18 January 2022
12 Mins Read
Dentistry to Design—On Transitioning with Jephthah Aletan
Let’s meet you.
My name is Jephthah Aletan, I’m a minimalist because of my perception of life and everything around me. I’m a designer by choice and a trained dentist. I’m a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU).
How did you make the transition from Dentistry to design?
After I finished from OAU earlier in 2016, I stayed home for 1 year before finally getting a job. Then, I took a job with someone from Lagos who was paying me 50k a month. But I still kept looking for a house job. A friend of mine, Ire, kept getting all these amazing projects from Lagos. He was very instrumental in my choice of design. Eventually, I worked with The Sarz Academy, Ayo Sonaiya, and a couple of others.
In 2017, I finally got a house job at Ekiti State University Teaching Hospital. For 6 months, we were not paid any salary, but I was balling. I would get home to design jobs waiting for me, so I was earning money. Eventually, I started to teach some of my guys how to design so they could earn money too.
I’m passionate about helping people and I saw a lot of problems that needed to be solved while I was doing the house job like hospital management systems, patient record-keeping, font choices in form, hospital labeling systems, and a couple of things that needed to be solved. I dropped a lot of suggestions but they wouldn’t budge, you know, because the thought pattern in the medical profession is hierarchical, straightforward, and undynamic.
At that time, I didn’t even take design seriously. It was just a side gig. When I got to Lagos, I started getting design offers but I still wanted to remain in the medical line. I kept getting dental offers with ridiculous pay and on research, I realized it was the same experience across the board for my colleagues
I eventually worked with Boomplay as the brand designer, based on Ire’s recommendation and that was my very first major work. I spent only a few months at Boomplay but it was great. I worked across all channels; videos, ad ideas, printables, brand design guide, and others.
The salary was way better than what I was being offered as a dentist. It might not be the biggest company but it was good. That was how the whole dental dream started dying.
So, based on your experience, how do you see Dentistry as a career in Nigeria?
It’s not so great. To be honest, it’s way more difficult. You’ll have to do the same thing you would as a medical student for 4-5 years of your life. You’ll also have to still combine that with your specialty, which is crazy and more hands-on because you’ll have to treat patients at the clinic. We had crazy requirements to fulfill and it was very expensive. Our materials were costly, the training was really expensive. Yet, the pay is nothing to write home about on top of that doctors’ welfare is terrible. Generally working in healthcare in Nigeria is a hassle, that’s why everybody is running abroad.
Did your medical career have any impact on your design approach?
I started falling in love with design because I realized I was simply doing the same thing I would have done as a doctor. People have challenges and they need solutions that are strategic and design-based. When patients come to you, you take their history; ask them questions like “when did it start? how did it get to this point? …and so on. You would have observed them the moment they walked in and maybe noticed a few things about them. Just like when someone who needs branding services comes to you, you check their website and you can make a diagnosis instantly. Then when you ask further questions, you can pick it apart and investigate to learn more. You research to find more answers and come up with solutions. So, that was basically what I was doing as a designer, and the medical experience I had kind of shaped the way I approached each problem.
Would you also say that being a doctor affected your brand as a designer?
Yes, it did. First, I never feel comfortable calling myself a doctor, even while I was practicing. This is because, for me, people were attaching too many weird privileges to that position. I prefer being in the background to being seen everywhere. But transitioning to design shaped the way I thought about the problem, the way I approached problems, and the way people saw me.
For example, I did a project with an artist, and the guy kept changing every draft I sent until he realized I am a doctor. He started listening more to me. So, that’s how people behave. Some even ask me, “how can you go from being a dentist to being a designer?” People could not understand it. I was also shy about it at first and I didn’t even tell my parents on time that I was designing instead of practicing. But Twitter was a safe place to share all that was on your mind.
Outside, it was crazy, but to my colleagues it was bold. To them, it was just weird that someone could just turn their back on a medical career. There were a lot of challenges. But then I saw other people who influenced me, I was encouraged.
When did your parents get to know that you were not on the medical line anymore?
One day, my dad called me and he wanted to get a drug for a pain he had, I just told him, “Daddy, I don’t remember the name of the drug again.” He was angry, he said in Yoruba – “a whole doctor, what do you mean?” I replied to him, “I’m no longer practicing.” But I was at Wellahealth then, so I could lay claim to working in a health organization.
I told him last year. Although they knew that I struggled to get jobs as a dentist and they saw me designing at home, they just couldn’t reconcile that with being a dentist. To them, since I wasn’t calling them at home for money, they knew there was somewhere money was coming from.
My dad still believes that if I leave Nigeria, I’d probably decide to practice one day. But I know that I’m never settling down in a hospital. But working at Wellahealth has reshaped my thoughts, in a way.
As a brand manager in a health startup, how has the experience been?
I was the only one in my department. Being a startup in our early days, we had just gotten investments then. We wanted to deliver on our brand promise which wasn’t that well-drafted. So it was my duty as the brand manager to come up with systematic ways to apply design in a visually appealing way, think of a brand strategy for communication, and increase brand perception to be better.
I’m currently the head of design and also double as a product manager at Wella Health. The first thing about me is that I never run away from challenges. I had free templates to experiment with for ideas, to come up with content for pitch decks, to write commercial materials
Were you the first product designer at Wella health?
Yes, I was, and I started joining communities to learn more about UI & UX design. I think what pushed me is that I’m a very fast learner, I learn in a few hours what would take other people weeks to learn and I’m not bragging. I also don’t run away from feedback, I never take criticism personally. Somehow everything I had learned started coming together.
I went from just designing to solving design challenges to being a brand manager who comes up with strategies to think around brand building, strategy and improve our brand perception. From there, I went to product management, I was just doing everything to develop products whenever it was pushed to me.
Wellahealth is very fast-paced because we are always experimenting. I got lucky somehow because I grew very fast in a short period. The design community has also been amazing. Thanks to you (DearDesigner) for the positive influence, it’s been amazing. I’m being more of a designer than I used to be because people are showing up now.
What’s the status of Avoda Studio, your design agency?
Avoda is at its core a team of 5, but we sometimes collaborate with designers on a contract basis. We’re trying to be as lean as possible so that we can save money and grow bigger. I
Avoda is very young but we’re growing and we’re trying. We’ve come to a boiling point now. For instance, I have a job I’m currently working on. We’re not just designing for them, we’re ideating their user experience. We think about the go-to-market strategy for their products, we think about a couple of other things that a product manager will do. We also do the design and we get something to come up with their product. At Avoda, we give an integrated brand solution rather than just a one-off solution.
What’s your advice for anyone who wants to start an agency?
The first piece of advice is to be sure that’s what you want. Be sure that you have clarity of purpose and you know it’s something you want to do. Another thing is that you can’t know everything, I’m always looking for opportunities to chat with people and they don’t have to be designers. From project management and trying to manage expectations to solving disputes and challenges. It’s crazy the amount of work you’ll have to do. At some point, you’ll even stop designing when you run an agency and you’ll start managing people. Simply continue to learn, start seeing yourself not just as a designer, but as an entrepreneur.
As a design agency, you have to find ways to be able to solve problems because now you can’t brand just your company, you also need to brand your products. That’s what we do at our agency, we make sure that whatever work we do for you, you leave satisfied. I also read a report that said the top companies you see today are the ones that take design seriously. Nigerian companies that took design seriously are Cowrywise and Paystack and that kind of added to their success.
Interesting. As a brand manager at Wellahealth, what can you advise someone who’s starting as a brand designer to take note of?
The key to becoming a good brand manager is having a very good understanding of what branding is in itself and how solving those brand challenges meet the objectives of the business. You need to be able to think strategically, leverage data, and have a solid eye for design. Those things are important because you want to build and grow a brand, you want to manage and sustain the brand. When you’re building a brand, you have to think of what the regular components of the brand are: the name of the brand and its visual identity, the brand’s mission and vision, the brand touchpoints, and how to ensure that people are connecting emotionally with the brand. If your brand promise doesn’t match your delivery, then you’ve failed as a brand manager.
You have to think of your marketing communications and what people will feel when they come in contact with your products. You also have to come up with product launch ideas. It’s just like running a company, but only focusing on the brand and not other aspects like finance and also about having a portfolio that people are constantly feeling good about using.
What other things do you do apart from design?
I listen to music a lot. I try to sketch as well, even though they are terrible and I never show them to anyone. I’ve also tried writing a couple of times but I stopped. These days, I just plug in my AirPods and listen to music. I also do a lot of meditation too because this ‘Buhari-nomy’ is dealing with me. I’m a couch potato, I don’t go out, I work from home. If I’m invited to an outing, I’ll probably think about it for a week before I make any decision. Also, I watch football.
Jephthah is available across social media platforms, he shares his thoughts mostly on Twitter. Reach him here.