Once Upon a Ugandan Design Firm
When you think of design, you probably don’t think of Uganda. So it was quite an experience for me when the first interview I did in the first week of settling in Kampala was with a design firm.
Meet Addmaya. Established four years ago, it is now one of the top design firms in Uganda, raking in the big corporate clients with just a 5-person team. Walking from the matatu stage to their office, I was definitely surprised. I was expecting the office to be located in a more downtown area where all the tall, shiny buildings were. But what I walked up to was what looked like a residential gate in a quiet area just outside of town.
Once I was inside, I was greeted by the founder and Creative Director, Peter Mukiibi, and Art and Design Director, Arthur Nakkaka. They served me orange juice and muffins and were all around very friendly. It was very Ugandan of them. Here are some excerpts and paraphrased responses from our 2+ hour conversation.
How They Got Started
Peter and Arthur were working at Watoto, a large church organization, doing their video graphics and visuals. There, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted and could really explore themselves creatively. As they developed their skills doing what they enjoyed, they realized the next step was to expand their talents and services to outside of the church. So they started Addmaya, with just a few shillings to register their company and a Mac they borrowed from their friend. With that one Mac, they served clients one by one until they gained traction and could afford more tools and manpower.
When asked how they got into design in the first place, Peter’s response was quite memorable. He had excelled in art during university and was always intrigued by how international news networks like CNN presented their news. He dreamt of one day doing the graphics for a big news network. At one point he tried being a musician. But his true calling came when he ended up at a local news station doing menial paperwork. The station had just one Mac computer, donated by an American preacher, and only one employee was authorized to use it. One day, that employee was absent from work. So Peter begged his boss if he could try using it. The boss was adamant at first but gave into the kicking and screaming and let Peter have his way for just that day. If he broke it, his parents would have to replace it. Peter agreed. After just a few hours of playing around with the Mac, he fell in love.
Leah: What were some of your biggest challenges?
Peter: One of the things we’ve been struggling with is that the agencies sometimes have a perception that Ugandans can’t do something, so they bring in South Africans, who don’t understand the culture of the people, and their work doesn’t have the heart beat of Uganda…
In regards to international development, if any programs come in, I think the best thing would be to work with the locals. Given the opportunity, they can step up to the plate…
I think the west doesn’t perceive us as up to the standards of the west…but I mean we’re not perfect, especially with professionalism. We have yet to get there. Don’t know if you’ve heard of African time – when you want to meet at 10am you say let’s meet at 9am because they’ll always be late. We’re trying to change that.
It’s not easy because sometimes people will say ‘you’re trying to be like them!’ “Them” meaning westerners. We are trying to bring out our culture and do things our way but we are also trying to adapt good things from the west such as time keeping, answering emails, etc.
We’re not trying to mimic what’s being done in the west but we’re trying to bring the spirit, the energy, the tradition, the colors that Uganda is known for into our work.
Leah: What’s your design inspiration?
Arthur: We look at the stuff you look at too (Behance, Dribble, Designspiration) but there’s lots of inspiration around us as a country – the communities, the music, the sounds. We are a colorful country and gain inspiration from our surroundings.
Leah: What were some of the most ridiculous client responses you guys got for design feedback?
1. Could you make the logo more metallic?
2. Could you make it more award-y? (For an award website)
Leah: What do you see as the future of design in Uganda?
Arthur: I hope that we can penetrate the live action and CG visual effects space.
Peter: If artists can begin to imagine solutions, imagine stories, and have a platform to express it, there are no limits to that. Considering Uganda is made up of young people who are embracing new technologies – every young person wants a smart phone and get into social media – they’re realizing you don’t have to do things just for money. You can do what you love.
To be honest, we never thought Addmaya could be where it is now. It’s like we are playing. We’re just playing. In the back of our minds, we’re telling ourselves, let’s do this for some time then jump into other bigger things, like work for the government. But then you realize that the only way to influence people is to do your own work – then they’ll see it and like it.
After the recording stopped, we ended up talking about what their big goal was. They wanted to of course transform and bring to surface the design scene in Uganda but they also wanted to establish some kind of design academy. With the closest thing to a design education being a few art classes in university, there really is no formal school for the kinds of skills that the Addmaya guys have honed by themselves in Uganda.
This got me thinking in terms of how to implement a more user-centered approach in international development. What better way to help people solve their own problems than to provide access to a design education? Besides the technical skills you learn as a designer, the act of simply creating something by yourself, from your own imagination is an act of autonomy – which is something that charity handouts undermine.
Here is a short video message from Addmaya to us:
Check them out at www.addmaya.com