Our plan for this article was to showcase unique aspects of Nigerian design and how these aspects informed the contemporary design of products, processes, and structures of Nigerian society today. First off, we struggled. We then decided to poke about the history books. Maybe there was something there we’d missed. Our expedition led us to happenings in the 12th to 15th centuries, the pinnacle of the brass arts in our country’s history. During this period, a lot of brass work was designed in the Ife and Benin Kingdoms. These works of art are now on display in museums around the world, most notably, the British National Museum. What’s more, these and other amazing feats of Nigerian creativity are at risk of being lost forever.


As we say in Nigerian Pidgin, “I get am before no be property.” This is loosely translated to mean that you can’t claim to own what you used to have. Or more bluntly put, “stop basking in old glory”. For too long, Nigeria has lived a schizophrenic dichotomous existence. On one hand, there’s the broken formal system—corporate and government—where though there are some good examples, we find several examples of design failures. And on the other hand, there is the informal sector where examples of great design abound in our food, music, and literature. However, we are starting to see the formal sector awaken to its gaps and the elements of great design that typify the informal sector are starting to make their way into the formal sector.

We are co-founders of The Design Institute, Lagos. In our 18 months of existence, we’ve learned the futility of explaining the term, design thinking to potential clients. Instead, we explain that we specialize in “Conscientious Design”. We work with our clients to care about all their stakeholders—not by paying lip service, but by actually going out to meet and speak with them. We facilitate prototyping sessions of processes to uncover ways in which makers may have inadvertently excluded the very people they aim to serve.

Slowly, the importance of this work in corporate Nigeria is dawning on us. When companies and nonprofits call us in as design consultants, we are doing more than solving problems. We are identifying, creating, and preserving the processes that will ensure sustainability in the long run. Great design has been and always will be self-replicating.

The conscientious design stands in stark contrast to “Proprietary Design”. Most of Nigerian formal society is all about Proprietary Design. Its systems and rules are esoteric, exclusive, afraid of imitation, focused on the maker’s or company’s agenda than on the person using the product. Conscientious design, on the other hand, is open-source, expansive, and focused on how the power of authentic human connection creates value in ways that cannot be imitated.

Back to our story of the dying art of brass sculpting in the Benin Kingdom. It appears the same spiritual and mystical inspiration that led these centuries-old designers to develop these world-acclaimed beautiful pieces has also hindered the development and growth of these arts. It has also hindered the application of their principles, techniques and craftsmanship to other fields.

There are rules surrounding the creation of the sculptures. First, only male descendants of some families like the Inneh ‘Nigun and Omodamen families in Benin are taught the art of brass casting. They swear an oath not to teach anyone from outside their bloodline. The intent of this oath was to preserve the sacredness of these products as they adorned the temple and palace. Only the king and the priest were allowed access to these items.

These same principles of Proprietary Design can be seen in Nigerian society. Our firms aren’t known for great succession planning. Information is not openly accessible both in government and in companies. People stay in their lanes and only speak when called upon. Women, although arguably more liberated in corporate Nigeria compared to other parts of the world, are still beset by patriarchal pressures. And too often, papa—the CEO—knows what’s best.

As we come into our 56th year of independence, there’s a quiet revolution happening in organizations around the country. People are waking up to the ways in which Proprietary Design is crippling their ability to grow, scale, innovate, and create value. They are questioning the legacy of their parents’ wisdom, and we at The Design Institute are privy to the front rows of this revolution.

The Benin Kingdom is the archetypal Proprietary Design story:

  1. Passed down the male descendants: Proprietary design wants to be exclusive, with the keys to the kingdom only open to a select few. Conscientious design demands that we open the dialogue up to all people affected by the product. In our work with organizations, we often ask leaders to invite the voices least likely to be heard in their organizations.
  2. Limited to the bloodline of specific families: We see this principle play out in organizations when innovation is relegated or exalted to the portfolio of a single department. This department or position either bears the burden of preaching at the entire organization or is exalted as the cool kid on the block and the guardian of all greatness. Both ways are destructive in the long run. We’ve found the most success in situations where the CEO champions the drive for Conscientious Design. All of a sudden, silos are broken and departments start communicating, finally.
  3. Swear an oath not to teach anyone outside the clan: this is the height of keeping intellectual property secret. The secrets of the art of bronze casting have been kept within the original families for centuries. While this may be good for tradition, it is bad for innovation. The bronze casters still employ some of the ancient techniques in their art. The secret culture adopted by the families has prevented outsiders who may have contributed immensely to the advancement of the art from participating. We are not aware of any other industries or disciplines that employ lessons learnt from the art of bronze casting. This great industry has not been able to reproduce. It hasn’t scaled, it hasn’t been able to propagate itself.

How do we reverse the failings of Proprietary Design in Nigeria and indeed across the world? We believe the best way to do this is to share and celebrate Conscientious Design wherever we find it. Please join our quiet revolution to bring conscientious design into all that we do by sharing any examples you find with us.

❔ Whois

JR Kanu’s career as a design coach began at Stanford where he led organizations to implement design thinking methodology in their product creation and problem-solving strategies. He has coached teams at Victoria’s Secret, Ireland Davenport, Africa Finance Corporation as well as the Stanford Africa Business Forum. Prior to Stanford, JR worked with the United Nations across Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Haiti. He was also a writer at Black Enterprise and Esquire magazines. JR holds a BSc in Mechanical Engineering from Calvin College; a Master of Arts in Journalism from New York University; and an MBA from Stanford University. Before co-founding TDI Lagos, he managed payment innovation at Konga, where he built KongaPay. He is now building his next company, REACH (www.findreach.com). He is on Twitter at @jr_kanu.

Olatokunbo Fagbamigbe has worked for some of the world’s biggest companies including British Sky Broadcasting, IBM and Google. At Google, Olatokunbo was responsible for managing strategic Google Apps Deployments and Partner Operations across Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Before co-founding TDI Lagos, Olatokunbo was CIO of Konga where he led Product Development and helped to establish the technology team across two campuses in Lagos and Cape Town. Olatokunbo was also a Consultant Academic at the University of Bedfordshire where he was one of the pioneer speakers at the EU Funded B-Innovative – Entrepreneurship for Better Business in Europe Programme. He holds an MBA degree from Cranfield University School of Management, the UK and a BSc in Engineering Physics from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is now building his next company, AdKandi (www.adkandi.com).