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Study Design Abroad: Oyinkan Karunwi, Lagos to Shillington New York

Oyinkan Karunwi first developed her interest in design while studying law at the university. She dedicated her free time to designing posters for parties and events whenever friends needed some help. She continued her work in law for 3 years as a business advisor in Nigeria but still felt the creative itch—wanting design to be more than just a side hustle. After learning about Shillington from a family friend, she knew this would be the perfect opportunity to upskill and become a better designer. Since graduating, Oyinkan is back in Nigeria and founded the Aseda Design Agency specializing in brand strategy. She hopes to contribute to the growing design community and make an impact on creative literacy for upcoming Nigerian designers.

Read on to hear Oyinkan’s story, including her tips for students considering studying abroad in New York, insights into running her design studio and the process behind her favorite branding project for a restaurant in Lagos.

You have a background in law and worked as a business advisory associate at a firm before changing careers. At what moment did you decide to take the leap and study design?

It took me a while to see design as a viable career. I designed my first poster back at university in Nottingham for a friend’s party. After that, students started paying me to design posters for their parties and student union events. I couldn’t believe I was being paid to design. When I moved back to Nigeria, design became a hobby I could make some extra income from. I used YouTube videos to teach myself how to use some of the Adobe software and I made do with that at the time. But after 3 years working as a business advisory associate, I realized that the weekends and late nights I spent designing for clients brought me more joy and fulfillment and sometimes, even more income than my job as an associate. As a Christian, I started praying about the decision to leave law and take design seriously as a full-time career. I don’t believe in coincidences and around that time, a family friend told me about this amazing design course she had studied part-time in London called Shillington. Visits to Shillington’s blog became a daily escape for me in between writing legal opinions and preparing due diligence reports and so in November 2018, I wrote my parents a very formal email about my decision to leave law practice and take design seriously. That was the moment it all became real.

How did you learn about Shillington? What influenced your decision to study In New York compared to other Shillington campus cities?

A family friend who lives in London first told me about Shillington. After that, I read countless reviews, researched other design courses and stalked Linkedin pages to get more information. A major factor in my decision making was time. I initially considered plunging into a full-time 4-year BA program in Graphic Design, then I later looked into some 2 years and 1-year design programs. Shillington’s 3-month course actually seemed too good to be true at the time. The more I read the more convinced I was.

Having settled on Shillington, I started researching the campuses. I’d lived in London before and so, while the short course visa wasn’t available for me to the U.K, it wasn’t my first choice. With a completely new career path in sight, I also wanted to experience a new city.

Everyone I spoke to said that New York was a design capital and it would be an amazing experience. The visa process also seemed relatively straight-forward, so I decided to go for it.

Oyinkan magazine cover student project

What was your experience living and studying in New York? 

Living in New York was interesting. I’d had my ‘touristy’ New York experience about 10 years before and when I moved in for the course, I very quickly realized that New York has way more personality than the M&Ms store in Times Square!

I loved experiencing the different pockets of culture in the 5 boroughs and was very intentional about visiting all of them! Brooklyn became a fast favorite and being a massive foodie, one of my Brooklyn highlights was Smogasburg in Williamsburg. I also enjoyed visiting some iconic African-American landmarks in Harlem, kayaking near the Brooklyn bridge, picnics in Central and Prospect Parks, having some amazing (and super affordable) dim sum in Chinatown, walking the High Line and seeing the July 4th fireworks.

Study wise, a group of us Shillington students also organized a trip to a printing company, who’d come to Shillington to speak to us about the relationship between design and print. That was a really great learning experience as well.

A big part of my stay was also experiencing some of the amazing collections of art. There are so many affordable ways to experience art in New York, like pay-what-you-wish Friday nights at the Whitney and UNIQLO Free Fridays at the MoMA.

Any tips for other students considering studying abroad?

A few!

Do a lot of research into accommodation and reach out to other international students leading up to your stay—you never know who’s also looking for a roommate.

  • Accommodation in New York is quite expensive. Looking back I wish I’d done a bit more research and found someone to room with (that definitely brings down the cost).
  • Be intentional about experiencing your city. Shillington’s full-time course is intense (8am to 5pm; Monday to Friday) and you’ll definitely feel like staying in and resting after class and weekends—but you’re in a new city for 3 months only! You have to push yourself out of bed and be extremely deliberate about experiencing all the culture the city has to offer.
  • Ask the local students and teachers about everything! They know which places are over-hyped, how the transportation works (although this didn’t rescue me from the MTA) and where to get the best food (shout out to Shillington New York teacher Alan Barba and my fellow Shillumni Shi-Hyun Moon for the Los Tacos recommendation!).

What was your favorite student brief? Tell us about the process and the final outcome.

For the campaign brief, I wanted to pick a project that would involve using design to portray my home country Nigeria in a positive light. Having done some research, I decided to design a campaign around a showcase of luxury textiles, basketry and leather made by artisans in Nigeria.

The campaign was called, One of One, which was a way of taking the handmade and unique characteristics of locally made products—which can be seen as flaws—and turning them into identifiers of luxury. Buyers are assured that any purchase would be one of a kind, one of one.

The campaign involved a lot of research around the process of making luxury textiles, basketry and leather. I loved that I was able to learn about the skills and heritage of the century-old processes of tanning, weaving and dyeing.

Part of the visual elements for the campaign were hand-painted symbols representing each process, as well as some traditional symbols found in Yoruba textiles. When I was much younger, I was strongly encouraged to drop art as a subject in school and focus on social sciences to boost my grades. I remember sneaking into an art class and wishing I was a more talented painter. My experience in traditional education has always made me wary of picking up paintbrushes; so being encouraged by our class teacher, Alan Barba to try out some handmade designs as part of the campaign project—and having it turn out so well—really felt like a big moment to me.

As part of the campaign I also designed posters, a website, shopping bags and the gallery/runway spaces.

How did the design course build your skillset and give you the confidence to start your own agency, Aseda Design?

I had been freelancing as Aseda Design from December 2017; and while it had been going ok, I was always so nervous about getting calls for new design work. I would feel a huge lump in my throat whenever I got paid upfront to design anything. I was never sure that ‘inspiration’ would strike before the deadline!

The biggest thing Shillington did for me was teach me about creative process and the discipline of design. I learnt that inspiration doesn’t happen accidentally.

There is actually a method to the madness, there is a place for research, there are methods of idea generation and if I just trust the design process, I’ll end up with a great concept in the end. When I got back to Nigeria, I felt ready to take on any brief.

Tell us about the brand identity project for the Nigerian restaurant, Atmosphère.

Atmosphère is a rooftop bar and restaurant that has recently opened in a mixed residential/commercial neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria. It boasts the longest bar in Lagos and has a really interesting menu curated by a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef.

I was approached by one of the owners—who had seen the work I’d done for his sister’s company—and was asked to design the logo some months before I left for Shillington. We had a few conversations around the target demographic and what makes Atmosphère unique. It became clear that they wanted to offer really great quality at an accessible price. The bar/restaurant is on the rooftop of a mall, so the potential customer base is wide, ranging from families of 4 for Sunday brunch, to millennials on a fun Friday night out. The brand needed to reflect quality without alienating potential customers.

I designed the logo around the idea of ‘access’—bridging the gap between quality and affordability. I drew inspiration from ornately designed bows of antique skeleton keys to design the logomark and I kept the logo font simple and approachable.

Atmosphere logo for restaurant

After Shillington, I had the opportunity to work with Atmosphère again. They had just finalized their new menu and needed menu and social media template designs. I was able to expand on the brand’s concept of access and designed the menu using visual queues from the prohibition era. I made custom illustrations of menu items and a floral illustration to accompany the brand across print and digital communications.

It was really interesting working on the logo before Shillington and then having the opportunity to build on the brand identity post-Shillington. I felt very grateful to have been a part of building the Atmosphère brand.

Atmosphere restaurant menu Atmosphere restaurant menu

Restaurant branding social media

What has been your experience running your studio? Any interesting projects planned ahead?

My experience has been just putting one foot in front of the other! I wear multiple hats: design, strategy, communications, drafting my own design services agreements (thank you law school), wrapping my head around the accounts, networking, building client relationships and planning for future business development.

I love every second of it!

I have been really fortunate to have built good relationships with clients and they have been my number one advocates. Most of the work I have had the opportunity to do has been referral based and I just feel extremely grateful for that.

I don’t have as much time as I’d like to learn and experiment with new types of design, but I try to adopt Google’s 80/20 formula and dedicate one day a week to personal projects.

I am extremely excited to be handling the rebranding of one of my favorite casual dining restaurants in Lagos. I actually celebrated my 26th birthday there so it feels really special. They have engaged an interior decorator and are completely re-doing their space and I’ve been given the opportunity to create the brand end-to-end (logo, menu, take away bags, social media). I like the creative freedom of being able to design all aspects of a brand identity and I am a big fan of their food! So, it should be an interesting project to work on.

What creatives are you currently inspired by?

A couple of design studios really inspire me right now: I love the simplicity and minimalism of SDCO Partners and Kati Forner Design. I’m also a fan of the bold use of color at Hey Studio in Barcelona.

I love art and I am inspired by several contemporary African artists. At the moment, I am loving the bold use of color from Dennis OsabdeSoji Adesina and Aboudia.

While I wouldn’t typically go for their style, Jessica Walsh’s new studio really inspires me to go to that weird place and see what happens.

What advice can you offer to designers starting out?

I advise designers to be kinder to themselves, to take things at their own pace and to keep learning.

There’s a lot of noise on social media and in the design world in general. I sometimes find myself getting into the dark hole of ‘I’m not good enough’ because I am comparing my work to designers that have been in the game for 10 years and have really grown into their craft.

I am just starting on my design journey and I find that being intentional about what space I want to occupy in design in 5, 10 and 20 years helps me cut through a lot of the noise and focus on what I need to learn and how I can actually grow as a designer.

Career conceirge branding

What’s on the horizon for you?

Hopefully lots of exciting work! Nigerians are really developing an appetite for good design and it is exciting to be part of that cultural shift.

In the future, I want to be a more active part of this growing community of designers that are changing the narrative of African design. I’m also trying to figure out how I can pay it forward by investing in the creative literacy of the next generation of Nigerian designers.

Anything else you wish to share? Surprise us!

For anyone wondering, my studio name àsèdá means ‘the person that creates’ in my mother tongue Yoruba. Its pronounced ‘ah-sh-eh-da’.

Big thanks to Oyinkan for sharing her Shillington story! Be sure to check out her website and Instagram.

Would you like to study abroad at Shillington? Check out your visa options and read stories from other students who studied abroad.

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