African Design

Africa! A continent of mystery, magic, and a mix of cultures and people so diverse that very few outside of it manage to understand, let alone describe it.

I was born and live at the southern most part of Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, and I see many different cultures on a daily basis – and yet when I think about it, I find it hard to define one specific element that makes this place “African”.

Black Panther and

Working in technology, I found it intriguing when the Black Panther movie by Marvel was released this year. The movie attempted to visually represent the concept of Afro Futurism – where African design, culture, philosophy and alien technology meet.

I found this fascinating and began researching what made this film so critically acclaimed, not only for it’s storytelling, but for representing the African Utopia that many have dreamed about. And at Automattic one of our design principles is about starting from curiosity, in this case mine.

Africa has a history of mixed cultures, and while the elements of that have been either detrimental or beneficial to a specific part of Africa (British Colonialism as one example), the elements of design from these cultures have been integrated into everyday society, in particular architecture as well as language.

As a result of this history of mixed cultures an interesting question would be:

What makes Africa unique from a design perspective, and how do we communicate that in a way that creates empathy in our African customers?

Dominant Cultures

Using South Africa as an example, the country has 11 languages, multiple cultures, and multiple traditional tribal kingdoms – if one of these cultures is a dominant one at the expense of the others, that impacts directly on diversity and inclusion. It also blurs the identifying elements of the nation by making one culture more important than the others.

This is a complex issue and raises another question:

How do you represent such a wide variety of identities in a singular individual or product?

Representation of Color, Patterns, Typography & Language

An example of representing multiple cultures would be since the creation of the term “Rainbow Nation” – this was first mentioned by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the post-apartheid South Africa, which aimed to be inclusive of all cultures within the nation. The national flag that was created as a result of the democratic election, combined multiple colours representing the many cultures, and the national anthem was also modified to include many of the official languages instead of 1 dominant language as before.

Problematic Identifiers

Traditionally, Africa has strongly identified with several colours; mostly greens, reds, and browns. In addition to those, the so called “dark continent” term comes to mind here, however that has many negative connotations that come with it – so use of darker colours to signify something as African should be approached with caution.

Some cultures communicate visually through paintings as well as jewellery to indicate different states of wealth and importance, as an example the neck ring which can be a divisive symbol.

Further to this, the triangle is also a common design element in many traditional African garments across the continent, particularly in tribal fashion. After researching this, I had a look in my own home and found several triangle pattern designs. But the problem with the use of this pattern is the history of the transatlantic slave trade. This is commonly represented by the triangle, and with the historical significance of the slave trade, a question to ask is:

Should we incorporate symbols or patterns like this into our existing products, for example, creating an “African” styled theme using elements of the triangle in the visual design?

Being sensitive to history and tradition is a complex challenge.

Furthering Stereotypes

As I mentioned previously, the “dark continent” term is problematic and has been furthered by the common use of the “3rd world” term to describe impoverished areas. A large volume of tourism to the continent has furthered this by mostly exposing tourists to the tribal elements of African communities still living in huts, animal safaris, as well as controversial hunting expeditions.

A question to ask here is:

What stereotypes are positive identifiers, and what are the negative ones?

Further Research

Black Panther somehow managed to take all the above elements and mesh them together in such a way as present it as a viable way for society to function. It presents almost a “what if” scenario for if an African nation was the most advanced in the world. However, the deception here, is that only surface level things are seen in the movie – there is very little of the actual citizens of Wakanda shown. The primary people shown are the royalty and the military. This asks the question:

“Are those 2 things (royalty and military) the main identifiers of the Wakandan nation and culture?”

But most importantly, it should be noted that there were more than 100 researchers for the Black Panther movie, and they physically visited the continent starting in Cape Town, South Africa and moved northward to experience the cultures first hand.

I’m but one, so if we as a company wanted to do this properly we would have to assign a significant portion of our designers to this task. My context of Africa as a whole is also limited to my South African heritage and experience which would provide bias on my part.

Final Thoughts

Is being African a tangible thing? Or is it something deeper, something more intrinsic and/or existential? Many non African’s describe coming to Africa as a sort of pilgrimage or a spiritual experience. Something that is felt, and not seen. Something that is experienced.

“Is it possible to build that kind of an experience into our products?”

One opportunity to do this is with the Small Business Owners (SBO’s) that we engage with, in line with our principle of searching for and tell stories about people, not just data. After researching the interviews we’ve conducted with SBO’s, I’ve found that they work super hard – more often than not worked longer hours than the typical employee does. If we can make their lives easier, regardless of culture and identity, then we could provide tangible and intangible value.

Perhaps focusing on subsets of African small businesses at first would be the way to go to provide a more unique African experience.

Non Exhaustive List of Research

Please Note: there are some controversial topics and opinions discussed in the links below. They do not reflect the opinion of Automattic or myself necessarily and have only been listed as I consulted them for research purposes for this article.

African Designers

Some of the more interesting designers and design inspirations online from Africa that I’ve looked at include an East-African Creative Arts & Culture collective, a talk about The Role of the Architect in the Creative Industry from Uganda, Studio Muti out of Cape Town who I’ve had the privilege of watching them work at the former offices of WooThemes, and Design Indaba.

Black Panther Designers

The Black Panther film had some incredibly talented individuals work on the project, notably Hannah Beachler (covered by Fast Company, CNN, The Next Web, Wired) and there are several insightful interviews on how the set production, world building, and costume design aspects were approached. There were also some useful pieces on the real life inspirations for some of the elements in the film, as well as the potential real world applications of some of the concepts from the film including making the concept of Afro Futurism a reality.

YouTube interviews with some of the designers from the film:

The architectural influence of Zaha Hadid on the film, as described by designer Hannah Beachler.

South Africa Design

The Black Panther film uses specific cultural references from South Africa, and further reading on South African design elements can be found in The Journal of Design History, the 100% Design International Design Exhibition, the symbolic identity of the Rainbow Nation, and the indication of cultural status of symbols such as the neck ring.

The Triangle

The triangle pattern is used often across the continent in design, as well as historically being used as part of the description of the slave trade and it’s routes, and there is evidence for the symbol to be interpreted differently depending on the context.

The UN has used the symbol to describe a drought stricken area, while other publications have talked about triangular areas for jihadist groups, and in South Africa there is an example of the wage gap problem between wealthy elites and the poor.

Photo by Chen Hu on Unsplash

By Jeffikus

Team Lead for Theme Development at Automattic. We build themes for and