Like most designers I’ve spoken to, growing up was tough. Realizing that you would rather draw when the world wants you to write, you would rather take apart when the world wants you to assemble and you would rather structurally critic when the world wants you to smile.
For me all the above was true, it was tough growing up and I always felt like the world didn’t understand me. I did more drawing than writing and I was really curious to know how everything was made. Taking apart toys, watches, remote controls (a lot of remote controls) to disappear of my mother. One particular memory that stuck to me was in Year 10, when in Chemistry class I drew an answer to a question instead of writing it down. After the class ended my teacher pulls me to the side and says, your answer was right but you didn’t write it down, I was crushed. I actually thought I was going to get more marks for drawing such an amazing illustration.
As I mark my 5 years as an Industrial designer in Africa I am reflecting on what it means to be an African Industrial Designer in 21st century Africa. The impact believe design can have, if any?
One conclusion that I can definitely jump to is, Design is Spiritual. Via a quick google search, spirituality means anything relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. Shouldn’t a product be spiritual ?
As I look back to the work and designers that I admire, Dieter Rams, David Adjaye, Alvar Alto, Richard Sapper, just to name a few. I ask myself, do these masters have a spiritual attachment to each product they design, did they just follow design specification and functionality or did they pour their emotion, artistic expression to these products. In the case of Dieter, according to various literature he will argue he did not but every time I hold a Braun product, I can’t help but feel a certain connection to his philosophy and his way of life. Isn’t that Spirituality? Or visiting MOMA and seeing David Adjaye’s speaker for Master and Dynamic and seeing how the unique form has created a vessel for sound and you can’t help but moved your eyes and body to investigate what exactly he was thinking and if the product is of this world? Isn’t that spirituality?
As I grow in my pursuit to design products that enhance peoples lives. I keep finding myself wanting people to not only use the products that I design but to have a spiritual and emotional connection and experience. I want them to not only use the product but question how it was made and why it was made. I want them to know why one product is perfect and the other might have flaws and why embracing the stories behind the aesthetic flaws might just enhance their user experince. I want them to know that these ideas have come from not just referencing the past but from speaking to people (artisans, manufacturer, potential user..) and know that their responses and conversations with them created this product. Designing in Africa, to my pleasant surprise (still intermediate design career) and in my own opinion is highly spirituality in Design in my own opinion comes as a default. Designing in sub-sharan Africa can be tough as design is seen as an after thought and an artistic expression in comparison to what we designers know it to be, which is the process of solving problems, creating solutions while thinking of economic viability and stakeholders in the ecosystem.
So yeah designing physical products in Africa can be tough, very little production capability, artisans can be temperamental for the fear of exploitation and production can be also be expensive. But though all this, African designers push boundaries and try to create.
For me the spiritual journey to design began when I designed my first product in Lagos, Nigeria. Even though the product didn’t get into production due to technical and finical constraints, I learnt a lot from the experience. Unlike most of my design colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that I truly don’t have a design philosophy and really don’t care for one. I realized that designing for me was more of an exercise to know; know the people I am designing for, the people who will make the product and the people who will use it. After one failed product, I quickly realized that speaking to the craftsmen, getting to know their families, their trials, tribulations, eating with them and genuinely caring for them will make a better product and collaboration. As we spoke about life, we spoke about the product, as we exchanged frustrations, we pushed boundaries. One thing I realized was getting to know why what they do is important to them and what keeps them motivated to keep going. With modern factories it will also be the same approach but with a twist, speaking to everyone on the assembly line to understand constraints, if they believe in pushing boundaries, if they are dreamers, if they understand why the product is being made. As a designer you then realize that all this take precedence to the spirituality of a product. Is Design spiritual? In my own modest opinion, pr
oducts have souls and what I do is an extension of who I am. So for mign is extremely spiritual, so next time don’t be aid ask questions and be cautious of tproducts yus