A thoughtful chat, and a wade through Danikqwa Rambert's portfolio was more than enough to draw me into Danikqwa's work. The Rhode Island-based designer was open and straight-forward, and her pieces offer up a unique sensibility for texture, color, and an ability to navigate complicated content. I can't wait to see more of her serene and poised design work.
What got you interested in design as a career?
As a type-A, over preparer, I decided on graphic design as a potential career path when I was a freshman in high school. Of course at the time I had no idea what this meant beyond doing “art” with computers, or something like that. It wasn’t until I attended Carnegie Mellon University’s pre-college design program after my sophomore year that I gained any understanding of what “design” actually was. There I learned about industrial design, graphic design, and photography. For the first time, I felt like the way I thought made sense and could be applied to something. That was a truly life changing experience.
I’ve chosen design as a career because it allows me to express the fullness of myself in a way I don’t think I would be able to any other way. I love thinking of business strategy, and simplifying a company’s many facets into a unified system. At the same time, I have a deep love for craft, fine art, and making things with my hands. Before the pre-college program, I didn’t know how these two “sides” of myself could work in tandem.
I'm really drawn to your 100 Black Lives project. Can you walk me through the way that got started?
Some background behind the piece: Studio Rainwater, the firm I work at, is part of a collaborative co-working space called The Design Office. The office is made up of small businesses and independent freelancers, typically those who work in design/design-adjacent industries. One thing that makes the Design Office great is that it’s an incubator for experimentation. Even though everyone has client work, members collectively hold each other accountable to pursue personal work. We decided to put on a one-night show, Un-commissioned, as a place to feature non-client projects (and give us all a deadline to work towards).
Originally, we attempted to follow the theme “digital vs. physical.” We ended up not sticking to a theme, but it did serve as the starting point for my piece. The summer of 2016 was when Philando Castille and Alton Sterling were murdered, and not long after the shootings in Dallas took place. I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to somehow commemorate the victims of police brutality by showing in some small way these people were more than just (digital) hashtags.
My initial goal was to make it less about their death and more about their individual lives. As I researched, it became increasingly difficult to find a substantial amount of information about each person. So, I pivoted my idea and simplified.
The end result was a paper and thread installation of of 100 4” x 4” cards. One side showed a title that the viewer could identify with (Mother, Son, Daughter, Father, Student, etc.) and the other side listed a victim’s name, age, murder, and date of death. For the Un-commissioned show I nailed a T-pin into the wall, and hung each card by a red thread. It took about 6 hours to hang.
Edited by Alicia DeWitt
Since that project showed in a gallery, how do you think fine art and graphic design influence each other?
Studio Rainwater created the identity and branding for the show, and worked with Work-Shop Design Studio to build the website. In a very literal sense, I think graphic design has the ability to set the tone of the show, and help build anticipation before the show even opens.
I have long admired the work of Candy Chang and much of her work blends fine art and graphic design. She uses public spaces to show her art and communicate a message at scale. Creating this interactive piece very much felt like a nod to the kind of work she does, and it was exhilarating to see how different people interpreted the piece.
My good friend, Amanda Lawler, said it best by saying “design fulfills a need to communicate and art fulfills a need to express.” I think that’s spot on. Graphic design is often commercialized and monitored, built out of a need to communicate to a large audience. Fine art, usually a personal practice, stems from an individual desire to express.
Do you think your experience in web design has influenced the way you developed the interactivity of that piece?
Most definitely. I have always been particular keen on usability and experience. In college I first majored in Industrial Design. Industrial design and web design taught me to think holistically and to consider how people engage with their physical/digital surroundings.
At Un-commissioned, we didn’t put a note on how to use the piece, we just let it organically happen. I was afraid people wouldn’t understand, but people intuitively figured it out. Once one person flipped over a card, others felt comfortable touching the piece, and conversations started from there.
Outside of current events, how do you look for inspiration when you make work? Who/what have been the biggest influencers in your overall design practice?
When looking for inspiration, I usually start by doing what I assume most others do which is just look around the internet and bookmark whatever is intriguing. Some of my favorite sites to browse are Core77, Awwwards, and even Instagram for people doing cool things. As I mentioned already, I am a big fan of Candy Chang. Kehinde Wiley is another of my favorite artists.
I’m trying to find more organic sources for inspiration these days. I find that sometimes the best way to get inspired is to step away from “design” all together. I try not to get sucked into my phone or computer, though that is a challenge.
My (maternal) grandmother is one of my biggest influencers. She is an artist and continues to work as a graphic designer for a publishing company. In everything she does, she approaches the task at hand with an “I can do that” attitude and has taught me to continuously seek out learning and always be open to new things. I strive to embrace this way of thinking in my own design practice. Just because I haven’t done something before doesn’t mean I can’t try it now.
“I wanted to somehow commemorate the victims of police brutality by showing in some small way these people were more than just hashtags.”
When we first talked, you mentioned having to take a break in your design education during college to find work. Do you think that's changed the way you look at the design world?
Life is funny—having to take a break from school was not in the plan I’d written for my-then-18-year-old-self, but that time off granted me a foundational design education at Favor Design Communications I could never have gained in a classroom environment. Again I had an opportunity to learn what design “really” was. That studio environment served as a training ground and further affirmed my desire to be a designer. Once I did get back into school I took my classes that much more seriously because I knew what I wanted to work towards.
Through school, I made an effort to seek out internship opportunities outside of what was required. This gave me a chance to experience agency life at various types of firms. By working in these different studios I learned that there is no one way to get into the field and there is no one way to interpret or practice design. Everyone approaches it differently.
Have you found inclusion or diversity in perspective to be important when working in a design team?
As a designer, I feel it is my responsibility to be aware of my actions and be mindful of the things that others involved in a project might overlook. I am sensitive to the way under-represented minorities are displayed in media, and I recognize that as a designer I have influence and power, even in seemingly small ways, to change that landscape. For example, one small way I exercise this power is to make sure photographs in a spread feature under-represented minorities, particularly in spaces those individuals aren’t often seen.
Internally, it is important to work with people from different backgrounds and experiences because often times the people we are serving and the audience we are trying to reach is more diverse than we think. Everyone brings a unique perspective and has insight to things based on their own experiences. There have been so many studies about how diversity and inclusion make organizations and teams stronger. I am ready for this industry to be more accessible.
What do you hope to add to the design world that is unique to you?
I am a mixed race woman named Danikqwa. I have often felt like a square peg in a round hole, and if it wasn’t one thing that made me felt different from the norm, there was always another. As cliché as it sounds, I hope that me simply being me encourages other aspiring designers, particularly other women of color, to embrace who they are and know that they are welcome in these spaces.
What's in your margins?
I find making space to work with my hands, away from technology, is imperative to my creative fuel. I started Heart & Soul PVD, my online shop, as a place to house personal work and side projects. For now, that comes in the form of hand embroidery. Embroidery can take a long time and sometimes I end up with a piece that I hate. In moments like that my grandmother would say, “There’s no such thing as bad work. Just an opportunity to practice.”