply said, “Do you.” I’ve never been more proud of myself, and just brought my A-game. The cameramen were congratulating me after the shoot, and I didn’t see how much airtime my art received until Lemonade debuted in April 2016. It’s amazing for someone to see what you do, and put it in on that kind of stage. Now, people everywhere in the world have seen my art, and I get emails from people in Australia, Japan, the U.S. and other countries who are inspired by my work.

As crazy as it sounds, when Lemonade came out, I met other musicians and celebrities who were like, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, but when we saw your stuff in Beyonce’s video, we thought we were late.” That’s how you know Beyoncé is a real businesswoman. Some people see things before they happen. Others watch things happen. While others are like, “What the hell happened?” The question is—where do you want to be?

More celebrities have jumped on your designs, and you will be releasing some projects with major brands next year. How do you manage the pressure of living up to high expectations?

I’m currently working on a project with Swizz Beatz & The Dean Collection, which will come out next year in London, and he’s been putting my name out to everyone. It’s crazy because sometimes the people you hold up are there holding you up! I never want to let my clients down, so I do what I’m there to do—my art. As a pioneer in the Afrofuturism movement, I consider it my duty to keep creating and to continue pushing boundaries. My art is never a job, just another exploration.

My grandmother passed in 2001, and I recently just blurted out my Oríkì: “You are somebody who has what the West doesn’t have.” Now, it all makes sense. In fact, it’s never made more sense.  

Has your relationship with your father changed?

We are good friends now. I love him. I came to understand that Yoruba parents have to get outside their own reality, which is difficult because they have no reference point for you. They haven’t seen anyone who has done what you do before. They only see you as an extension of themselves. From their perspective, any extension that is unfamiliar cannot be extraordinary. Up until 2015, there was no art of mine in my father’s house. 

A Yoruba father will never apologize, but something powerful he told me was this: “We are your parents and you taught us something about art and being an artist. Parents are like children—they don’t know what they don’t know.” 

from 99U99U

Mother New York

Mother New York


Dangling above the bar is a large collection of copper pots there for purely decorative purposes, and climbing above the kitchenware is a spiral staircase that ascends three skylight-lit stories to the roof that overlooks the Hudson River to the west and Midtown’s skyscrapers to the east. “That staircase and the light at the top of it creates a central core that everyone has to participate in, no matter what floor you’re working on, and that breaks up the cluster a normal floor plan creates,” explains McKittrick.


Mother New York’s space reflects how the organization simultaneously takes itself seriously and welcomes eccentricity, exemplified by the Damien Hirst painting that hangs on one wall and the framed photos of staffers’ mothers arranged like a collage on another. Each employee also has an image of their mother on their business card. “It reminds us, What would our mother think of what we’re doing?” says McKittrick.

The company’s work matches it’s irreverent style. Mother New York has hosted a dinner party in hot air balloons for Stella Artois, re-imagined iconic Vogue photo shoots using only Target products, and helped Crate & Barrel’s CB2 create the first-ever, crowd-sourced apartment designed by asking fans to vote on what pieces went in each room. As the company develops its projects, it’s typical for Mother New York’s creative department to hang their concepts on office wallboards for everyone to see.mother-7mother-8mother-10

“It creates a more open and collaborative way of working on a project,” says McKittrick. “A lot of times in advertising the creatives will lurk away in a dark room and work amongst themselves. The boards are a way of bringing that creating process out of the shadows and into the open. Everyone can see what is being worked on, even if it isn’t their project.”mother-11

from 99U99U

&Rosàs — Barcelona

&Rosàs — Barcelona


Other than the sprawling space that would make any city-dweller jealous, the building’s true appeal rests in its relationship with the city and its history. Inside, remnants of the building’s past life as a bank are everywhere, complete with a massive wooden conference table seemingly more appropriate for stuffy bankers than a dozen creatives with laptops. When the company rented the space, however, the team painstakingly rehabbed each room, one at a time. In the process, they discovered a portrait of the bank’s previous owner, which hung in the office until the owner’s granddaughter happened to glimpse it during renovations and asked for it. “It was hers all along, so of course we gifted it to her,” says Rosàs. If the space looks and feels more like a home than an office, that was the intent. “My personal reason for opening this in 2002 was to have a place to work where my children were proud of me, a place where they could come and visit, and it’s a philosophy I try to share with my team,” says Rosàs.


Left: Jordi Rosàs’ Office “It’s actually my older brother’s bike from 37 years ago. We organized a bike fixing event here so I convinced my brother to give us his to fix. Now I ride it when I go to bars after work,” says Rosás with a laugh.


Jordi Rosàs, founder of @Rosàs, in his office.


&Rosàs’ patio. An oasis for creative professionals in the heart of Barcelona.


from 99U99U

Instrument: From 15-Person Production Shop to 130-Employee Digital Creative Agency

Instrument: From 15-Person Production Shop to 130-Employee Digital Creative Agency

Instrument CEO Justin Lewis likens making the jump from a production shop for ad agencies to a full-fledged interactive content studio to tearing off the Band-Aid. While painful, it was the best thing the agency ever did for itself. “Once you tear that Band-Aid off, there is no going back as you do alienate some people from other advertising organizations,” says Lewis. “ But the choice was essential in allowing our business to become something greater than it would have ever been had we been a silent partner for other organizations.”

Today, Instrument is 130-people strong, up from the 15 employees it had in 2010 when it changed direction. Inside Instrument’s 30,000 square foot Portland, Oregon headquarters, the atmosphere feels more like an agency than a corporation due to how Lewis and his Chief Creative Office JD Hooge have constructed their teams. Rather than having a super-sized reporting structure, Instrument has teams of 20-30 people of various disciplines, working as mini-agencies within a larger company. That has allowed them to avoid what they believe is a tipping point of efficiency within a company, growth beyond 40 employees. 


The Instrument office in Portland was custom-designed specifically for the agency.

That’s just one way the company developed its own identity. The partners of Instrument believe that their company culture needs to be tested (not protected), that visual designers and user experience professionals can be one in the same, and that clients need to leave some room in their creative briefs for Instrument to make magic happen.

We recently sat down with Hooge and Lewis to find out more about how their holistic view of digital content separates them from the pack and how facetime with their clients like Google Design, Stumptown, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes all the difference.

Why evolve from a production shop for ad agencies to becoming your own full-service agency?

JL: We had aspirations to have something greater than a production shop for global advertising agencies. That’s a great living for a lot of mid-size agency owners, but we made a really distinct choice one day where we said, ‘We believe in ourselves enough to break away from that model and go directly to clients.’

JD: There was a moment when we realized that we were doing the strategy work and not charging for it, so we needed to add it as a service and start charging people. When we started doing copywriting, photography, script-writing, and video content in 2010, we started to completely bypass agencies all together. We have never looked back and never worked through an agency for five or six years now. It’s a lot more satisfying if you are able to inform the content and the ideas of the thing that you are making. It wasn’t even so much a business decision, as a belief that we could make a better product at the end if we were involved in all of it.

JL: We also had a philosophical notion that you should meet the people doing the work. You bring a project to Instrument, and you will get to meet the people who are doing the work. We don’t send it right out the back door. There is a lot of pride in that.

“We believe in ourselves enough to break away from that model and go directly to clients.”

Instrument is known for having a strong culture. What tangible steps have you taken to create that?

JL: The culture is a value proposition and you find that at times people want to protect their culture. We believe the opposite: A culture needs to be durable and tested and beaten up and bruised from time to time. It needs to reflect the needs of the people in the organization, not the organization itself. A great culture is one that does shift to fulfill the demands of the people that come and spend time there every day. You have to be willing to give up some control. But you have to believe in something, and that belief structure has to be valued and shared. If it is, it takes on a behavior that you are proud of.


Creative work being done at Instrument.

How does having visual designers lead the UX affect the outcome of the product and your project deliverables?

JD: The by-product of that is awesome, but the upfront work we have to go through to hire for that is painful! It’s like we are self-inflicting pain on ourselves making that such a strong requirement when hiring. But the by-product is beautiful because there is no hand off between someone who cares about user experience and someone who cares about the visual design. It’s also more efficient, because when someone who is a strong visual designer is creating wireframes or creating user experience flows, they are also thinking about the visuals and that comes through and accelerates the process much sooner. It’s not such an imagination leap that the client has to take when they move on to the next step. That goes all the way through to prototyping. Right now we are using every single prototype tool that is on the market, even on the same project.

JL: When you really move away from the paradigm from constantly working towards the deliverable and start working in a direction of trying to uncover what is right for the final deliverable of the product, then you start to work in this looser fashion that is more about using all the tools to uncover good ideas as fast as possible. Yes, it would be more convenient to say, ‘Ok, step one is wireframes…’ but does that make the end result better? We don’t think so. So you have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.

When working with clients, how do you strike a balance between them giving you a clear assignment with your designers having the necessary room to use their imagination on a concept?

JL: We really made this wonderful pivot in the organization at a certain point and worked hard to put some air into the relationship with the client. It’s really easy in this world to get to a point where there is nothing left to chance in the relationship between the agency and the client, but then there’s no room left for greatness! When there’s no space other than A, B and C, the chance of finishing the project is great, but the chances of uncovering something amazing are slim because you’ve tried to over-rev on the creative process where no surprise can ever happen. Where’s the room for magic to happen? Our process has allowed us to have amazing results but to also work hand-in-hand with the client to steer and work with business needs in the moment and it creates a real-time working relationship that everyone feels makes us partners.

“You have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.”

To what degree does it require more face time with clients to earn their creative trust?

JD: It depends on the client. For example, right now we are working with a client in LA, and one of their designers has been here for a month and we’ve been down there three times this summer. They’ve had various people coming up here and there are three of them here today. In some sprints we have meetings every two days on video hangouts. We text with them, there are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours. When we have in-person meetings we do whiteboard full day sessions, and when we are on video chats we will open up Sketch and show them where we are at. Same with Nike. We have people go out to Nike twice a week who are fully working side by side with their creative directors. With other clients it can be totally different. It comes back to this ability of being flexible and having a lot of tools at our disposal.


An Instrument project with their Portland-area neighbor Nike

Tell us about how you organize your teams, as Instrument has grown from an indie agency into a 130-person office.

JL: When we were at the 40 person range, we made a decision to turn the company into team model making vertical teams that are multidisciplinary and run by a person that is a producer in nature, but also a business person. We reorganized the company into that model and have never really looked back from it. Take a designer from Instrument and they would be on one of four teams they would identify with — that enables us to be fluid as an organization and reduce the scope of what an employee is doing and caring about. An organization tends to lose its efficiency when it moves past 30 or 40 people, but that is typically what we have on our teams now, so it gives you that sort of family unit and strength of having 30 really talented disciplines in one group.

JD: The teams sort of operate as independent agencies with this leadership umbrella team above it. The benefit is that they can have access to other team resources if needed. We have a bartering system where, if one team is light on a certain element, they have access to these other teams. You have your team family, your discipline family, then the whole Instrument family. Each team has their own logo, and events, and happy hour and off-site trips and rituals. They all take pride in taking on their own identity.

There are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours.

What are the biggest changes you see in the future for both Instrument and the field of digital design?

JD:  I feel like we are at the one percent mark of web design and digital services in terms of design and technology and where they meet. We are so at the beginning and it’s really wild-west. That’s why we are doing this. There are zero rules and we are just making it up as we go along. 

from 99U99U

The Upside to Being a Designer Outside of New York

The Upside to Being a Designer Outside of New York

Design firms may dominate big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London. But people with innovative, creative ideas and the skills to execute them come from all over. Who says you have to open your business in a major media market in order to be successful?

Sure, if you’re in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you may be positioned down the street from the world’s biggest companies. A pitch meeting is a subway or taxi ride away. However, if you’re in Cleveland, Omaha, and even Anchorage, you can still get your firm’s portfolio out there and attract business from major players.

Here’s how firms like Nottingham Spirk (Cleveland), Grain&Mortar (Omaha), and Spawn Ideas (Anchorage) make their zip code part of their gig-winning culture.

First, they turn their physical location into an asset.

In Cleveland, Nottingham Spirk co-founder John Nottingham pulls into the parking lot of a converted landmark Christian Science church overlooking the city’s University Circle education, arts, and medical district. His 60,000 square foot, neo-Roman building with an ornate rotunda ceiling contains his company’s entire “innovation center,” from research and development, to engineering and crafting, all the way up to executive offices.


A bird’s-eye view of the Nottingham Spirk office, looking down from the rotunda.

While Nottingham Spirk has been innovating for major brands like Sherwin-Williams, Unilever, Mars, and Cleveland Clinic for over 40 years, it has only been in its current location for about a decade.

The look of the building is one thing, but the space is central to Nottingham Spirk’s success. Everything is in-house. That means consumer researchers, focus group moderators, industrial designers, mechanical engineers, prototype producers, production designers, and those who source materials are all under one roof (something not always possible in cities with sky-high rents where certain departments are pushed off-site). Having focus group rooms upstairs from industrial designers pays off when a morning focus group gives criticism and then designers refine a prototype that wows the afternoon focus group.

“That’s real-time product development,” says Nottingham.

Codie Costello, the new business director at Spawn, talks with prospective clients while looking out a large window onto the Cook Inlet, where she can often spot Beluga whales breaching. “You can see their white humpbacks come out of the water,” Costello says.

While Spawn works on local campaigns, like a successful re-branding effort for all 31 Alaska-owned and operated McDonald’s franchises (highlighting “locally-owned and operated since 1970,” on bags, cups, and trays), the agency also hones in on something every Alaska resident appreciates.

“We’re focused on leveraging our outdoor experience,” Costello says. And it makes sense that a company across the water from Sleeping Lady, a mountain in the Alaska Range, has contracts with gear-maker Mountain Hardwear and Intrawest, a major North American ski resort operator. Spawn looked at Mountain Hardwear’s mitten and glove offerings and realized there were two missing sizes: XS and XL. With those new sizes came growth. For Intrawest, Spawn boosted season sales by helping to refine the “M.A.X. Pass,” which allows skiers to access 39 mountains for five days apiece throughout the season.

Over half of Spawn’s employees are not from Alaska. They know it is a risk to move from a city like Denver or New York. So Costello says Spawn likes to promote risk-taking. If potential clients don’t like a non-conformist pitch, so be it. “But I’m going to take that step,” he says. That might also mean crafting a pitch that shows the client not just a finished product, but the original sketches in an effort to welcome them into the creative process.

Costello admits that deciding to move to Alaska for a job is a big step. She knows, since she did it herself after living in Northern California and New York City. But Spawn offers some key creative recruits a unique opportunity: It will fund a try-out period. Pack a small bag, and get your feet wet in Alaska, while you’re getting your feet wet with the agency. If it’s a good fit both ways, the employee is welcome to take the plunge and hire a moving company. If Anchorage is too remote or it’s not a good fit, no hard feelings.

 “It sounds kind of weird. ‘Why don’t you come try it for three weeks, a month?’ We’ll have you come work on a project with us, see what you think,” Costello says. “So many people have this idea ‘I want to come to Alaska.’ But it’s dark for most of the winter, and some people don’t like that. While it doesn’t always work for every person in every situation, it certainly has worked for us.”

For a young strategy and branding company like Grain&Mortar in Nebraska, it’s impossible to discount the long runway that comes with opening a business in a city like Omaha, which has a cost of living score of 88 on Sperling’s Best Places calculator. (The U.S. average is 100. Santa Monica, Calif., on the other hand, checks in at 294.)


Inside the Grain&Mortar office, which is located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

Creative director Eric Downs and his partners used to pitch against each other as freelancers working out of a co-working space, until they realized they would be stronger together. So they established their 5,000 square feet headquarters in the Mastercraft Building, an old furniture factory which still features original pulleys, pipes, bricks, and valves.

Downs knows the firm loses projects to competitors in the big cities. “There’s some merit to having people a little bit closer,” he says. “But on the flip side, there’s no way we could do our jobs and not be on top of each other if we were somewhere else. We know what the rent is in those big cities, and quite honestly, it’s not manageable.”

With a little extra space in Omaha comes a chance to use the space creatively. The firm hosts design society events, which boosts their local profile and serves to scout local talent. It also leases some space to a calligrapher, who has her own client base but is always on hand if Grain&Mortar needs some exquisite lettering.

As a progressive design firm in a city where big companies still go for billboards over social media, Grain&Mortar is the go-to designer for major Omaha events, like the Big Omaha conference. It’s an event that brings together hundreds of entrepreneurs and Grain&Mortar insists on a seat backstage and at off-site dinners and cocktail parties. Downs and his colleagues then get to pick the brains and network with people like Refinery29’s Amy Emmerich, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Google Ventures’ Kevin Rose. The networking has so far helped them land business from Google, Twitch and Hudl. 

“They’ve seen what we’ve done in Omaha and a lot of them have turned into clients themselves or became a referral source for us,” Downs says.

Salaries in these cities are lower than they would be on the coasts. But all three subjects say they ask their employees to enjoy their lives outside of the office – youth soccer games wait for no one, after all.

Downs even encourages his employees to work fewer than 40 hours a week if they have gotten their work done. “I think a lot of companies work more hours than we do,” he says, noting that employees at plenty of businesses have 50-hour work-weeks but a 40-hour salary. “We’re adamant that our teams go home at 40 hours.”

For some clients getting out of a big city bubble is an asset. Cleveland’s “middle of the market” reputation actually helps Nottingham Spirk, believes Nottingham. “They feel like we have a better feel for the customer they’re going after if they’re selling something in a Wal-Mart, Target, or Dick’s Sporting Goods,” says Nottingham. “They think we are closer to that consumer, and I think they are right.”

In the end, Spawn, Grain&Mortar, and Nottingham Spirk know that their home towns provide both advantages and disadvantages. But they’re enjoying their unique position in their market.

“If you’re marketing anything, you want to market yourself in a market that’s not crowded,” Nottingham says. “If Nottingham Spirk were located in a New York, L.A., or Chicago, I don’t think we would have been as successful as we are now.”

from 99U99U

Daniel Oduntan: The Benefits of Taking the Longer Route

Daniel Oduntan: The Benefits of Taking the Longer Route

In the pursuit of an artistic career, there are those who take the predictable path — obtaining the right degrees, qualifications, apprenticeships, and jobs, while others blaze their own way.  Neither route guarantees success, and you can only hope that your talent and hard work will be recognized.

If you’re in the latter group, perhaps it took a life transition, experience, or conscious decision to stop calling your artistic pursuits a hobby before you set out on your way. Add this to the trial and error of developing your craft and style, and it can make for a long and unpredictable path.

However, the bright side of taking an alternative course is that it allows you to keep twisting and turning and picking up overlooked jewels other people haven’t picked up. Multi-disciplinary artist, Daniel Oduntan, who focuses on photography, film, and music composition, knows this well. The self-taught artist navigates the daily challenges of living and creating with dyslexia. “Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way,” says Oduntan. “You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts.”

In 2012, the London-based creative was nominated for Best Emerging British Artist by the Mica Gallery. And, in January 2017, he will create a commissioned piece for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970” exhibition, which documents the Black Panthers Movement in the United Kingdom.

We recently spoke with 32-year-old Oduntan about teaching himself photography, the challenge of creating with dyslexia, and the benefits of having to take the longer route.

You attended the London College of Music, then worked for a time in  construction. What led you to ultimately teach yourself photography and become a visual artist?

I tried everything in my power not be an artist, so I went into construction. I wanted to become a surveyor, but it was the height of the recession, which made this difficult. As I began to see the world through a different lens, it manifested itself in pictures. While on construction sites, I would take shots on my camera phone, and upload the images to Flickr and Tumblr to document my activities. The response was really positive. People were surprised that I was capturing these shots from my camera phone. I was also inspired by self-trained artists, like Gordon Parks and Quentin Tarantino. I knew it was time to start shooting on a real camera, and, to my luck, my friend told me that her university was getting rid of materials and camera gear. I didn’t have money to buy a digital camera, so I was happy to claim the heavy, analog Zenit 35mm camera. It helped that I wasn’t a complete stranger to cameras as my mom gave me an analog Canon as a child.

YouTube became my teacher. I would watch tutorials, then go out and shoot friends. I also watched The Art of Photography by Ted Forbes, which discusses photography philosophies, and introduced me to new photographers. Many times, I would develop my film at the drugstore, and everything would be black. It was a process of trial and error. So, I’d re-watch the tutorials, and shoot again. After a few months, I got comfortable using my camera, and my appetite was whet to document the world around me.

“Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way,” says Oduntan. “You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts.

When did you realize you were onto something?

I knew shooting analog photography would only take me so far. If I wanted to compete for commissions, I’d have to go digital. With limited funds, I asked myself, How can I stay in this, and still progress in my art form? Through online research, I discovered there was a way to use new technology with old technology, and I could get the best of both worlds. For example, a digital Canon lens only mounts to a digital Canon camera, but an analog Minolta lens can mount to a digital Sony camera. This was my solution. I turned to YouTube tutorials once again, and I learned how to edit pictures through trial and error using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. On a whim, I entered Mica Gallery’s photography competition in 2012. Despite turning in materials late, I was nominated for Best Emerging British Artist.

You also taught yourself videography. What was your learning process there?

In many ways, television raised me. As a dyslexic person, I’m not going to sit down and read. If you can’t read well, your next form of education is what you hear and see. So, I watched YouTube tutorials on cutting demo software like Adobe Premiere Pro, and developed a good sense to cut a scene here and edit there. It was an experimental process until I got it right. With my documentary work, I’m always looking for subtle nuances, while at the same time exploring creative ways to bring the soul of a narrative to the forefront.

I’m always looking for subtle nuances, while at the same time exploring creative ways to bring the soul of a narrative to the forefront.

Why did you decide to teach yourself rather than going to a design school? And how have you honed your craft?

Believe me, I would have loved to go to school for photography and videography. It would have saved me the headache of all my trial and error. But I’m from a working-class background, and I didn’t have the funds to go back to school or take out a loan. I had no choice but to be a self-trained artist. 

In addition to learning through doing and YouTube tutorials, I surround myself with mentors, like photographer Eddie Otchere and filmmaker Dan Fontanelli. Eddie has redefined hip-hop photography by capturing the personalities of artists from Nas and Jay Z to the Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. In The Icons Of Wu-Tang Clan by Dan, Eddie explains how he came to shoot every Wu-Tang member as well as his process in using print to memorialize the subject. I believe representation in art matters, so I’m constantly picking up new tips from them.

Their criticism was my greatest learning tool. When people you trust critique your work, and it comes from a good place, you grow.

In publishing, there can be a stigma around self-published authors. How do people react when you tell them you’re a self-taught artist?

A lot of people from the fine art world and otherwise appreciate my hustle and natural ability. And, to be honest, I’m proud to be a self-taught artist.

When people you trust critique your work, and it comes from a good place, you grow.

When did you discover that you’re dyslexic, and how does this impact your art?

I always struggled more than my two sisters in school, but didn’t know why. I discovered I was dyslexic late in university. I’d hide my writing with my arm, and would scribble shapes over words. At times, I even misspelled my name, and had difficulty with the structure of language. My dyslexic friend at university encouraged me to get tested, and the university arranged for an all-expense, paid assessment. When my results came back, the doctor was impressed by my achievements, and shocked that I’d made it this far without support for my dyslexia. Receiving this information was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I felt like I was given a badge that says, “You are dyslexic, not stupid.”

Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way. You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts. Instead of going from point A to point B, as a dyslexic person, you have to go from A to Z to P to T to R just to get to B. Everything takes longer to finish. My eyes hurt. My head hurts. I have to take frequent breaks at the computer, and it gets frustrating.

The same is true when I create art. It sounds strange, but when I hear sound, I see shapes, colors, and images. I started pursuing still and moving images when I discovered their creative similarities to music. Most people don’t experience these nuances because they’ve never had to. Dyslexia can be an obsession, but it helps me focus and get the most out of art. 

What advice do you have for people living and creating with dyslexia?

I believe it’s important to acknowledge what you can do well. Dyslexia has nothing to do with your intelligence. To use a driving analogy, it’s frustrating for anyone to be stuck in traffic or encounter roadblocks en route to your destination. You’re going to be angry, and you may even experience road rage if you’re running late for an appointment. This is what it feels like when you’re dyslexic. A negative trait of dyslexia can be paranoia, and, in this example, you’d start telling yourself, People will think I can’t drive, and that I’m stupid. I encourage you to acknowledge your frustration, but be brave. Don’t let living with dyslexia be the rest of your story. There are benefits of taking the longer route, and you should embrace this. Find your tribe of people who understand you and complement your skill set.

You started an art house collective called, Soul Labels. What is the inspiration behind this? 

Soul Labels curates and produces content across various media platforms, from film, fashion, and exhibitions to workshops and experimental A/V projects. It’s a mix between a record label and a museum, with underground artists at the helm. I believe that soul is about being true to yourself, and artists should be true to themselves. Anything in its full honesty is soulful, and I seek to create a space for artists to re-invent the way we engage with art.

We recently wrapped up Palm Wine Beats Live! Vol. 3 of 5, which takes my Nigerian mixtapes, which are unique in their cinematic feel and historical depth, and brings them to life for one day. Each volume is an attempt to explore a different period of Nigeria’s music from the viewpoint of its evolving diaspora.

My vision is for Soul Labels to become an auction house of sorts to help subculture artists break into the fine art world on their own terms. This could be accomplished through funding, sponsorships, and by issuing pieces of work regularly like a book, painting, song, or other commission-based work.

from 99U99U

Why Pride is Good

Why Pride is Good

It’s true that “hubristic pride” – when you feel pleased in your own abilities – can be harmful and indicative of an inflated ego. But “authentic pride,” which is the satisfaction and pleasure we take from the positive outcomes of our hard work and dedication, is an important, rewarding emotion that encourages persistence. And for creatives going through a tough patch, feeling a lack of pride can be a useful indicator that you’re taking the wrong approach. In extreme cases, it might mean it’s time for you to change strategies, or even to take a new direction entirely.

For a dramatic example, consider ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes who once ran 350 miles in one go, and another time ran 50 marathons in 50 days. This man has some serious motivation. But where did it first come from?

The impetus arrived on his 30th birthday when Karnazes was reflecting on his life and his career in sales – a promising path, but not one that gave him any feelings of pride. As University of British Columbia psychologist Jessica Tracy explains in her new book Take Pride, Why The Deadliest Sin Holds The Secret To Human Success, it was specifically this absence of pride that motivated Karnazes to become one of the most successful and inspirational long distance runners in the world. “Karnazes didn’t start running because he knew it would change his life, but because he wanted to feel something,” writes Tracy.

If you recently suffered a disappointment – perhaps a design pitch was rejected, or your latest artwork commission fell through – and are feeling a distinct lack of pride, try not to bury this emotional discomfort. Instead, use it to motivate yourself to make the changes you need to turn things around.

Alternatively, if what you’re doing and achieving doesn’t give you a warm glow of authentic pride, perhaps it’s time to rethink your work priorities and strategies. Indeed, we could all benefit from tuning into these feelings more. “We often can be going along and things seem good, but we’re missing this sense of achievement,” notes Tracy. “This sense of pride in ourselves, and becoming aware of that, is often what prompts us to change our behavior.”

Tracy recently demonstrated some of these motivating effects in a series of studies published with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the University of Rochester. For example, the researchers measured university students’ feelings of authentic pride after an exam, and they found that those who reported feeling low pride after a poor result (i.e., they reported feeling little sense of fulfillment or accomplishment) also tended to say they planned to change their study strategies, and they subsequently showed improvements to their performance in another exam several weeks later. The same improvements were not shown by poor-performing students who did not experience low pride.

It was a similar story when the researchers surveyed members of a running club after a race. Those who performed poorly, and who also reported feeling low pride afterwards, tended to say that they planned to change up their training regime, and they went on to achieve a better performance in their next race.

These results show how feelings of low pride act as a “barometer of achievement” that motivate us to change. But crucially, it is only if you take the time and effort to reflect on these feelings, or lack of them, that you will get to benefit from their motivational power.

One word of caution – if you’ve had a string of disappointments and you’re feeling low feelings of pride combined with low self-confidence, you risk your absence of pride slipping into shame. Shame, as Tracy explained, “… is feelings of ‘I can’t do anything. I’m not good at this. I’m not going to try to work hard because it’s just going to end up in failure’” – a state which is not at all motivating. Feeling low authentic pride, by contrast, “means you’re missing those feelings of competence and achievement and you’re trying to get those feelings back,” says Tracy.

If you’ve had a string of disappointments and you’re feeling low feelings of pride combined with low self-confidence, you risk your absence of pride slipping into shame

There’s a key distinction that’s important for determining whether you feel low pride or shame. It comes down to whether you interpret a disappointment as due to changeable issues, such as a lack of effort or the wrong strategy, versus it saying something about the kind of person you are. For instance, if your last design didn’t get much positive feedback and you interpret this as saying that you’re a poor designer with no talent, this is clearly demoralizing. On the other hand, what can be a powerful motivating force is when you feel a strong yearning to experience pride, rather than disappointment, and you recognize what you need to do to succeed next time.

So embrace pride. It is not vain or inappropriate to want to feel more proud of yourself for your dedication and commitment.

from 99U99U