Demand, resources limit African web design…for now
Around the globe, social media may be heralded as “the next big thing”, but in the United States and in Europe, web design is a close second. And understandably so. Modern web design involves sufficient bandwidth, training, and free time. However, theses resources merely provide the basis for web design. The true reason is much deeper. In fact, the process of designing a website involves the entire brain and allows for both technical precision and unbounded creativity. At the core of web design is the belief that the Internet is about the production and sharing of ideas. These days, having an audience provides an impetus to get up in the morning. It turns life into a performance and leads us to more keenly observe our surrounding environment. In addition, being popular means standing out from the crowd to be heard so what better way to stand out online than by designing a website with stimulating visuals and intuitive layouts? The only caveat is that content must remain king; too many current web designers rely on style over sustenance. Africa, for better or worse, does not have this problem. At least not yet.
In general, it is difficult (and often somewhat meaningless) to compare the online worlds of Africa and USA/Europe. The infrastructure is not equal and neither are the user demographics (especially language barrier and reasons for using the Internet), the respective experiences with graphic design and advertising, or the general penetration of technology in daily life that so often influences the thought process. As such, African web design is not expected to be as “advanced” as other parts of the world who have had years to set the visual standards and direction of the Internet. Moreover, the majority of Africans use the Internet for practical reasons and do not have any need for wildly graphic and innovative sites. E-mail is a top priority, as are social networks and news outlets. In short, a relatively small percentage of African Internet users seek sites that would lend themselves to advanced web design.
However, Africa must remain knowledgeable about Western design trends while the Western nations are currently in the driver’s seat. Every month, Africa’s technological capacity inches closer to that of the West. Surprisingly enough, Africans are not far behind the average Westerner in terms of web design. Most American bloggers, for example, use free services with simple visual layouts (like WordPress and Blogger). African bloggers do exactly the same. After all, content is king. In a matter of years (assuming broadband availability increases and access and domain registration costs decrease accordingly) African web design will be on par with the West. Currently, the discrepancy in stages of web design lies in the fact that very few Africans run self-hosted websites. As Africans are more able to afford self-hosting, they will surely begin to experiment with more colorful design. That’s how the process went in the United States, at least. New ideas emerged from existing ideas and spawned even newer ideas. Such trial-and-error is what led to CSS3, for example. If Africa adopts mobile broadband, web design will become even more important as accessibility becomes a top priority. Mobile websites are just beginning to emerge in the United States, and are often not very elaborate. Mobile apps are a different story, however, but even there, Africa (particularly Kenya) is quickly catching up. Either way, expect a massive increase in demand for African web designers in the coming years. Current workforce training initiatives should have plenty of time to prepare for the trend.
Of course, the argument still exists that perhaps Africans should not yet be focusing on web design. At the end of the day, web design provides diminishing returns on the amount of time invested. It requires resources that could be put to better use, such as organizing events or producing valuable written content. Along these lines, the workforce should instead strive to build a solid infrastructure. These concerns are all very true and I agree that Africa does not have time to waste on superfluous tasks like beautifying the Web. However, there is nothing wrong with practicing web design on the side, as it is an excellent hobby that bolsters any resumé. Plus, web design can serve as an inspirational tool for other Africans and can spark progress in unforseen ways.
What exactly is African web design anyway? At this time the best definition would be a simple blog. However, some sites stand out above the rest. A critical look at African Digital Art‘s “Africa’s Best Blog Design 2009” suggests 1) content management systems, especially WordPress will continue to be a popular choice for presenting ideas in a cheap but efficient manner 2) South Africa leads Africa in terms of design recognition
- Adii Rockstar: Run by the co-founder of WooThemes. South Africa.
- afriPop: Utilizes the free Magazeen WordPress theme. USA/UK/Africa.
- AMI/Disko: A good-looking gallery site. South Africa.
- BHF Magazine: A modern magazine with bold image layouts. Founders/owners in USA.
- coda.coza: A beautiful WordPress blog. South Africa.
- From The Couch: Theme from Obox, a web design company in South Africa.
- Mark Forrester: Co-founder of WooThemes. South Africa.
- Obox Blog: Web design company in South Africa.
- AfriGadget: Sharp theme, runs on WordPress.
- WhiteAfrican: Also started AfriGadget. Runs on WordPress Thesis theme. Not South Africa!
For comparison, have a look at Smashing Magazine’s “50 Beautiful and Creative Blog Designs” from last Fall. The South African themes are not too far removed – possibly a sign that African web design will mirror that of the West. Think of these the next time you read a blog post. Would you be more inspired to help others if you read valuable content on such a site? Would added visuals detract from the author’s message? Also, does anyone have examples of African-owned websites that stand out from the average blog? Your suggestions are always appreciated.