Product Designer at McAfee
Deborah
Okaka

Debbie Okaka is a designer who's passionate about people, products, and the systems they exist in. She lives and works in Toronto where she's learning to take it one day at a time.

Toronto, Canada • November 18, 2022

What led you into design?

As a child, I loved building things. A lot of the toys my parents bought me involved putting things together. So naturally, I fell in love with design, which to me as a child only meant one thing —Architecture. I thought design had to be buildings or sculptures or just physical things. I moved to Canada from Nigeria at 16 with one goal in mind, become an Architect. I didn’t get in to Architecture school, and I sort of had an early life identity crisis. The University of Waterloo had offered me another program, Global Business and Digital Arts —it was a new design program they had developed and as you can expect from a new design program unsure of what it wanted to be, it was all over the place —we had courses ranging from visual design, to economics, statistics, and programming. I’m grateful for it all: the mess, the random courses thrown together, the risk of doing something new. All of it shaped who I’ve become as a designer, and what I think about the purpose of design in the world.

Very early in the program, we had an assignment with a very ambiguous brief: design something that addressed a social good. It was the first time I’d thought of design as a way to solve problems. It was the first time I realized that design wasn’t restricted to sculptures, or buildings, or physical, tangible things. Everything is designed. How we walk on the streets, how we flow through a restaurant, how we eat a meal, how we brush our teeth —everything is designed, every experience crafted and thought out by someone or a group of people. It was like a new way of seeing. I realized that design is so much more, it’s a way of seeing the world. I decided then that this is what I wanted to do, help craft the way people saw and experienced the world around them. I’d lost one dream but I’d gained another. And it’s been nothing but an evolving change in perspective and how I approach the world since then. Design helps me look at the world in wonder and awe, of how much intention is behind the spaces we inhabit and the experiences we have. It’s a way of seeing.

What does a typical day look like?

I recently stopped sleeping with my phone in my room because I was tired of filling my mind up with emails first thing. So now the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is whisper an internal prayer of thanksgiving, read my Bible, and sit in silence and solitude for at least 5 minutes. Then I go for a run or work out in my living room, or on rest days, allow myself to get distracted by Instagram for a little bit. After, I make breakfast (I started eating breakfast during the pandemic and it's always two pieces of toast, avocado, & two sunny side up eggs...always).

I usually write out my to-do list for the day & schedule a block of time for each item in my calendar the night before. I find doing that right before I sleep helps me remember what I'm supposed be focused on the next day & eases my anxiety. Also, I just really love lists. My work days usually flow between focus design work time, meetings, and of course the little spaces for distractions. I have between 4-5 meetings at least 3 days in the week (depending on the week, project, etc), that leaves me with not a lot of actual work time. So I started scheduling meetings with myself to reclaim my time. I've been finding it more challenging to work from my desk at home so a few times a week, I'll head to a cafe and spend the rest of the day working from there in exchange for a coffee or some pastries (I almost always go to the same 3 ones downtown Toronto).

My evenings these days flow between freelance work, an attempt to work on the redesign of my portfolio (this is my third try, and I'm hoping the saying is true), hanging out with friends (I really like to cook for my friends), or rewatching Modern Family. In the past, I'd do some hobby things like read, play guitar or Call of Duty, or struggle with 12 year olds on FIFA online. I'm trying to get back to doing more of the things I loved.

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What's your workstation setup?

All my “work work” is done on my 16” M1 MacBook Pro. I also recently splurged on a maxed out M1 Pro Max as I start freelancing more & exploring different design styles. I have an iPad Pro 12.9” that’s mainly for planning, brain dumping thoughts at the start of a problem, & sketching initial product ideas. My standing desk is from Fully (even though I barely use the standing feature). I would really love to add the Pro Display to my set up, I just have to find a good excuse to.

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For software, I'm in Figma 90% of the time for designing, Illustrator for illustration & any graphic design work, After Effects for animation, and sometimes Photoshop. I plan my entire life on Notion, and I use Flow by Moleskine on my iPad for brain dumping and sketching, it's a great product & so beautifully designed (they also have the sweetest customer support). I also started using Flow to write out my to-do lists as I felt I was missing the tactileness of pen & paper with Notion.

Where do you go to get inspired?

I’m really inspired by the things that already exist and have been created all around us and I use photography as a way to help me look at the world around me in wonder. A sunset, the sky, birds flying in formation, listening to music, a perfectly timed joke, the mix of old and modern buildings coexisting in a city, that feeling when you’re eating a really good meal and you don’t want it to end, deep laughter, a chosen moment in a photograph, a hilarious TikTok video that reminds you that everyday people are so talented, babies, being with good friends, family, the surprise at my success of keeping my plants alive, going on a run, travelling, experiencing new cultures, a design or product that makes you go, “damn, I wish I could’ve made that”, a well-kerned type in a print ad, the list goes on and on.

I lost so much of my inspiration (and in turn myself) during the pandemic but now I’m remembering that I don’t need to go too far to get inspired if I look at the things that already exist around me in awe. Sometimes, we don’t have to do much to be met with wonder —like the view at the top of the mountain, or those sunsets that look like paintings come to life, or the birth of a child…These things are just in themselves awe-filled moments. But I find that more often than not, we have to seek wonder. We might not always be at the top of the mountain, or get picturesque sunsets, but I’m beginning to realize that if we look at what we have readily available (things, people, ourselves) with the same awe-struck wonder as we look at the sunsets or a beautiful picture, then we will always find inspiration, as long as there is life.

There’s a quote in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Nothing is new under the sun.” And I think that’s so true. Everything is a variation of another. I think we can learn a lot from the work and products that exist —how to do things and how not to do things.

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Oh and one last thing, Pinterest! Pinterest is my go to place outside of the real world for inspiration. I make boards for everything!

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

These rugs by Sean Brown (or quite literally, anything that he makes)...Such a simple idea, inspired by nostalgia & the everyday, so well executed. It's one of those things that makes you go, "damn, I wish I made that".


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These Apple Watch stands by Elago that show us a playful way of discovering new ways of seeing and using existing products and characters.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I’m so proud of everything I designed and released while I was at TunnelBear. That was always always our goal: we ship things we’re proud of. Particularly though, I’m really proud of the animations I did for the help page and one of our affiliate pricing pages. The bear on the help page types as you type, try it! It’s fun I promise! And the bear on the pricing page scratches its back against the container and some fur falls out. These were my first ever attempts at animating things other than shapes and text. I’m forever grateful for the mentors I had at TunnelBear who have forever shaped my approach to what good design should be. Thanks Andrew, Denis, & Ryan <3.

I also got to work on design & creative direction for my friend's musical collaboration project. It's an amazing record to vibe to and I also recommend listening while you're getting some work done, it's incredible focus music. Check it out!

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What design challenges do you face at your company?

There are so many challenges that come with working for a large company, especially coming from a small start up —it’s like a culture shock. The biggest challenge for me when I made the switch last year was, people --working with a lot more people than I was used to. I realized very quickly a truth that we mostly know but perhaps aren’t always aware of: people are different. We think differently, we understand things differently. And difference can be challenging to work with, but it doesn't have to be. We just have to learn to meet people where they are and vice versa. I’ve definitely learned a lot about being patient with, and kind to people...and to myself.

Another challenge we face at the company is the design challenge of redefining an old brand that has been known for one thing for the longest time, and for most of that time, not known for necessarily positive things. As we move towards a more people centred company, we’re challenged wth how we can build great things to help protect people, and finding the right moments to bring joy through design. As with large companies, there are a lot of processes and hoops we have to go through to make sure that we’re putting out great design. It’s a constant balancing act of good design, business goals, and staying true to our mission of protecting people and not just things.

Personally, it’s also been quite challenging to find the right work-life balance and to set boundaries with work —I was incredibly burnt-out last year. While this year, I’ve learnt a lot about what it means to rest, it’s still quite a challenge to not be consumed by work and just life in general. I’m taking it one day at a time, and I’m trying to seek out little moments of rest and stillness during the day.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

A good designer is two things: an observer, and participant of the world around them. Approach life with a deep curiosity —be interested in the systems that exist, especially if you want to design objects or products that will exist within the present systems.

Practice makes better, a little bit everyday goes a long way.

Take the good opportunities as they come, & believe people when they say that you are good at what you do.

Go where you’ll grow, and when you realize you’re not growing, then you know it’s time to move on.

Be willing to admit when you don’t know how to do something, or know much or anything, about a thing. Seek out good, constructive criticism about your work. Don’t be afraid to change your opinions or ideas about things, whether that’s a design you’ve created or just an idea about life.

"Don't delete your old work." - Sean Brown

Design and put out things you're proud of.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I’ve been freelancing a lot with a good friend of mine and we’ve decided to start our own multidisciplinary design studio, ForHuman Design. It’s still very early days but I’m so excited to see where it leads. It’s been very challenging and the more we work at it, the more we realize there's a lot we don't know and we have to learn. But I find there’s excitement in not knowing, and there’s an anticipation for the knowledge and growth that is coming.

Another thing I’d like to highlight is what my friend Toluwa is doing with how we approach work. Every Good Work is an attempt to redefine how we see the work we do, to connect work with purpose.

I'm on Instagram where I mostly scroll through interior decor profiles & I also would like to tweet more, but probably won't haha.

interview