Life of a Nigerian Designer

Sojii Oyemomi, Brand Consultant/Strategist, Episod X 

Introduction

Growing up in Nigeria is very different for everyone, but if you are a designer, chances are high that you would think differently from an average Nigerian. That can also can be very challenging, seeing the level at which we seem to have normalized mediocrity.  This feeling is worsened when you realize that you don’t have the power or influence to change it yet.

In this article I’ll be sharing the realities of different Nigerian designers, drawing from my encounters with some of them, personal observations and my own journey as a designer.


Problems/Typical scenario 

Being a Nigerian designer comes with so many challenges outside the mastery and practice of design itself. Most Nigerian designers have their own unique journey to design, but a lot of us can relate with one or more of these scenarios:

The Newbie

Life of a Nigerian Designer
Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

You are self-taught with no formal training in Design. You start by playing with a software and intrigued by what it can do, you spend hours watching several tutorials and learning different techniques. Then you move unto the next software and the next one after that.  You design a poster or a business card for free and it gets printed. Wow! You are beyond flattered. Now you are a designer. 

You believe you are good because your friends on Instagram say so, but being honest with yourself, you know there is still a gap between what you do and the kind of works you admire.

You start paying attention to what other designers are doing all over the world,  get stuck on Behance browsing through hundreds of portfolios and looking for works that stand out to you. In no time, you begin to imitate those works, mastering many new techniques and getting better. 

At this point, you are super proud of yourself.

Then you get your first gig, then another one and another one. At this point, you decide that this is what you want to continue doing and so you apply for a job. Now you get paid to do what you love, bearing little to no risk, plus you even get side gigs from time to time and made extra cash (it didn’t even matter how much you charged).

You are beginning to get stressed out seeing that there are some other parts of this that are not as fun as you thought. A client asks you if know a printer and you instantly become a printer seeing that you could make some extra cash. Before you know it you’ve gotten into trouble. Now you’ve learnt your lesson and promise yourself to never try it again. 

You begin to feel overwhelmed by demands from your employer/client who has no respect for you nor values your work. He/she is enforcing terrible design choices on you, especially because you are young and you are now becoming unsatisfied with these working conditions, but you feel a bit stuck because you are scared to take any risks.

You have very few good examples that you can emulate, and you only know a handful of “designers” around you that are doing very well.

You want to teach what you know but you are scared and overthink the whole thing. Now you are angry at someone else trying to do the same with the little they know. You become motivated and call for your first class but no one wants to pay. Some honest people will tell you they can’t afford it except you can teach them for free or subsidize your fee (5k).

It took so long for you to hear that design is not about Visuals or software; it was a hard pill to swallow. You wondered what they meant, but now you know that there is still so much to learn. 

The truth is we all still have a lot of growing to do if this will become what we dream of it. 

JGB (just got back)

Life of a Nigerian Designer
Photo by Nadir Balcikli on Unsplash

As a Nigerian designer, you just got back from school ‘in the abroad’, where you experienced the impact of design on a different level. You are back home now, angry at everything, constantly comparing and criticizing everything and everyone. Still disappointed by the so-called Nigerian Big brands.

You want to work in a reputable agency that will help you grow but you are probably underwhelmed by most of the ones you’ve come across.

You see “shitty” designs (graphics mostly) around you every day, and you are upset because you know even when you were just a beginner, you could have done better.

Since you couldn’t find any agency you will be proud to be part of,  you considered starting one with some friends. It’s getting tough, you are all getting broke. Everyone finds their way. Survival calls. You see big local projects go to agencies outside the country and you are mad, wondering what is so different from what you can already do.

Agency Owner

Life of a Nigerian Designer
Photo by Aluko Brown

As an agency owner, you’ve worked hard all these years and you are finally landing some big clients. Now you need more hands to get the job done. You reached out to friends to recommend other designers you can afford to pay. You realize how much more they still have to grow. Everyone that could be a fit is either too expensive for you or lacks staying power as they are also trying to be like you. Your sustainability is in question and you have a hard choice to make.

You are now very confident cos you’ve sat in the room with many big Nigerian clients and now you know it’s a piece of cake to deal with clients but you are scared of new environments. Sometimes, you are intimidated by new opportunities because you think you are just a local champion.

You struggle to balance doing great work and making so much money. You are tired of the typical Nigerian clients, they just don’t seem to get it. After stressing you so much, they end up not paying well or they hold on to your balance for as long as they want.

You got frustrated with the situation, take the laws into your hands and ruin the relationship. Now you wish you were more patient with the client. What sort of blackmail is this?!


Bridge

One of my favourite quotes reads:

“Be a yardstick for excellence, most people are not used to an environment where quality is expected.”

Steve Jobs


This is very relevant in our case as Nigerians, and if you are not careful as a designer you might actually chart the course for mediocrity and ultimately have no relevance in helping us move forward.

My question is are you really that excellent at what you do? I mean, confident in what you can do to add value anywhere, even beyond Nigeria?

Here is the reality, a lot will change in the coming years and there will be a huge difference between those who commit to the process and those that did not.


Obstacles and mindset

Problems are simply opportunities for design in disguise- unknown

As a designer in Nigeria here is a secret, you are surrounded by things that can make you relevant—problems. Don’t run from it as it will require you to develop the right mindset to match up with the skillset you’ve built.

To be honest,  there are a lot of enterprising opportunities here in Nigeria and if you are brave enough, you can take advantage of them. There are also a lot of problems with the system; leadership, traditions, many of which already affect you.

You have probably considered leaving for South Africa many times, sorry… Canada. Yes please go if you desire it and have the opportunity to. Design is relevant everywhere in the world, and you can make us proud from ‘the abroad’. 

However, I do have an interesting narrative in my head about how these smart young Nigerians leaving the country will end, but it is a story to be shared another day.

I must say though, that it does take bravery and exceptional intelligence to have the option of leaving this country and then deciding to remain, especially as a creative person in process. More often than not, being in Nigeria seems like a disadvantage.

Life of a Nigerian Designer
Author’s archives

I said to myself, “Sojii, if you’ve truly decided to stay here you must never for one day complain about your situation, take it to your advantage and don’t limit your mind by where you are.”

I’m not a competitive person, but I strongly don’t ever want to feel envious of any designer anywhere in the world. I must never feel underachieved or uninspired by my growth nor feel disadvantaged in anyway.

This mindset is only valid when you work the work, and trust me there’s a lot of work to do. My goal to influence design globally and not just stay here as a local champion. I have my unique context and constraints and I will use those as my starting point. As Lexain once told me, no designer is allowed to complain about problems or difficult situations.

As a Nigerian designer you might be ‘broke’ many times and many of your friends who envy your autonomy will be confused by your bank account. Many a time, your being broke is not just as a result of bad client situation but also the part of your own self-management. I mean you know what I’m talking about (it reflects in different areas of your life. Doesn’t it?) . We love autonomy, but not always the twin, discipline. 

When it comes to your finance, learn your minimums. Know how low you can maintain and don’t allow yourself to go any lesser than that. Once you are out of cash for too long it might start to disturb you and eventually your work. Your ship starts to sink. Sometimes, in such a situation you might just need to be strong enough to get through while at other times, you may have to change something. Know when to do which.  As much as you can, do what other financially smart people do to build wealth (Save, invest, insure…)


Your Advantage

1. Desire

Growing up in an environment where almost nothing is working, you have developed a desire to see transformation. your advantage here is that beyond desire, you’ve got what it takes to effect change. Like I always say

“So much can be done where so much has not been done.”

2. Pioneer

Understand that this is still a young industry in Nigeria and you should be glad you are one of the first or second generation of designers. So if you work smart, you will be glad you stayed. 

3. Global relevance

Design all over the world is evolving and even masters of design are catching up to fit into new roles and functions of design. So you are very lucky to be around at such a time as this. You are like a foster child of all of this evolution. Be smart. The world needs you.


Conclusion

It takes a level of self-leadership to make a real difference in an environment like this. Most of the things that will help you build a successful career may not be in place. However, if you happen to be around now, to join in and build for the next generation, welcome to the builders club. Lol

Life of a Nigerian Designer
Photo by Frederic Köberl on Unsplash

Now you have a responsibility bigger than yourself and it takes a lot of hard work and patience; just like anything worthwhile will require.

I can safely conclude that most of us are really working hard to figure this thing out and some of us simply appear better than most of us. However, the number of committed Nigerians working hard at this thing called “design” is a glimpse of hope to what the future holds for us. 

It has taken me so long to put this together and I appreciate Tunji for the Honor and the Patience to follow through with this. Thanks for being an inspiration.


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