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What Can African Design Teach Us?

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Africa remains a blank white spot on the international designers' map of the world, despite being the second largest continent, with the second largest population. A hundred years ago, African culture, with its ceremonial masks and sculptures inspiring abstract art, radically changed Western art. Could Africa now do the same for design? To get a sense of African design today and its future potential, we invited creative professionals to share their experiences, observations and thoughts on this challenging topic.

The continents culture is remarkably different from that of the other seven. The collective is more important than the individual and the individual does not exist outside the collective. When a Dogoneese comes in from the savanna, the standard greeting is: "I see you" to which, he answers: "I am here," essentially he is being brought back into existence in that moment. The culture has a low power distance and is more comfortable with ambiguity than most others. This fertilizes the ground with an amazing amount of creativity.

Most, if not all of African designs, have their roots in spiritualism. The customs and traditions driving the designs are closely tied to the living and breathing souls their chiefs or tribal heads. Art and design are both first and foremost communal in nature. So, whether you look at sculptures or fabrics, most of the designs were made to be enjoyed by the whole community and design was used to enhance the social life of the tribe, from the layout of the huts in a homestead to the war masks used in ceremonial dances.

African design is founded in on Primitivism and is concerned with raw form, childlike lines, and references to wildlife, earthly hues and the color orange. African designers have the ability to translate reality into more abstract and expressive forms and to decorate and create amazing patterns, readily observable in their fabrics, ceramics, baskets and masks.

Due to resource, infrastructure and financial constraints, the hallmarks of African design are simplicity, practicality and ruggedness. Though legal and quality requirements are less stringent, this does not translate into cheap, unreliable products. Products that make it in Africa have to stand up against the elements, be user friendly and make common sense. This can be both good and bad as sometimes aesthetics can be left behind for the sake of cost.

Since African Countries are in the early process of industrialization, contemporary design is still in its infancy. However, great design is visible in architecture and art as well as fashion, and African design is now being influenced by other global styles or themes from the Americas, Asia and Europe.

The true beauty of African design lies in how it takes a complex concept like spiritualism and condenses it into a generic symbol without losing the intent. That to me is the holy grail of design.

If one can marry all the aforementioned values, create a good looking product, produce it economically and, if the end result is exceptionally tough, easy to use and something that people actually love to use, - then that is quintessential African Design!