Brand new to DESK, this interview series aims to shine light on different design communities across the world. Up first is Nigeria, featuring Dá Design Studio.
A while ago I sent out a tweet to my Nigerian design friends asking for a list of design studios and designers they look up to. I got dozens of names back. Among them I found Dá Design Studio and I immediately fell in love with their work. It's clear that Damilola and Seyi, the perfect team that runs the studio, both care deeply about design and its potential for their community. You'll see what I mean when you read their answers. Let's get started already.
First, tell us a little more about yourselves. How did you meet and ultimately co-found Dá Design Studio? What made you decide to start your own studio together?
SEYI: Dá Design Studio was founded in September 2015. We observed that the power of good design was greatly underutilized locally. Everybody was simply imitating European design trends and, most of the time, these trends don’t communicate well enough within our immediate environment. Nobody was bold enough to harness our nuances for design.
We really want to change that. We want to show Nigerians that logos and identity systems are very crucial to brand experience and they should be treated with utmost importance and respect.
I am a graphic designer and an all-around visual creative. I really love intelligent design. You know, work that’s functional, meaningful, aesthetic and actually solves problems. I’m also a freelance photographer. I met Dami in design school; we both studied architecture for our first degree then completed our master’s in environmental design. Dami is a well-rounded and knowledgeable person. She is very sensitive to mood. She might not be so excellent with actual graphic work but she is a good judge of how things should feel and how well they communicate.
I did some freelance work during my master’s studies and to be honest I wasn’t so impressed with the current state of graphic design and brand identity locally. I don’t mean to brag but I had invested so much time, money and other resources into studying graphic design that wherever I worked, I quickly rose to the top. There weren’t any pure visual identity design studios in the country that impressed me at that time. So I talked to Dami about it and she got on board as art director, and together we founded Dá Design Studio.
DAMI: I believed there was so much more to be done than what was being done. I was far from impressed with what was available in Nigeria, and was annoyed by the mediocrity we seemed to be at peace with and even celebrate. I knew there was a temptation that sort of trapped a truck load of Nigerian creatives into maintaining the status quo. Something in me was certain that the temptation had found home in a lot of established studios and agencies. I wanted to run as far away as I could from the temptation. Yeah! So I’m the super cliché “wanted to change the world so I started my own” type of story. Cliché, but absolutely honest.
“We were going to shit on them all, we were going to put Nigerian graphic design on the map.”
Seyi was another me on this, so when he proposed to me I was like “Yes! I will marry you.” It didn’t go that way exactly but you get the idea. I was in love with the partnership and the dream so I sailed on that boat. We were going to shit on them all, we were going to put Nigerian graphic design on the map, so we streamlined our focus to something we were sure we could be badass at: visual identity design. Nobody else was focusing on that; it appealed to our rebellious side. Juvenile dreams? Maybe, but that hasn't changed. What has changed in almost two years of practice is that I now have more respect for those before us because I now understand some of their limitations — but it still stops at understanding, nothing more. I am still very aware that I am not bound by these limitations.
Plus, I am super into the idea of being my own boss.
The Dá Studio space in the heart of Lagos.
Between architecture, environmental design and now graphic design, you both have pretty diverse backgrounds. Do you think this path is fairly common for graphic designers in your community?
SEYI: It’s quite common actually for architects to delve into other forms of visually driven professions. I have several friends who are into photography, strategic advertising, freelance illustration, fashion design and a whole lot of other creative stuff. It might be cliché to point out, but studying architecture actually does prepare you for anything. This is probably due to its critical thinking requirements.
DAMI: Yes it is. Why I think it’s common here is, like with many other forms of design in the country, mediocrity thrives. The difference is that the architectural industry in Nigeria has structure, a defined legal structure. So you can't just start out by rebelling. It sucks you into the mediocrity and as a young person, it’s for chicken change. So a great number of us seek solace and fulfillment elsewhere.
With more than 180 million people living in Nigeria, it's the 7th biggest country in the world. Just looking at that I can only imagine how unique the challenges are and how you can help solve them as a designer. What are some of the design challenges you think are unique to Nigeria?
SEYI: Trust. A lot of the big brands don’t trust our local designers to deliver the quality they seek. They are quick to engage South African companies and outsource work to people who don’t understand Nigerian perception and behavior. They also fail to realize the importance of context in design, especially when designing for Nigerians.
We usually find ourselves educating our clients about the benefits of good graphic design and what it can do for their brands. It can be quite tasking sometimes because some of these companies don’t have design intermediaries, so I could be discussing Pantone or process colors with someone who has no clue what I’m saying.
DAMI: Poverty is a big problem. It’s the excuse for everything. It’s the reason why the fields are clouded with mediocrity. It’s the reason why brands don’t truly respect their audience enough to put enough thought into their visual communication.
Nigeria is a hard country! Basic amenities aren’t basic so creativity appears to be a luxury. This is an illusion, but many brands are willing to buy and feed into this illusion. There are a lot of challenges but these challenges make Nigeria a difficult, yet beautiful and captivating, place to create in.
View from the studio balcony.
How can you convince companies and organizations that design and creativity might be part of the solution here? Have you noticed a change in the recent years?
DAMI: Articles like this help. A lot of value in Nigeria isn't really recognized by Nigerians until it gets international or foreign appreciation. When there’s international exposure on good design from Nigeria and its effects, there is a higher tendency for those Nigerians with the muscle and cash to be more interested, willing to pay for and fund good design.
“What I’m trying to say is Nigerian designers need to ignore the illusion, ignore the sponsors of the illusion and not give up on good design.”
The nature of design is problem-solving and there are problems unique to us that good design can solve. What I’m trying to say is Nigerian designers need to ignore the illusion, ignore the sponsors of the illusion and not give up on good design, because aside from its obvious and direct benefits, it may also eventually bring the right kind of international exposure which in turn can convince these big Nigerian companies and organizations.
Another thing that helps is competition. Attention on design has improved within the last 6 - 8 years. The internet has opened the market up. These people may be poor but they are not stupid. They can see clearly what is happening around the world and they are demanding for better. Nigerian brands are starting to compete for attention based on international standards.
A lot of Nigerian corporations play the price game, not the quality game. The more they become aware of the fact that the market isn’t settling for less, the more they are willing to up their game. Convincing them revolves around pushing the image of the new forward-thinking Nigerian market, the Nigerian market that thrives on genuine creativity. Because at the end of the day for a lot of these brands, it’s about money — which isn’t totally a bad thing, by the way! These people usually know the power of creativity and good design, but how much of a priority is it to them if it’s not reflecting directly and immediately in their pockets? They need to see that good design literally pays, ching ching!
Dami on her way to a client meeting.
SEYI: The truth is that the companies that recognize and understand the power of good design and effective visual identity, and are genuinely interested in bettering the current living condition of the average Nigerian, usually don’t need convincing. This is because these brands know what they have to offer to Nigerians, and their long term goals are very clear and well thought-out. Once they encounter design that aligns with their brand message, they buy into it quickly. Fixing poverty requires long-term dedication. A lot of Nigerian brands use graphic design to achieve short-term goals. For instance, not too long ago, Nigerian banks started to rebrand because other Nigerian banks were rebranding. Some of these banks really messed up the legacy they had going for them, all in the name of following trends. In essence, what I’m saying is that you cannot convince brands that aren’t interested in genuinely fixing poverty about the benefits of creativity and good design in fixing poverty. We also need to focus on design long-term, not just for when events need to be publicized or new products need to be marketed. Consistency breeds trust.
One way to potentially combat these challenges is to assemble the local design community. Describe the design community a bit more. Are there many design platforms and events that help you connect and meet up with other designers?
SEYI: Yes. They are quite few, like Blank White Sheet by Surkreo. Nobody seems to be concentrating on core design, however. We don’t have conferences like the AIGA conference for instance. As a studio, we are trying to help define that some more by recording podcasts that express our day-to-day experiences as designers in Lagos.
DAMI: I can't say much for other fields but for graphic design, we are all just trying to figure it out. So we hang out as friends sometimes, chill and gist and exchange ideas. Nothing grand or elaborate, just social media pages, Whatsapp groups and of course small but commendable seminars like Blank White Sheet by Surkreo. We hope our podcast really helps as well. I’m positive it will.
“Humanity is complex; good design helps us enjoy our complexities when we can and brings simplicity when we can’t.”
Seyi working hard or watching YouTube, no one knows.
I’m already a fan of the podcast and love that you are actively engaging the community to talk about good design. Why do you think good design is important and what does good design mean for you?
SEYI: I quickly lose interest in things that aren’t clear in intent/purpose or things that aren’t easy to use or understand. I think good design is important because it just works. It’s really that simple. Less headache in trying to figure out what things are about.
DAMI: Good design works. It just works! Humanity is complex; good design helps us enjoy our complexities when we can and brings simplicity when we can’t. In graphic design, good design is resolved thought made visual. Good design is clarity, purpose and appeal. Good design feels like a missing rib, it fits just right. Without good design, we’ll all need meds.
As you’ve mentioned, the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet. As a result, we see many designers working for clients overseas remotely, not bound to clients within their own country. Do you work mostly with Nigerian clients or are your clients from all over?
SEYI: Yes, we do. We have just recently worked with some Zimbabwean and South African clients and we hope to do some more work with clients outside Africa.
DAMI: Not to sound cocky, but our business fills a void here in Nigeria. So there is a Nigerian demand for the kind of work we do. I enjoy it! But I really wouldn't mind some more international collaborations. If Jason Little reaches out for a collaboration, WE’VE BLOWN!
Only some of the great work by Dami & Seyi at Dá Design
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
SEYI: Not much, really. We get the bulk of our jobs from referrals.
DAMI: Most of our work comes from referrals. We work with a lot of startups and most of them haven’t even launched yet, so for confidentiality sake, we can't put a lot of work up on social media. So they show their closest friends who call us for work or refer us to friends too. Plus we are a small studio and we get really busy and it’s a little hard to be consistent. We are working hard to make that part of our brand more consistent, because we understand it’s power.
A design friend of mine from Nigeria told me that there aren’t that many traditional design studios anymore, because the tech startup industry is booming and hiring most of the design talent. Do you think this is true? And if so, how do you feel about it?
SEYI: The tech industry is booming, but we both know that there are a lot more design services than UI/UX design. They are hiring the best UI/UX designers. That’s it. Studios like ours are very few, not because of tech companies but because brand identity design is relatively young in Nigeria.
DAMI:Seyi took the words right out of my mouth.
When I think of Nigerian design I picture rich colors, beautiful illustrations and patterns, and a vibe that just feels good. But most of what I know about Nigerian design comes from your prominent and internationally recognized fashion scene. How would you describe Nigerian design and how does your tradition influence your work?
SEYI: Haha! Well, you’re right and wrong. I don’t really think that we have pronounced Nigerian design per se. I think what your description covers is our graphic art. Some designers have gradually started to adapt some of our day-to-day visuals and culture into design work, you know, to communicate more subconsciously. But I think it’s still too early to really categorize with clear and distinct qualities. It is getting more and more defined by the day though.
“I’m very inspired by how we live as a people, our food, how we express our emotions, our common stories as a country and the ones we have in common with the rest of the world.”
DAMI: I don’t think there is Nigerian design. Nigerian graphic art is more defined. But in the midst of the chaos and poorly designed church posters and clustered Nigerian movie posters, there are some recurrent visual devices and styles that can be harnessed into Nigerian design. Eventually that will happen. For now a lot of us designers get cues from the international design community — so much so that we even feed into the expectations they have from our design, like the beautiful patterns for instance. There is so much more that we can do with our visuals than these expectations. But you are right about the feel good part, we like enjoyment.
I’m very inspired by how we live as a people, our food, how we express our emotions, our common stories as a country and the ones we have in common with the rest of the world. We recently designed an identity for a coffee club that truly captures what I’m trying to say. I can’t wait to put it out. To get an understanding of what I mean by defining the Nigerian aesthetic, please check out The Fallacy of the African Aesthetic, Lagos Drawings and Lagos Patterns.
In your opinion, what are the top 10 design studios from Nigeria that everyone who might be not familiar with the Nigerian design community should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Lagos design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
SEYI: We need to meet more to discuss core design issues. Our approach to poster design, signage, danfo typography — our own stuff, you know. (I know some people will roll their eyes because I am slightly antisocial.) There are a few platforms. Tune in to our Soundcloud to hear about the challenges young design studios and freelancers face daily. Check out Cregital's blog, they write some cool stuff.
DAMI: I think it will happen organically overtime. For now I think we need more stuff online. Digital journals, blogs, curated sites, etc. Those will definitely help. A lot of hook ups *wink* and friendships start in the comments section, you know?
Dami and Seyi, thank you so, so much for this interview. I've learned so much and feel like I have a deeper understanding of the Nigerian and Lagos design community now. I know there is so much more to it, so I look forward to listening more to your podcast and following you and your favorite studios.