Asilia: Moving to Becoming Owners of their Own Products and Services

Asilia approach

We asked Lulu Kitololo  (@weareasilia) from Weareasilia, a design company based in the UK and Kenya, to share some insights into their practices and views on the current drives of change in design.

1. Tell us about Asilia’s design practices and describe why you do what you do.
We’re strong advocates of passion at Asilia and this informs our practices; from the clients we like to work with (passionate people: artists, activists, pioneers, visionaries, storytellers, rebels, explorers, tree-huggers and students of life) to our approach.

Our design practices can be summed up as consisting of the following stages:

1. Dialogue and understanding: We are more interested in our clients overall goals than in the particular piece of work they are commissioning. We often work with clients who have never commissioned creative work before and so we interrogate what they want to ensure that it truly is the most effective approach in achieving their goals. Beyond the particular brief, we make sure to understand the bigger picture of who they are, what they do and where they’d like to go. This involves looking at the wider landscape that they operate within – who their competitors are, what they are doing, who the audience is, what they want.

2. Discovery/exploration: Our research approach depends on the project. It may involved desk-based online research, visiting places and talking to people but a key element is visual research. We will look at materials our client has previously produced, materials their peers and competitors are producing, best practice examples and examples of design that their target audience enjoys and engages with. We then start to collate design examples that express particular themes and concepts that address the brief, essentially creating mood boards. We discuss these with the client to gauge whether these directions are resonate with their vision. It’s a useful exercise because oftentimes a client will have strong positive or negative reactions to something which, helps to focus our next steps. This is one of the most enjoyable stages of our practice and often, the research will inadvertently provide inspiration for other ideas and projects.

3. Concept development: Here is where we take the inspiration and ideas and start to create something tangible from them. We usually present 2-3 different directions at first and have the client choose one that we then develop and refine. This is good because it stretches us and the client is usually more confident in making a decision about one thing when they can compare it to an alternative.

4. Execution & Application: We develop and refine the work and, in some cases, apply the design to a variety of different materials. This is perhaps the easiest stage of the process in that, the bulk of the creative thinking has been done and the necessary tools/elements have been created (e.g. typographic styles, identity elements, colour palettes). It is less stressful too as, by this point, there is less uncertainty and anxiousness about how the client will respond to the ideas. This stage can however be the most tedious and time-consuming.

Our team consists of designers and developers so, while the above stages relate specifically to design, where projects have a technology aspect (e.g. websites), we work with the developers on information architecture, wireframing and functional specifications. We believe it is key for designers to be involved in this level of the technical aspects because of the understanding required to translate these specifications into a user-friendly graphic experience.

We like to work collaboratively with our clients, encouraging them to share their ideas and co-create with us, rather than leave us be and come back when everything is done. As such, we ensure that they feedback at every stage of the process so that they are engaged and that there are no surprises. We like to think that, while we are the experts at what we do, the client is the expert at their product/service/offering and are likely to have better and more extensive knowledge of their audience. They are thus likely to have important insights that can inform the creative ideas.

Our company has a base in the UK and in Kenya and we currently have a remote working structure with most of us working from home. The benefits include flexibility – both in terms of how each person manages their time but also, in terms of being adaptable for our clients. This model also forces us to be better communicators as we have limited face-to-face time together. With the opportunities the internet has facilitated regarding being able to easily connect and collaborate with people across the world, we are able to work with clients anywhere. Thus, good communication skills become even more important to ensure projects run smoothly and outcomes are successful.

2. What do you think are the current drivers of change in design practices at Asilia?
One thing we are concentrating on now is reducing our dependence on client work. Not only to we want to diversify our income sources but we have a lot of self-initiated projects that we love devoting time to and want to develop to the stage where we can share them with the world. We want to give them the attention they need and, as a business, we have to be realistic about the numbers adding up. Thus we need to ensure that a good proportion of these projects can be monetised. While a lot of client work involves creating materials that enable our clients to communicate certain things or to use as promotion, a lot of our internal projects need to be more directly commercial. We need to sell the outcomes as products or services.

As we are effectively our own clients for these projects, our design practices take a different form. The stages become less rigid as time constraints also become less fixed. For example, we may create a prototype of something and then work on developing the visual aspect of it over time. The process may not be as linear and the end point is less defined.

As we’re in the beginning stages of really pushing this, it’s hard to elaborate on what effects it will have on our design practices but, if I were to answer your question in a sentence: the current drivers of change in our design practice lie in our desire to be more self-sufficient, to give form to our many ideas and to push the boundaries of what an agency looks like.

Working with clients who do not have experience commissioning design is another factor that has had the potential to change our design practices. While we try and educate such clients on why we do things the way we do – the value to them as well as to us – sometimes, we aren’t very successful. There have been times where we’ve adjusted our practice as a result but, we usually end up regretting it. We pride ourselves on being quite flexible but there are certain things that we have to stand by.

3. What excites you about design at the moment (this can either be your own practice at Asilia or other practices)?
Diversity is what excites me
I come from an African background and have worked with a lot of African organisations or organisations that have an African focus and as such, people observe that there is an African flavour to my and Asilia’s work. What I am interested in is challenging what that means. What does African design look like? How can work represent the culture it is speaking to without resorting to the same clichés? There are many designers who are exploring this through their work and it’s exciting to see design that reveals these many layers and many identities – design that tells a story about its context. For example, while there are a lot of useful lessons to learn from Swiss design, it need not be the standard that everybody should aspire to.

4. What do you think the future practices of design will look like and why?
I see a growth of independent designers/design outfits and innovation that will come with this diversity and desire to do things differently. WIth a growing population of freelance designers, the variety of design practices will also grow as people create practices that work for them rather than conform to practices that are imposed by an organisation. Also, as it becomes harder for people to find jobs, an increasing number of designers will graduate and learn the ropes by trial and error, rather than from internships, work experience and employment experience. Thus, practices will be less rigid and so likely to evolve more easily and often.

As people in general become more design-aware and appreciate the value of design, the demand for design will grow and necessarily, the ways of meeting it. I think that the design scene will be less and less dominated by big and/or established design firms.

Considering changes in technology and the growth of interactivity and user-generated experiences, I think that design will increasingly become less about end products and more about experience. Users will become more involved in design and designers will need to shift from having a lot of control over a process or an outcome and assume a role that is more like that of facilitator. 

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