But is it “African”?

You’d think that, as a designer based in Africa, it would be easy to answer the question “What constitutes African design?”

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After decades of independence, a definition of African design remains as elusive as mankind’s quest for eternal youth. We’re asking the wrong question, writes Rudo Botha of REX brand design agency.

You’d think that, as a designer based in Africa, it would be easy to answer the question “What constitutes African design?” But you’d be wrong. It’s a question that keeps getting asked, particularly as Africa seeks to shake off the externally-imposed definitions of the developed world and redefine herself on her own terms. But picking apart the finer nuances of how the West perceives Africa and how Africa would like to portray itself – and what role design plays in such a portrayal – is not an easy task.

For years people have been pointing to ethnic prints, earthy colours and grungy textures and calling it African design. The implication is that for brands to be “authentically African” they too need to contain these elements. It’s a patronising, narrow view and one that designers living in Africa, not to mention African brands, are understandably keen to rid themselves of.

Africa encompasses so much more than a rural village, three huts and a couple of cows, and African design can be as aesthetically eloquent and internationally relevant as design arising from anywhere else in the world. (Just ask the growing number of design outfits that are doing work for international companies beyond our borders).

A question of style

But if African design is not those tired old so-called “African” stereotypes (and I vehemently believe it is not), then what is it? Some suggest that it’s a slicker, evolved version of the ethnic prints, a coming together of the old with the new, a merging of the “traditional” with the technological, or a look that retains the earthy tones but introduces a more refined texture. I’d have to disagree with all of these, and here’s why.

What each of these suggestions points to is style, the external graphic representation of a piece of work. So in asking “What is African design?”, I think many people are actually asking “What is an African style?” For me, this question is as irrelevant as it is unanswerable.

Design is not about style; it’s about the value it has to contribute to a brand, community or country. Whether a brand identity ends up looking grungy, clean, corporate or ethnocentric does not tell you anything about how “African”, “American” or “Swedish” it is.

The way in which different people from different countries will go about solving problems through design will undoubtedly be influenced by their social, cultural, political and geographic context, but this has little to do with whether you end up with earthy tones and ethnic prints, or cool clean lines. How a designer goes about devising solutions for a brand will be influenced by these factors, in addition to the needs of the brand and the context of the company.

An African context?

So perhaps the question we need to be asking is “What is the African context that influences design?” To some extent this question is answerable. Africa as a developing continent is characterised by enormous need and few easily accessible resources. In many cases this informs ingenious design that makes use of what’s available to provide for basic, lower-tier Maslow needs.

It’s an exciting, dynamic and survivalist space, which breeds designs that are relevant, necessary and inspired by what is essential. But the African context is neither isolated nor static. More and more it is connected to a global context, and it is continually shifting and evolving. Brand identities that are developed within this dynamic, multifaceted and increasingly global context will reflect that.

As a Jozi-based designer working on brand identity, I draw on my personal context, the natural environment around me, and the diverse cultures and people I come into contact with.

I also draw on the international literature, brands and design that I have access to and experience on a daily basis. All these things combine to add my own personal “flavour” to a piece of work, nothing more. They don’t make it any more or less quintessentially African.

Going to the source

Most importantly, however, I look to the company for whom the brand is intended. This should always be the key source of inspiration and is the reason why brand identities can’t be boxed as either “African” or not, any more than the companies they represent can. Rex has developed brands like Echo, for the Wits Paediatric HIV Clinic, which are situated in a uniquely South African context but don’t conform to African stereotypes.

We have also developed identities for various local companies that have a global reach. Merensky is a good example – it’s undeniably an African company, with roots deep in local soil, but it’s also an international corporate and as such its identity speaks a professional and high-tech language. Similarly, Willowlamp sells its products to international buyers but it also has a proudly South African heritage. However, the brand identity reflects the essence of the company, and not where it comes from.
A different question

Whether brands look African is a question about the external, and it’s the wrong question to ask. What’s important is whether design produces something that is relevant and useful within the context of the brand. If the design solution addresses a problem that exists in an African context then I suppose you could say the design is African.

But most often the geographic context can’t be easily pinned down, no matter what the location of the designer. I believe we have Google to thank for this, because the world really is interconnected. Different designers can be influenced by the very same stimulus on any given day and are not immune to the “global village” that has blurred the lines defining African, European and Asian stereotypes.

And I believe this is a good thing. Shouldn’t it be more important that design is relevant, useful and innovative? Does it solve the problem it was presented with? Is it relevant enough to compete both locally and on a global stage (if those are requirements of the brand)? Does it possess enough essential value to speak to a universal audience while still retaining a flavour that people from its own context can recognise? These are the questions we need to be asking – not whether it pays homage to someone’s idea of an ethnic Eden, a waking giant or a dark continent.

We don’t have to ask whether a new kind of African design identity or language exists, because it is no secret that exceptional work, work that can stand independently and proudly on any stage, is being hatched right here in the cradle of mankind – so to speak! Discussions on what such work looks like will remain subjective and will always be limiting to our export product. On the other hand, discussions about its value or relevance are much more interesting and hold greater potential for us as Africans.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that excellent design, for as long as it is a product of human creativity, is always something very personal and therefore something in which the origins of the creator or their context will be visible. So, the really astute design critics should be able to recognise the African identity of a valuable work that originates from this continent, be that geographic or due to the influence of the creator.

However, if I could write the script, there would be great design products lined up on a neutral, international stage, and the most relevant piece of work would be measured against both the objective and context that called it into being. Then we’d see who can hazard a guess at its origins. Just for kicks.