Ideas & Debate

Design is for everyone, not just experts

Artists painting walls
Artists painting the walls of the basketball court at 209 Statehouse Road, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

A while back, a random conversation with a colleague at work fell short of accusing designers of professional bullying and ambiguity. In fact, she insisted that designers are dismissive and bellicose and ranked us second in terms of hostility to the “gods” in IT (please don't shoot the messenger!). Apart from that being wildly hilarious, I felt a bit sad because together with our co-accused we have been guilty as charged once or twice.

Our “sins” include intensifying jargon that we have no inclination to elaborate just to keep people out of our privileged and mystical space; obstructionism in its purest form. (feel free to insert an emoji of your choice).

But that is changing and redemption is nigh.

"Design is for everyone… including you" was the theme of this year's Nairobi Design Week that came to a close on Sunday March 15, 2020. Well, that sounds very good, but why should people care? According to Adrian Jankiowak, the director and founder at Nairobi Design Week, this years’ theme was centred around design being empathetic, accessible, sensual and open. The emphasis being that anyone can use creativity to solve problems.

Non traditional


Design appreciation and understanding has modulated over time and we now see it venturing into non-traditional spaces, countering the misconception that the primary value of design is in aesthetics hence excluding the "non-creative people". For instance, in the remotest of our imagination if at all, do we ask ourselves how a blind person perceives beauty, or if they have a desire to be fashionable. We would probably leave it at the visual/walking aids.

Wanjiku Murigi who runs Studio Hisi, an adaptive clothing brand, is of a different opinion. She has developed the concept of fashion for the visually impaired, where she prints Braille across the chest or on the sleeves of garments so the visually impaired can read, relate and be fashion conscious. She is an advocate for conscious design, curating work around the belief that “The less we see with our eyes, the more we see with our hearts”.

There was also The Blind Photography Project, a photo exhibition by Brian Otieno, a visually impaired Kenyan photographer. The project has been curated in different cities across the globe including Vienna, Windhoek, Caracas and Nairobi.

The photographers explore the cities assisted by guides as they document their experience through photos. Just looking at the clarity and composition of the photos, it is hard to believe that they were taken by a visually impaired person, breaking the perception of the blind as non-visual. The descriptions are printed in Braille as well so a visually impaired audience can enjoy.

In the course of my design sprint, interacting with the various exhibitions that included live painting and exhibited artworks, dancing, basketball, skating, lighting and furniture design, I believe I may have made a cameo on the music video by that was being recorded on set… fingers crossed. This goes to show that we are all touched by design on a daily basis even if we do not realise it.

Inclusive design

Personally, I have been an advocate of inclusive design. User experience takes precedence in concept/product development. In organisations, the reality is that design decisions/ideas can come outside the designated creative team so everyone should feel confident to share their idea. I think the designers transform into peppery mode when instead of ideas being communicated they are prescribed; this is tantamount to creative strangulation.

That said, every individual need to appreciate their own creativity in the process of learning problem solving. After all, creativity and critical thinking are among the 21st century learning skills required to compete globally.

Design indeed has quite the personality disorder, from being messy, complicated, scary, loud, silent, colourful, blank exciting and empathetic. Yes, designers have been on the receiving end but we are slowly redeeming our tainted image, we shall get there wherever “there” may be.

Ideally, we all have a sense of design, what we may lack is the creative confidence to articulate or execute. Inclusive design in forums like Nairobi Design Week has opened up an aperture for more people to participate and shows that design is everything and everything is design.