Pulse People: Emmanuel Tsekpo – Head, Graphic Design

In this edition of Pulse People, we’re talking to Emmanuel Tsekpo, an interesting graphic design professional who works as Head, Graphic Design out of the Pulse Ghana office in Accra. Emmanuel takes us on an interesting journey from early days in senior high school in the Volta region of Ghana, where he first got introduced to design, to the more fast-paced Accra, the world of computers, Photoshop and graphic design dream jobs in the country’s top agencies. Emmanuel had always loved graphic design, and the tumultuous road to finding meaningful, sustainable graphic design work was not enough to stop him. 

Tell us a bit about your background:

Before I went to senior high school, I had a lot of interest in drawings. And funny enough I couldn’t draw. I still loved it though. When I got into senior high, I was a general science student. I told the vice principal that I would like to change to visual arts. The man of course was surprised and didn’t want me to change. In Ghana, after Junior High School, students are assessed and a course is assigned to them according to their aggregate score. So my dad came in. He has an art background; he is a land surveyor and an architect. He took me to the headmaster himself because he wanted me to switch to the visual arts. The headmaster also established the point that art is not of a lower value than science. The headmaster himself was an art inclined person, and his own son was in the arts. 

So yeah, at the end of the day, I was able to switch from general science to visual art. When I joined as a visual art student, my favourite subject was General Knowledge in Arts and Graphic Design. It helped me understand the principles and elements of design. My interest kept growing. I gained a background in all forms of art, from weaving, sculpture to textiles, etc. In graphic design class, the teacher would normally mention video editing and sound editing as part of the design. So after senior high school, I wanted to enroll in NAFTI (National Film And Television Institute). I applied and got the offer of admission, but I was required to have a laptop, and at the time, I could not afford one. I couldn’t also afford most of the other requirements, including the enrollment fee. So long story short, I could not attend NAFTI. I moved to Accra from the Volta region to stay with a friend who was a sound engineer. We both finished Senior High School together and wanted to get into NAFTI, but faced similar challenges. We kept exploring sounds and beats which gave me an impeccable taste in music, doing day jobs and so on, looking for a way to survive. 

My dad applied for teacher training for me (a 3-year College of education program that trains students with a modest stipend to study further to become teachers) and so I went to the interview, even if it was not what I wanted to do. Before I left Accra though, I got the chance to buy my first desktop, a 4GB RAM Pentium 4 desktop.

The training college was to train me as a teacher, to teach people in basic school. My house wasn’t that far from the school, so I’d routinely run back to the house and tinker with the design softwares I had installed on my desktop. Then I came across Photoshop, and it quickly became my main thing. That’s when I started developing my interest in professional graphic design. 

I was able to manage to pass my teacher training courses while still improving myself in graphic design. At some point, the government paid all the arrears of monthly allowances together. The money was huge so I quickly went to grab my first laptop with it, a Dell Inspiron. After the teacher training program was done, I was posted to a village as my first station of work. There was no power or internet in the village. One thing I learnt here was to design without internet access with limited resources. 

How did you start working in graphic design full time?

I taught for almost 2 years, and then decided to start a degree in IT and Education, so I had the chance to come to Accra more often. In Accra, I started networking with graphic designers, and I realized some of them are working for advertising agencies. And I started asking questions about it. It was the first time I realized that graphic designers could work as full-time staff and earn a good income. I wanted to go for it, but it was a risky thing to do at the time. The teaching job was a government job, which meant it was pretty much secure till your retirement. But I had to take this big risk and leave. Two of my graphic designer friends told me they worked at a place called Ringier (now Pulse). When they described their roles to me, it sounded like a place I wanted to work at as well, so I asked more questions about how much they earn. I had to be sure that it made sense to leave the more secure teaching job. I found out that the average salary was more than what the average teacher was earning at my level. That was all the confirmation I needed. I started looking for jobs at agencies. Because I was studying IT, I had more interest in UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design as it was just coming up at that time, around 2015, 2016. So I got into an agency to work as a part-time graphic designer and also help with web development and UI/UX design. I worked with them for 3 months, and I couldn’t manage the pressure with my teaching job and degree school at the same time. I left and focused on the degree and was only coming to Accra for that. 

How did you get into Pulse?

When I got to my final year, I spoke to my old friends who still worked at Ringier (now Pulse). One of them had become the head of graphic design by then. He told me there was an opportunity for someone to design for the team. I went for an interview to join the team as a designer for the marketing team, but I didn’t get in. I was so sad. I was tired of the teaching job already, and I really wanted to get into Ringier. A month later though, another opportunity came for a graphic designer in the Pulse Content team. Luckily for me, I got in. I met Moritz (Moritz Boullenger, currently Pulse MD, was MD of Pulse Ghana at the time), who went through my portfolio and thought it was good, and he asked me when I could start. I was so excited to begin that I said I could begin the next day. Lol. But he was kind enough to ask me to start the next Monday. 

It was my first time landing a full-time graphic design role where I had to be at the office all week. The struggle I had was fitting in. The dress code was relaxed and coming from a strict teaching job where you had to tuck in your shirt and generally be more formal, it was a bit of a struggle. Most of the girls that worked in agencies in Accra at the time were sort of bougie looking. They all had mixed or foreign backgrounds. Their lunch was very fancy. 

After some days working at Pulse, the Head of Video approached me and asked me to start designing for the Video team as well. And then my friend who was the Head of Graphics was also sharing some of his design tasks with me, so I was now designing for the Content team and the Video team. I didn’t realize how much work I was taking on. At a point, the Content and Marketing teams both wanted me to design on their teams. It got tough. It came to a time where the Head of Marketing eventually stole me away and then they assigned me some accounts. 

As I continued with the Marketing team, the work got really tough, around 2019. I was facing the most difficult time. I hadn’t finished paying my rent, and I didn’t even have enough money to commute. I was also working on big accounts at the office, e-commerce accounts that were running promotions (for which they would need quite a number of design deliverables) on a daily basis. 

I wanted to quit. I wrote my resignation and went to Moritz. I had already spotted other agencies looking for a designer, so I went for those interviews and had even negotiated salaries. But Pulse decided they wanted to keep me. They wanted to match what I was offered, and so they gave me an increment. That was when I knew I was never going back to teaching. So I improved and mastered my UI skills and some parts of motion graphics last year 2020. 

In this time, I got some other offers, but the thing with Pulse is, Pulse is more of a family. Anytime you need help, someone is there. And I knew from some of my friends from other agencies was nothing close to the kind of culture we have at Pulse, and the creative teams were exposed to gruelling hours. So while I was getting great offers, I knew I wanted to work in a place where I would be happy. I decided to forgo the offers that I got. I feel there is a family in Pulse. They are always there for you even if it’s not office related. And just after I decided to stay, they surprised me with the new position as the Head of Graphic Design, and it also came with some benefits as well. 

What does your current role look like?

With my current role, I oversee the growth of the designers that I manage, organize trainings for them, Oversee all design projects, from conception to delivery and also make sure that we are on-brand by giving creative direction and some corrections on their work, and also come up with content ideas and brainstorm with them about ideas that we want to pitch to clients and so forth. So yeah. Basically, managing the graphics team, work output and then training.

What’s a typical day at work for you?

It’s quite stressful, but the motivation is not to fail. The first thing I do in the morning is to start revisions and corrections for the work I did the previous day that has received feedback. And then I schedule time with the AMs  (Account Managers) I work with directly to talk about their accounts and feedback from clients. After that, in the afternoon, it’s lunchtime. I walk around, get some food and so on. Then back to the table. Design, design, design. I help, assist with creative direction sometimes, or help other designers do research and come up with mood boards, etc till the day ends. I also do some OVH (overhead) work where I create designs sometimes for internal use, say a Pulse t-shirt, mugs, notepads and ID cards for instance, or for events. 

What inspires you every day?

The goal is not to fail. What I do every day, maybe I read an article or watch a YouTube channel or do something new about design, something to keep me going and motivated. For motivation, we have our sources. We have Behance, Dribbble, Pinterest. Sometimes, it’s not related to what I’m doing, but it still helps me relax. I also get inspiration from looking at competitor brands sometimes, or the projects that some of my freelance designer friends are working on. I still have fun, which is graphic related, but not necessarily work. So yeah, that’s what keeps me going. 

What are your hobbies?

Well, I play video games a lot, especially Mortal Kombat, and then I do a little FIFA. I also swim a lot and watch lawn tennis, which I don’t actually play (Lol). But it’s part of the goal. Maybe I’ll eventually learn how to play it. I enjoy table tennis as well, but I don’t get to play it often.

I also go on trips with friends and some designer friends, just travel somewhere out of Accra for weekends or something. And I watch movies a lot, especially a lot of African movies on Netflix and Youtube. I really admire how the art of filmmaking is growing in Africa alongside the cinema culture.