I started an Instagram page called [Braand] back in 2017. It was born out of frustration. [Braand] was a page that curated the brand design work of African designers. Logos and identity systems from designers in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, few from Congo, Togo, and South Africa were on the Instagram page. The designer community caught on and began to tag [Braand] in their logo work. It was good and great, I received support from the design community in Nigeria and I tried to spread the word.
“Why bother?” you may ask, [Braand] was free. It took a lot of work to search for logos and queue them up into a content scheduler. I did it for the feeling of community. I was a brand designer too then, I loved designing identity systems. The thing was, I’d lived outside the African continent since 2012, and 5 months was the longest time I’d spent in my home country Nigeria since the year 2012. It’s easy to feel isolated as an African living in the diaspora. Finally, [Braand] gave me a legitimate reason to connect with people who literally did the same type of work I did.
That’s a selfish reason. There was also, a more grandiose one. It comes from the long-held deep-seated view of mine and it’s this is not so few words;
Africa has been importing everything for the longest time, a lot of big buyers in Nigeria import creative talent, buying from American and European agencies and the like. On the other hand, African creatives have not been very successful at exporting their talent outside Africa, selling to buyers in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the world. More importantly trade between African nations of creative talent has also not kicked off in the last 2 decades.
Or more simply: African creative would get better opportunities if there was consistent and quality coverage and promotion.
If no one else was going to talk about our brand design, then I’d do it. Yet there’s a larger issue, and it’s not only about brand design, but it’s also about creative practices across the board. With the primary exception of the music industry, and if you’re not up-date; Burna Boy was nominated for a Grammy Award and Angélique Kidjo won it. TEMS became the only African to be a part of YouTube’s Foundry Class of 2020, so, all in all, they’re doing alright.
My view isn’t as cut and dried as I may make it out to be. For one thing, in every country in the world with an alive economy, buyers within a country buy from sellers within the same country. They also favour buying locally over internationally in many cases. This still happens. There are also many African creatives in the diaspora who are either immigrants or 1st-generation diasporans. Product Designers from Africa or African parents are working in the biggest global companies in the world. One could still call that “exporting talent”, except that the returns of those transactions don’t make it back to Africa. That’s what we call a wicked problem.[Braand] eventually fell into dormancy as I began a season of uncertainty in my life which ended with my leaving the freelance brand design business in 2019. The African creative problem didn’t end there, and I came up with an idea to revive the idea, for community and for the sake of the community.
The African context
I looked up 22 agencies that represent illustrators around the world. With an average roster of 23 illustrators, I found only 4 illustrators from African countries on their rosters. That’s 506 illustrators roughly and there were only 4 Africans. That’s 0.8% representation. Supply and demand are curious twins, each powering the other. It would be easy to guess that supply is low, but as a result, demand is low too.
There are a few true multidisciplinary creatives who are incredibly prolific. I’ve seen a few help design a fashion label, constantly making music cover art, physical installations, they are pushing the boundaries of creative entrepreneurship. Creating opportunities where they can. For them, it’s all about how far can you go within the same region you live in.
What about the buyers? Magazines aren’t popular in Africa. The most famous ones are African versions of international media brands. Forbes. Vogue. GQ. Some of these circulate printed magazines in a few countries. On the other hand, due to our context, the African digital publishing space is fragmented. Big digital publishers such as Vice, The New York Times and Huffington Post simply have no African equivalents. There are a few reasons which David Adeleke writes about in his recent essay on the cost of good journalism in Nigeria.
Without big publishers we are left with recording artistes who commission visual artists for their music cover arts, a handful of architects with enough sway to commission tasteful sculptures or interior designs, a lot of independent digital agencies, and the old guard ad agencies.
Photographers have tried to escape this black hole of mediums, creating their own platforms for a showcase like RADR, with a few getting the chance to do editorial work, mostly though it’s a lot of weddings, and concerts.
Despite this, it seems that Creative Directors in our own locales still need a lot of convincing that there are more tools in the creative toolbox. An editorial commission here, a bit of brand work there, overall the people who need to hear this message are the creative leaders in upcoming media houses and agencies across the continent.
Here’s what I think
It’s an impossible task to look in every possible agency or buyer in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, & South Africa. Also, the African context is slightly varied. Overall I think we are still pushing the boundaries of what we can do with digital campaigns and media, advancing at the rate of Internet penetration in each country. It looks a lot different from the 2000s era where there was a heavy focus on traditional media and South African agencies produced a chunk of the work.
When I look at how illustration, photography, motion graphics and editorial visual design are used in Nigeria, I get worried. We are only scratching the surface. Held back by things like data. The MB’s don’t care if it’s a really cool ad set in a well-designed space or a branded animated video about superheroes. It’s still a video. Which means there’s a limit on length. Across all these countries despite never having lived in Kenya, Ghana or South Africa, I know that getting magazine subscriptions delivered by a reliable postal service on well-documented streets while I was growing up, isn’t something that was happening in these places. By the time we could, digital media had come along and made all the print media companies look like dinosaurs.
There are many, individual buyers, numerous, and that’s a good thing. Entrepreneurship may have seen an increase in these countries in the last decade. Yet it has taken some time to see more creative forms play out in branding. Also, individual buyers rarely pay enough regularly for anyone to be a letterer only for instance.
Kenya is arguably the most accepting of the arts in media, publications like The Nairobian have a long-running online comic strip. Big Advertising such as Ogilvy in Nairobi regularly commission illustrators in campaigns.
The solution to me to this problem that I see is in two parts: 1. Get more local buyers for African creative professionals(or hobbyists). 2. Get more international buyers for African creative professionals.
Switching on the spotlight
One way to really do something to bring those solutions to reality is to support the African creatives in your network. For example here are the best lettering designers I know that you can follow right now:
- Yemi Fetch – Yemi is a veteran calligrapher and has done a lot of work for Nigerian publications, one of the few who were too good to be ignored.
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- Qaz – Qaz is one of few calligraphers I know whose style is mainly analogue. Just paper and beautiful ink.
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- Kulula – Kenyan illustrator with a beautiful style.
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- Dami Vincent – Dami has also been at this as long as I have, his style has many nods to hip-hop and graffiti culture.
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A colour universe
I think the world needs more of us. Showing up. Online. Repeated over and over again. Only Africans within the continent and out in diaspora. That’s why I dusted off the [Braand] Instagram page and renamed it Studio BLVCK. Studio BLVCK is a publication about African creativity. Stories, advice, original content and an upcoming podcast released in bingeable editions. For the non-mainstream and incredibly talented and we’re taking subscriptions. So pop your email in whichever box is right below this article. It’s worth it, I promise.