Checkout our blog

We just talk about the good stuff

Olatokunbo Fagbamigbe and JR Kanu on Proprietary Design vs Conscientious Design

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 ( 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 (

Feel Uncomfortable? Keep Going!

Design Thinking is a unique approach to problem solving, one that can occasionally feel more like madness than method. However, you should feel that way. You rarely get to new and innovative solutions if you already know your destination. With design thinking, you are able to learn directly from new people, open yourself up to a breadth of creative possibilities  and then finally target on what is most desirable, feasible and viable for the people you are designing for.

You will find yourself shifting through the gears, moving from concrete observations to highly abstract thinking, and then right back to your prototype. You diverge. Then you converge.

By going really big and broad as you start to find ideas, you dream up all kinds of possible solutions. The goal is to then identify what among that constellation of ideas, has the best shot at really working You’ll continue to diverge and converge, but with each new cycle, you’ll come closer, and closer to a market ready solution

Embrace Ambiguity

Design Thinkers always begin from the place of not even knowing the answer, to the problem they’re looking to solve. Corporate culture can be sometimes to focused on being the first one to the right answer which, to be honest, is not a particularly comfortable place to be. You always need to start at square one. By doing this you’re forced to get out into the world, and talk to the people we’re looking to serve. You get the chance to open up creatively and to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions.

By embracing ambiguity, and by trusting that the design thinking process will guide you towards an innovative idea, you give yourself permission to be fantastically creative. You need to believe that there will always be more ideas, and not allow yourself to cling onto ideas any longer than we have to, because you know, that you’ll have more.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the ambiguity of not knowing the answer actually puts you in a good place to innovate. Think about it this way; If you knew the answer when you started, what could you possibly learn?

Embracing ambiguity frees you to pursue an answer that you may have not actually initially imagined, which puts you on the path to routine innovation, and long lasting impact.

How to design your life for happiness.

When Katie McCrory finally became tired of London she realised she’d become tired of her life as it was, so she redesigned it. She explains how to life hack your way to happiness.
From The Guardian, 13th August 2015.

Twice a day, like clockwork, an accordion player outside my flat strikes up his wheezing repertoire of three songs. As I write, he’s performing a rather jaunty version of La Vie en Rose. Again. This is my new soundtrack, having recently moved from London to Copenhagen; a process that was a long time in the thinking, and a short time in the actual doing.

‘Why Copenhagen?’ every single person I meet asks. Here’s the sanitised stock response I tend to reel out: It’s quite hard living and working in London, so I thought I’d try somewhere new and Copenhagen looked pretty cool.

But here’s the real answer: I used design thinking to change my life.

Before I continue, I want to assure you that this is not an article about some wishy-washy ‘breathe your way to happiness’ guff, or pseudo-psychology masquerading as a silver bullet to overnight success. This is about looking at some of the processes and methodologies you might use at work to get stuff done, and applying them to the rest of your life.

Read more:


You Have Big Ideas!

Anyone, and I repeat, anyone can approach the world like a designer. All it takes to unlock that potential as a Design Thinker and a dynamic problem solver is a bit of creative confidence.

Creative confidence is the belief that everyone is creative, and that creativity isn’t restricted to drawing or sculpting, but it is in itself a way of understanding the world. David Kelley, Founder of IDEO puts it well saying, “Creative confidence is the notion that you have big ideas, and that you have the ability to act on them”.

Design Thinkers rely on creative confidence when it comes to making leaps, trusting their intuition and perhaps pursuing solutions that they haven’t totally figured it out yet. It’s the strong belief that you can and you will come up with creative solutions to big problems and the confidence that all it takes is rolling up your sleeves and getting it done. Its the confidence that drives you to create, test, fail but keep going, assuring yourself that  you’ll get to the solution you’re working towards.

Remember. You have big ideas. But they become bigger when you realise you have the ability to act on them.


Be Optimistic!

Design Thinking is inherently optimistic. To take on any challenge you have set yourself you need to be able to believe that progress is not only an option. It’s your only option and if you didn’t believe that, you wouldn’t even try.

Optimism is the embrace of possibility and the idea that even if the answer isn’t right at her fingertips, we know that it is out there, and we can find it. Optimism not only drives us to push on when we hit dead ends, but it also makes us more creative with our solutions. Approaching your challenge from the perspective that you will get a solution creates drive and energy to motivate you through even the most difficult of problems.

Remember to persistently focus not on the obstacles that may get in the way, but rather what could be. Constraints are always inevitable, but they can sometimes push you in a direction that you might not have seen before. The main key is always to have the thought that every problem is solvable and you’d find yourself at a solution before you even know it.

Failure Can Be Good

Failure, has always been associated with being bad. In our exams, or anything, it has always been difficult to avoid failure. But the same way we look back at our former exam scripts to see where we failed, and use that to see where we need to prove , is the same way we can use failure in anything we do as an incredibly powerful tool for learning.  Thomas Edison once said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. And for Design Thinkers, sorting out what won’t work is part of finding what will.

We are all seeking to solve big problems, but we are also bound to fail. Designing experiments, prototypes and interactions and testing them is at the heart of design thinking but failing is also a major part. By adopting the right mindset, you’ll inevitably learn something from failure. A common refrain around IDEO is “Fail early to succeed sooner”, and part of its power is the permission it give to get something wrong.

Remember: By refusing to take risks, some problem solvers actually close themselves off from to real chance to innovate.



The Joys Of Empathy

What exactly is empathy?

Its the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand other’s lives, and start to solve problems from their perspectives. Design Thinking is based not only on empathy alone, but it still remains an important factor. Empathy is the idea that the people you are designing for, creating for, are your road map to innovative solutions. By putting ourselves in the shoes of the person we’re designing for, human-centered designers can start to see the world, and all the opportunities to improve it, through a new and powerful lens.

By immersing yourself in another world, it does not only allow you to be open up to new creative possibilities, but you also leave preconceived ideas and outmoded ways of thinking. By empathising with people you are creating a product or service for, you truly grasp the context and complexities of their lives, but also keep the people you’re designing for squarely grounded in the center of your work.

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate.

As Design Thinkers, we use an iterative approach to solving problems as it makes feedback from the people we’re designing for a very important part of how a solution evolves. As we continue to iterate, refine and improve our work, we put ourselves in a place where we’ll have more ideas, try a variety of approaches, unlock our creativity and end up arriving at successful solutions quicker. Gaby Brink, the founder of Tomorrow Partners preaches the joys of iterating, stating, “By iterating, we validate our ideas along the way because we’re hearing from the people we’re actually designing for”. We iterate because although we are geniuses, there is the possibility we won’t get it right the first time. Or the second. Or perhaps, even the third. Iteration allows us to explore, get it wrong, follow our hunches, but finally arrive at a solution that will be adopted and ultimately embraced.

Instead of hiding out in our workshops, or our offices, hoping that our idea will become a hit, as a Design Thinker, you quickly get out there, and let the people you are designing for be your guide to your solution, because at the end of the day, we iterate because it allows us to keep learning.

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Consent to display content from Youtube
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google