Isioma Iyamah

April 17, 2019

The first time I saw Isioma, she was dancing at a party, all grace and long limbs. Only a handful of people were letting loose in a room otherwise crowded with stylish people standing still. Every few minutes, a different hip person would break through the wall of partygoers encircling the dance floor to shriek hello and enfold Isioma in a hug. They would shimmy and shake together, then the interloper would melt back into the throng. The encounter repeated again and again over the course of five, ten, fifteen songs. I felt like I was watching a David Attenborough nature documentary in which a beautiful bird is approached by prospective, awestruck mates who dance and preen, vying for attention.

The scene was captivating. Eventually I too danced myself over to make an introduction. Isioma was sweet and kind; we twirled together, shouting over the bass and laughing. I would come to learn that an integral part of Isioma’s charm is how she treats everyone she meets like an old friend. After a while, I spun away and lost track of her as more and more people finally began to dance. The image of her spinning and twisting, joyous and buoyant in a room full of kids too cool for school, stuck with me. Who was she? The answer, when I found it, was surprising, even by New York standards of eclecticism.

Isioma was born in California to Nigerian parents and lived all over the world during an itinerant childhood. She came back to the US for college to study neurobiology at Berkeley, then got her MFA in Products of Design at SVA in New York. Somehow, Isioma makes the commingling of those disparate fields seem natural and inevitable. By synthesizing what she learned in each, she has built a creative philosophy that addresses everyday problems (social, political, and aesthetic) with curiosity, empathy, and imagination. Technically, Isioma works in advertising and marketing, but in my mind she is a storyteller and artist first. It is hard to picture her working in an office, though she does, as a creative on the branding side of VICE — when I think of her, it is on that original dance floor, bathed in neon light.

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On education and inspiration

I went to international school in Switzerland and there we had the IB program. For my IB highers, I was in English, Biology, and Chemistry. I have very strict Nigerian parents, particularly my mom, and first-generation American kids from Nigerian parents typically do medicine or business, something that would make you money. I really didn’t like that, so I took all these sciences that I was really interested in.

I was born in California but we only stayed until I was one and a half and then we lived abroad.[For college my dad was like: ‘You should go to UC, one of the UCs, because we have California residency and it will be cheaper.’ I feel like Berkeley was a good place for me. It was really weird – like all the freaks were there and you could experiment. It was definitely formative for me.

I chose to study molecular and cell biology; there are different routes therein and I chose the neurobiology path. I was initially pre-med at Berkeley, just doing general bio, but then I decided to specialize.

Did that program involve philosophy or theory classes or was it mostly mechanical nuts and bolts, how the brain works?

There was cognitive science but not as much philosophy. That would have been really nice. I thought I would work in a hospital, then that changed to maybe working in a lab, doing research. My mom had a nervous breakdown when I was younger and so that’s actually why mental illness and the way your cells speak to each other and how that defines the way we interact with the world around us interested me.

You were interested in figuring people out and mental health?

Because of my mom. Still haven’t figured it out.

Did you apply for grad school right out of undergrad?

No.

What did you do in between?

I worked at a lab, like a little side thing at the lab. I also worked at a cafe.

Just figuring out what you wanted to do, buying time?

Yeah. I was in the Bay for that and then it became too easy to live there.

Is it cheap?

It was! Now it’s like twice as expensive as New York. I was living in Oakland and working in Berkeley and SF. I needed a little kick, which is why I moved here.

Did you give yourself that kick?

Mhmm.

That’s good, some people never figure out the kick.

After Berkeley, I moved to New York and began to think about applying to Clinical Psychology graduate programs. I think I was just going through the motions, having set myself down what I believed was this inevitable path. Having just arrived, I took over a friend's research position at SVA. Through exposure to the school and its various programs, I discovered this whole new creative world that I had hitherto left at the fringes of my life — in favor of science and 'practicality.' I found this hybrid product/industrial design Masters program and decided to apply, despite it being outside my lane. Something that really attracted me to the program at SVA was that it was interdisciplinary but also had a really research-focused aspect to it. It was a lot more macro, behavioral.

Was the program social justice-minded? Did it emphasize community? Based on your thesis presentation video, your own work seemed very engaged with those ideas.

I think every single project had some element of social justice, some more than others … A lot of projects were about enabling people, some were super, super artistic and exploratory and mine – I’m really fascinated by human behavior. All of our instructors come from different fields of design, some of them are more experiential, some are more graphic, others are hardcore industrial: make a chair, or make a tool, etc. etc. So all of those elements factored into every little project. And then we all have to take systems thinking and processes courses.

What’s that?

Systems thinking was super fundamental to every project we undertook and just puts a name to what most of us already do to make sense of our world – i.e., describes the interconnected nature of things that may seem individual at the micro-level, but after zooming out are in fact part of a complex array of causal relationships and feedback loops. One vague example could be how climate change might influence ecosystems, which might have downstream effects on agriculture, which in turn might influence trade, migration, etc. Systems thinking implies that various components of a system interact with one another towards a particular result, with individual levers or elements yielding a different, overall result – either stabilizing, or disrupting the ecosystem. A lot of fun diagrams (aka systems maps) were drawn.

There’s a lot of crossover, more and more, between hard sciences and more applicable design. As it should be, I guess. It’s been so siloed, academia. Now people are finding new places for it to live and be useful for more people.

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When I was listening to your thesis project presentation, I noticed that you touch on the importance of empathy a lot. I was wondering if that was a fixation of yours – beyond the normal human desire or capacity for empathy – before you got to school or was that interest sparked in a particular class?

Growing up in so many different cultures and usually being an outsider because you’re new to those cultures, you definitely see what empathy for another person can do. I’ve always been so confused by the lack of empathy we show each other. That usually, as I’ve seen or as I’ve read, comes with an increase in the size of a civilization. The less connected you are to another person, the less you care about them, or the easier it is to dismiss them.

I don’t know how to phrase this in a way that doesn’t sound weird but I have, since I was young, this overactive sense of guilt when it comes to other people and how I treat others. I’m always trying to put myself into other people’s shoes, for better or for worse. I think it’s just something that’s a part of me. There’s also this aspect of: I want to know what you’re thinking and why – like one of my thesis projects, the one where you listen in on other people’s homes, is super voyeuristic. And then, also: I want to know what you’re thinking and why so I might best treat you or approach you. There’s a selfish aspect to that.

On her commercial work and the next phase of her career

The transition from the academic space to the commercial space was difficult at first. I went from living in this safe testing ground for ideas, this unconstrained and inherently individualistic space, to retrofitting my explorative creative energies into something that could ostensibly sell and appeal to more people than myself and a few. My creative was at first too weird and too niche, but as I learned more about the ecosystems for which I was creating, I got better at speaking “commercial.”

A few years out of grad school, I ruminate on ideas that have to do with patterns of behavior and identity within social spaces, and how those patterns evolve as different communities brush up against each other. As an undergrad, my favorite classes focused on how cellular interactions and expression could be modified by the activity on the molecular level of different genes. So, patterns of behavior mediated by various internal or external levers. Although at VICE I’m a “creative” and not specifically designated as a strategist, my day job requires me to have an understanding of the patterns governing how we interact with the communities around us, who and what we align ourselves with, in order to develop the most appropriate activations and content. Themes in my academic work and day job are pretty connected, I would say, but now I work less in-depth, as a lot of those insights have to be generated quickly, even ready-made. In order to come up with concepts you do have to have an understanding of the audience you’re creating for. What does this mean to them? How will it affect them? Will it appeal? Will it sell?

I imagine that the MFA feels more directly related to the work you do now, but do you feel like each academic experience was a layer you needed to work through?

I definitely feel like I needed to do every single thing that I have done. I have built on my skill set and built on me as a person, each experience. I do wonder if my identity was just always in flux, like everyone’s is. I think the whole point of me is to do all of these things, instead of one thing.

Are you the only person who comes with an MFA in design to your position? What’s your team like?

I’m not the only one. There are some people who come straight from undergrad. But there’s a good half of us who are from communications or design, or a classic communications background, like sociology and psychology of that. No one is very straight-advertising.

I’ve been at Vice for maybe 2 ½ years. I’m not really sure advertising is where I need to be. I think creating for myself is the next step, in some way, even if I work full-time at some agency, or a creative studio – as a creative director or sliding more into the director side. I’m hoping to develop more of an artistic practice.

Is that even more taboo as the child of Nigerian parents?

I think I can do whatever I want now. [Laughs] I’ve reached a stage where I’m like, I should be happy!

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Does that come with age?

I think it’s age but I’ve also had this building, I wouldn’t say anxiety, but this “I need to make something” tension that has been itching away at me since I started making work for other people. I miss it. I used to paint all the time, paint and draw. I took a few art practice classes at Berkeley but it wasn’t quite right so I would just paint by myself. It fulfills something in me. It’s really scary to think about doing just that on its own. While I like to explore, I do need some consistency in my work. So if I’m freelancing, I need to know I’m going to have an income, otherwise I just get paralyzed. I think because – it’s pretty personal – family stuff is so unstable, and has been for a few years, recently I’ve begun to realize that I do need something I can put myself in that I can control so that I feel safe to explore. Or maybe not, maybe I just thought myself into this box.

I’m working on a short film right now, ideating, building a deck for it. It’s a reflection on identity, how we connect with each other, and this inherent loneliness that everyone has. Even if I do go away from advertising, the content that I create or whatever I make is still going to be grounded in connection.

I’m happy at the end of the day that I’ve explored a lot of things and I have an ability to navigate them well enough to succeed. But I think at this point I’m like okay, what am I doing? Where is this going? Who am I? The next step in my creative life is seeing through projects that are initiated by me, not by any brand or publisher. There’s something both freeing and terrifying about that. Within branded work there are constraints, which occasionally chafe, but also act as a guide. You color within the lines. But I’m ready for more of myself now. At the moment, my creative output and ideas are pretty multimedia: painting, drawing and eventually, film. My painting and drawing are very much for me, satisfying this psychological, aesthetic-driven yearning to mark-make, whereas my ideas for films revolve around capturing and translating universal preoccupations like love, fear, or loneliness.

I think my personal work is a mix of introspective and outward-facing, dealing as they do with both my feelings and the interwoven systems that make up the outside world. I’m someone who tends towards guilt very easily, and I think for me it acts as an impeding factor to my productivity, rather than a motivating one. For me guilt comes from setting somewhat unreasonable standards for myself, biting off more than I can chew, and at the same time crippling myself with simpler tasks — is this perfectionism? In order to move forward, I’ll need to learn how to be okay with being ‘okay’.

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On modeling

[Since moving to New York, Isioma has occasionally modeled for brands like Sandy Liang and Datura and appeared in magazines. She is not signed to an agency.] Does your experience modeling raise any questions for you in terms of the topics you’ve studied: communication, connectivity, and representation? Does that side hustle intersect with things that you are thinking about in your design work?

Not with design specifically but modeling makes me think about representation. I did think about being an “actual” model, a long time ago. I was visiting New York and I straightened my hair. I had this whole internal conflict because that’s what the landscape demanded. If I showed up with an afro or braids, people would ask: “What are you doing?”

When I started parity and diversity within the industry were abysmal. Now it’s marginally better?

There’s a little bit of a renaissance, a lot of women being included, people who are all sorts of genders. Representation is off the charts but at the same time there are so many brands that still have their very svelte, Scandinavian girl with the no eyebrows aesthetic. Runway is just that. Times are changing? Anyway, I’m happy that people are interested in my look. I think we are seeing more personality-diversity than looks-diversity. How do you feel?

I agree but I’m always skeptical that it could be just a trend. It doesn’t seem like everyone woke up suddenly and had a conscience.

Like “Oh, that’s how you sell things now!”

It must be interesting, or at least provide another angle, as you work in advertising, to have that insider perspective.

I think, yes, it is actually, especially with Vice, with its very white male problems. In a lot of the talent briefs that are being sent out, or in the options for different spots, there’s a danger of falling back, of being the white dude. I think we have, running the shows from behind – especially as a woman of color or in terms of any of our queer coworkers that we have – we have a say in the image that gets projected. With casting we try to make sure that the narrative and the story that we tell is not just about the monoculture. There are some people pushing the world forward.