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What is Africa’s Design Language?

by Sanusi IsmailaSeptember 17, 2014

I was catching up with one of my friends from Yahoo recently and at some point, we got talking about design and UI. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned how unsettled he was about Asian’s love for clutter, which goes against the mainstream American/European trend that is minimal, flat and “clean”.

In his words, “they have a lot going on always, and even in the large cities, you feel like you are surrounded with ads and information all the time”

His comments about Asian design made so much sense to me when I started thinking about products designed in the US and Europe as against the ones designed in Asia. Take the OS the first “China Phones” shipped with for instance. I remember thinking they had too much going at the same time and wondering if that was good or bad. And even today, if you looked at products made solely in Asia (the ones designed elsewhere and mass produced in Asia don’t count), from toys to software interfaces, you will see elements of that cluttered approach to design coming through.

All that has got me thinking about what the African design language is. Before I go on, I’d be the first to admit that Africa isn’t the homogenous “whole” we tend to lump it as. In fact, the African continent is probably the most diverse in terms of culture and tradition that there is a chance that rather than one, we have several design languages.

In my day-to-day dealings with designers from around Africa and comparing them to those I have dealt with from Europe, two things are immediately noticeable. First on the same brief, there is a chance that 3 different African designers would present, 3 different portfolios with none remotely close to the other. But 3 different European designers would submit portfolios in which you will find similarities, not necessarily in the product itself, but in the thought behind some of the decisions.

Secondly, African design elements are very much influenced by design from Europe and the US. If “flat” is what’s hot in Europe this week, best believe almost all the portfolios you would see this week would be flat.

Both observations make sense (to me), because, like I mentioned before, Africans are diverse and in Nigeria alone, you will find many places where two villages within walking distance share very little culture-wise, whereas in many parts of Europe, huge swats cutting across whole countries at times share similar cultures.

The second one, I chalk up to the fact that very little design is taught here, most of the designers in Africa now, either studied abroad or were tutored by those who studies abroad, or taught themselves with materials available on the internet and as such are influenced by European design.

The question now though is, what are Africa’s design languages? Africa has a very rich heritage with regards to design. In fact, African design is mentioned from time to time regardless of where you study. For instance, I will be shocked if there are design professionals that didn’t get to study bits of Egypt in class.

As a kid, thanks to social studies, I could differentiate between Nok Terracottas and sculptures of Benin origin. I could also see the differences in design between the huts in Northern Nigeria and the ones in the East and understand how the designs were influenced by climate. So why can’t I see the same coming through in modern African design? Why can’t I look at an app or website or even architectural design and straightaway tell it was inspired by some African culture? As African’s, are we being served “clean and flat” designs when we innately crave clutter? (As a side note: All the really popular websites of African origin that I can think of are cluttered). Is clean and flat more African than we realise? How would the inspirations from the pyramids of Egypt, thatched and mud huts of West Africa translate in today’s digital design?

We tend to overlook the importance of design and aesthetics around these parts, while chasing engagement, but I can assure you, as any human behaviour specialist will that nothing would drive engagement like connecting to yearnings already programmed into human DNA.

What is Africa’s design language?

Photo Credit: Matt Champlin via Compfight cc

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Sanusi Ismaila
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