How Design Can Transform Africa: Lessons from Ideo (Part 1)

Design is everything. Everything! (Paul Rand)

The future of Africa. Success is the accomplishment of a design. In my widely read essay titled “The Future of Africa“, I challenged citizens of African extraction and well-wishers to think broadly and act decisively about the many problems that plaque the continent. What happens in Africa does not end here. In that essay, I posited that the pursuit of productivity (getting more from less and doing more with less) is the way forward. The subject of productivity should become a big ticket issue in the front burner of discussions and as a young African; I’m committed to making this happen. I recently held a Skype session with one of my mentees on the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP). The objective of that session was to discuss the modalities around developing a business model for my mentee’s business. She is a product designer who runs a start-up firm designing Afro-centric products. It was during the course of that hearty conversation that I happened on a piece of insight. How likely is it that one could in fact apply design principles to transform something that has been described largely as unreformable? My curiosity antenna is up on this subject and I am very keen on exploring it. This post is the first installment in that quest. I’ll not rest until Africa becomes a desirable place to live and do business.

Good Design. Bad Design.Design speaks to the form and a function of an object. The appearance of a thing is as important as what it does. The field of design is today full of Aesthetes who call themselves designers. Granted, aesthetics is a form of design which emphasizes beauty but it is nevertheless a limited expression of design. Aesthetics (beauty) parades itself as good design but those who know better are able to unmask its deception and shame it appropriately. There is yet nothing wrong with beauty. Good design brings together form and function in an intricate manner. Good design strips things to bare. The design guruPaul Rand has this to say about design “Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communications: talent, creative ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process”. In my work as a designer of icons (logos are dead), I have found it very revealing to work with naked colors (white, black, ash and other grey shades). The true test of a great logo is to see if it is able to command beauty and affection in black and white. Most iconic logos are brilliant without bright colors (Think Apple, Nike, Adidas e.t.c).  Good design doesn’t date. Bad design does (Paul Rand). Enough said about the philosophy of design. The million dollar question is, what has design got to do with the subject of transformation?

How do you re-design MONDAY?. Yes! How do you go about re-designing Monday; the most loathed day of the week? The fine essay published by Wiredcontains the fascinating story of how the duo of Ideo and Studio 360 re-designed Monday. Ingrid Fetell, a design director at Ideo’s New York office says “Monday in abstract is really bad”. The day (Monday) has become a scapegoat for our unhappiness. We’ve been conditioned to dread it, even if the things we hate about Monday really have nothing to do with the day itself. Here comes the first big insight about design, re-design or generally changing things. Establishing a context for what we are trying to do and properly analyzing the ramifications is the first step. John Caswell; the principal of Group Partners; a multidisciplinary firm in London; creators of the Structured Visual Thinking methodology talks about avoiding the tragedy of answering the wrong questions. This wisdom is essential. In the Ideo/STUDIO 360 case, it was important to frame the right context for re-designing Monday. For them, it was established that the real problem with Monday begins on Sunday. One wonders beyond the several cliches what the real context is for transforming or re-designing Africa?

The most profound ideas are hardly ever from exclusive textbook theories but deep human truth. To joint Ideo/STUDIO 360 team went to work and came up with some bold ideas based on the initial insight and other ethnological facts. The first of such human truth about Monday is the waking up part. Waking up on a Monday morning sucks. What sucks even more is waking up to the blaring default alarm sound on your phone. To deal with this, they designed a special alarm device called Lolzzz.

Lolzzz is an alarm clock that gently shakes you from your slumber with a child’s laughter. Studies have shown that our brains respond to laughter by lighting up in the premotor cortex, the same area of our brain that prepares our face to smile. Waking up to laughter means you’re neurologically waking up with a smile on your face. With this, they achieved the objective of making the act of waking up more pleasant.

Now that waking up is a delight, what happens? The reality is that the thoughts of meetings and bucket list of deliverables is capable of choking the excitement of waking up. To deal with this, the team sought to explore opportunities for happiness. While there are indeed few things as stress-inducing as seeing a solid block of appointments and meetings, Ideo realized that despite a full schedule, there are still opportunities to find small, unexpected moments of joy in the day.


They created a solution called PopUp, an app that scrapes your calendar for unseen moments of joy. The app will notify you of fun detours while you’re en route to somewhere or remind you that you’re about to meet someone new. It does so by ditching the typical rectangular calendar boxes for bubble-like circles. “Joy is not a constant state, it’s an unexpected burst,” Ideo describes. The app is accompanied with a physical counterpart; a funny little gadget that blows a bubble every time you have a meeting. “The horror of calendar comes into sharpest focus with notifications,” says Fetell. “We thought that this device that sends up one perfect bubble would be the best possible way and most surprising way to be notified about a meeting.” While these (the app and the gadget) may not be big enough to make a dent in the anticipation or dread of Monday, it certainly surfaces the opportunities for happiness.

Next came the idea that highlighted the power of gratitude in releasing energy for performance. Ideo keyed into this and created something truly epic. To do this, they went back to Sunday. “Sunday night is a time of scarcity,” Fetell says. “You’re focusing on what you don’t have and what you don’t have is any more weekend.” Instead of thinking about what you’ll soon lose, Ideo made an app that will let you focus on what you should be grateful for. Every Sunday night, the app, called Sincerely, asks you to record a note of gratitude that will be sent to someone you care about. That message will be delivered and (hopefully) you’ll get a note back filled with warm fuzzies on Monday. Ideo designed a prototype set of old school (but Bluetooth-enabled) can walkie-talkies whose antennas wag like a dog’s tail when you have a new message.

Re-designing Africa. So how can we tap into the Ideo case study to transform Africa? Of course, I am not suggesting that we create snazzy apps and ancillary devices although that is not a thing to rule out. There are certain principles that we can embrace to re-design Africa. This will require us to re-imagine, learn and unlearn. I must assert that there wouldn’t be a one cap-size fit all solution. Such must flow from a deep understanding of the context. It is my intention to offer my two cents along the way. In the second part of this post, I will explore further the design principles that might help inspire the transformation of Africa. Suffice to say at this juncture that the concept of design is beyond the pedestrian complex of creating products, services, models and experiences. We can deliberately evolve a socio-economic and political reality for Africa. We can design the future of Africa. It is a task that we; citizens and people of African extraction as well as well-wishers must prosecute because what happens in Africa doesn’t stay in Africa. The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Femi Oni

Femi’s overarching purpose is to inspire brands (individuals, organisations and nations) to unlock potentials to achieve sustainable growth and impact. His mission is to mentor 1000 brands in Africa and beyond by 2025.

Specialties and Interests: Business Model Design & Innovation, Visioning, Strategy Design & Execution, Project Management, Change Management, Strategic Branding, Operations Excellence, Process Modelling, Product Management, Productivity Management, Entrepreneurial Leadership (Startups), , Social Evangelism, Education, Sustainability, Cybernetics, Risk & Compliance.

3 thoughts on “How Design Can Transform Africa: Lessons from Ideo (Part 1)

Indeed design is everything. We must revisit and reconstruct Africa as we envisage it to be. Emphasis must be on productivity and creativity.


Absolutely on point!. Thanks.


Well said! You are absolutely correct. Productivity and creativity!


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