Creative Lives — Experience designer Samuel Mensah on working for the ‘holy grail’ of companies, McKinsey

Posted 26 September 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

As a senior experience designer at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Samuel Mensah’s role sees him building online platforms together with high-level executives. Born in Ghana and bred in Peckham, today, Samuel's work takes him around the world, and at the time of writing, Samuel is currently working from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and leading the design of a mobile app for millennials. Explaining how his role is for a “very specific type of designer”, at McKinsey, a focus on entrepreneurial skills and problem-solving is matched with a desire to master craft in design. From analysing feedback to having to “explain design decisions to people in suits”, for Samuel, even the most mundane of tasks can be turned into opportunities for personal growth. Maintaining a healthy mix of capitalistic and philanthropic side projects, Samuel fills us in on the path that led him to working at McKinsey; the evolution of his non-profit, Youth Worldwide, and the power of harnessing your network. 

Samuel Mensah-Bonsu

Job Title

Senior Experience Designer, Digital McKinsey (2017–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Designer, AKQA (2013–2016)
Senior Designer, Native Design (2016–2017)

Education

Graphic and Media Design, London College of Communication (2011–2013)

Website
Social Media

Samuel

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
I feel I have a very unique job with unique responsibilities as a designer. Since the firm I work for is a consultancy, we are trained as consultants firsts and designers second. It’s an environment that attracts a very specific type of designer. As it’s a very business and corporate-centric place, it can be quite intimidating and challenging. There’s literally no place like it.

Within this, there are numerous benchmarks that we have to hit. It’s a factory of leaders and they want to ensure that they are moulding effective leaders to position in front of clients. We are also responsible for bringing an entrepreneurial spirit.

What does a typical working day look like? 
I’m writing this from Riyadh, Saudi where I’m on my latest project. Apart from the fact that we work on Sundays here, the days are quite typical in terms of daily structure and duties. Working hours (on a good day) can be from 9am to 6.30pm and the time is usually split between doing stand-up [meetings], calls, product reviews with clients, workshops, demos and above all, getting to sit down and do some proper designing! 

“I actually had this job on my vision board as an aim for the future.”

How did you land your current job?
I actually had this job on my vision board as an aim for the future. In March of last year, my best friend saw a design position opening posted by their company recruiter on LinkedIn. Knowing that McKinsey was the holy grail of companies in my eyes, he immediately connected us and conversation began from there. In my mind, I didn’t see it as a realistic possibility yet.

After my first phone interview with the recruiter, Annette, I was pumped and ready to do whatever it took to secure the position. I then went on to have four more interviews with other senior designers, design directors, VPs and senior partners. All of which are now colleagues of mine that I hold dear.

Overall I believe what gave me the edge was simply my passion when it came to using design as a platform to solve problems and improve humanity.

Work for Virgin

Work for Virgin

How collaborative is your role? 
My role allows me to collaborate and work directly with individuals at C-suite levels [high-level executives with titles beginning with “chief”]. It’s refreshing being able to develop and build platforms directly with client leadership and to have that much visibility on large, transformative projects.

We’re also afforded the luxury of collaborating with experts from various technical backgrounds. From agile coaches, architects, product owners, business analysts and developers.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I’m beginning to understand that some aspects of my job that were once mundane, can actually be the most opportunistic aspects of it to grow and become better. From receiving feedback from superiors, or having to explain design decisions to people in suits, if exploited correctly, these take-ups can actually build your network in ways that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The nature of my job does require a bit more “homework” than typical but it’s encouraged me to be more disciplined, because I’ve seen how invaluable time is. Sometimes things can get intense but I believe the balance is definitely there, if you’re savvy enough to manifest it.

Work for Nike

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
Probably the project I’m currently working on now in Saudi. We are developing a mobile app for millennials and I’m leading the visual, UI and brand design of the project. I’m unable to divulge the details of the project, but the fact that we are here in a pivotal time for women’s rights and amidst a cultural evolution has been really exciting. It’s a super-enriching process to be a part of and the weight of what we’re building isn’t really sinking in yet until it’s all done and released into the real world.

What skills are essential to your job?
Mastering craft in design are foundational. Then there is being extremely knowledgeable in your field, client counselling, having superb communication skills, honing your entrepreneurial skills and being a world class problem solver.

YWW: The Museum of Youth

YWW: The Museum of Youth

YWW: The Museum of Youth

Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?   
I try to maintain a few that range from capitalistic reasons to more philanthropic initiatives, too. I like to keep that healthy balance because I believe in a purpose to serve others with my creativity and ideas. I’m planning to re-release my old fonts, as well as toying with the idea of writing a book or guide for fellow creatives.

I’m actually wrapping up a book written by these two young creative brothers I’m mentoring, Simon and Sean Dendere. It’s titled Kids With Ideas and is pretty much a summary of their creative experiences and thoughts in life thus far, as well as what’s to come. They have great potential and I thought it was imperative for them to tell their story on paper. 

“I believe in a purpose to serve others with my creativity and ideas.”

What tools do you use most for your work?  
Things have changed drastically since my days in advertising. I’ve gone from predominantly using Photoshop as my main tool to now using Sketch and other interaction and prototyping tools. Principle, Framer, Figma, Invision, the list goes on.

Because of the nomadic nature of our work we design everything on MacBooks, gone are the days of iMacs. I sketch with a pen and pad when I need to illustrate things, but when it comes to writing notes I write everything on my phone. I lose notebooks all the time, but this way it’s forever saved in the cloud. I can pull up a crucial note I wrote in 2014 in a matter of seconds. That to me is more convenient than digging through crates of notebooks. I wrote this entire interview in the notes app on my phone!

The YWW team

Can you tell us a little about Youth Worldwide?
Youth Worldwide has been through many stages, from being a clothing label to a design collective to an agency and startup teaching platform. Where it stands now is more of a non-profit that aims to support and nurture emerging creatives through various means such as education, collaboration and showcasing.

We recently did a collaboration with my old university, London College of Communication, which is part of UAL. We collaborated with my former course tutor to develop a brief for the third year BA Graphic and Media Design students (the exact course I took). The brief was to reinvent what they believe YWW could be, whilst maintaining our pillars and a viable and sustainable business model. They were graded on the execution for this and was a significant aspect of their final grade for their degrees, which was monumental. The added incentive was that the best idea would have the potential to be the new real direction for YWW. 

Does this impact your work at McKinsey? 
It’s taught me to always see the business aspect of how your creativity can or will be utilised. It’s strengthened that part of the brain that’s concerned with the less creative tasks and the more functional pragmatic things.

It’s also made me realise how important it is to leverage your network. McKinsey is based on a model of partnership and networks, so that’s the method everyone uses to rise up the ranks. Understanding the power of having reputable people who back you and your ideas are just as – if not more – important than the idea itself. 

YWW: The Museum of Youth

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I always knew I’d be creative in some way. In my mid-teens, I became very passionate about the idea of being a doctor, but got to the end of my GCSEs and realised my grades for my creative subjects were better. Moreover, I realised I could change the world more by being a creative.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
It was actually my older brother who inspired me to get creative and draw and paint. He used to come from college with large paintings of various things, from landscapes to portraits of Tupac and it would inspire me so much to do the same.

I’ve always had pride in the fact that I was raised in Peckham, to the point that I used to mention it on some of my early graphics that I published online

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
My biggest challenge has been navigating the workplace and understanding that it’s deeper than talent. 

“I knew that the road would be one of a lot of hard work. You definitely have to be savvy, you can’t just rely on your talent.”

Work for Nike, created while at AKQA

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
I’m lucky and blessed to say that this is exactly what I always dreamt I would be doing. Even when I was 16 and had no clue what the future held, I knew I wanted it to look and feel like this; traveling the world, creating impactful design and being able to inspire and encourage young creatives to do the same too. 

I wouldn’t say there have been any misconceptions as such, I knew that the road would be one of a lot of hard work. You definitely have to be savvy, you can’t just rely on your talent. You have to be someone people enjoy working with and someone that believes passionately in their ideas. I’m always amazed when I see all the things I didn’t think were possible come to fruition. It gives me so much hope for the future, and how far we can really take this thing called creativity. 

Early work for the BFI

Early work for the BFI

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
My goal is to break away from the the traditional system of a nine-to-five job. To stand on my own and provide for myself using my various skills and ideas. I’m not saying that I’m totally done with the corporate world forever – but I know that the best time to orchestrate my various ideas is whilst I’m still young, time-rich and with relatively minimal responsibilities.

Could you do this job forever?
No, you shouldn’t do any one job forever. Life is definitely too short for that.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
At McKinsey we are groomed to become chief design officers and heads of design at future organisations. We are poised to aim for the highest possible design positions available in agencies and companies alike.

Alternatively, someone with my specific ambition and drive will most likely move on to initiate their own organisation and execute their own ideas that will create a legacy.

YWW: The Museum of Youth

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same kind of work?
Think very hard about what you want. Think very hard about what your purpose as a creative is. And make the most fun out of it. Life is short. Strive for greatness but remember to take care of yourself.

Respect to all the creatives that have made something out of nothing. Those that have literally turned a spark of an idea into something they can not only feed their family with, but also something that actually improves people’s lives.

We are truly the lucky ones. The world is ours.

Posted 26 September 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Digital
Mentions: Samuel Mensah, McKinsey & Company, AKQA
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