This article brings together the study of fashion, psychology, anthropology, and African studies!
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.