The Creative Brief

Designing a Continent:
Osmond Tshuma

Earlier this month, we returned to Johannesburg to bring together the second class of Obama Foundation Africa Leaders, hailing from 45 countries across the African continent. In just a week, they forged new relationships, developed new skills, and left committed to change the future of their continent together. And they did it all in a dynamic and energetic space that was transformed by young graphic designer Osmond Tshuma.

Osmond is a Zimbabwean award-winning artist, designer, art director, typographer and curator who specializes in African-inspired themes. He developed the visual language of the Leaders: Africa program that appeared in every public-facing aspect of it, from the program logo, to the swag and to the banners on the walls throughout the space. Get to know the young man who is transforming African design, one pattern at a time.

Q: What brought you to this work?

A: It’s funny you start with this question. I only recently discovered that the work I’m currently doing is a result of how and where I grew up. I grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe near a school called the Danhiko Project. It was a finishing school for people who had dropped out of school to fight for liberation during the Zimbabwean War. I recently discovered that the beautiful paintings and visual languages around the school have subconsciously influenced my work.

Danhiko is written in black lettering with a graphic design beneath it.

Photo courtesy the Danhiko Project.

There aren’t a lot of images of the school, but if you ever see the buildings, you’ll see graphical patterns all over, which growing up, I always noticed and liked, but didn’t think much about. Now I find myself thinking, “Wait, what I’m doing now is what I’ve been seeing since the very beginning.” That place planted a seed in me.

Q: That’s a major realization. What else or who else do you think inspired you to pursue the path that’s led you to where you are now?

A: The only reference I had to graphic design were things I would see in Men’s Health Magazine or Sawubona Magazine. I remember thinking how great everything looked and how talented the people who created the designs must be, so I decided to go to the source to find out for myself.

I spent four years in South Africa at the University of Johannesburg and during that time, I discovered a TEDTalk by Saki Mafundikwa, one of the greatest graphic artists from Zimbabwe. He also founded the graphic design school, ZIVA. In the talk, he spoke about the need for African artists to draw their inspiration from Africa itself, not from outside. That meant a lot to me. I decided to figure out how I could tell an African story through the things I create. Saki Mafundikwa was a spark for me.

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Q: Can you tell me about a project where your African-inspired approach worked particularly well? Or maybe a project that was one of your favorites?

A: Definitely the rebranding of IKwekwezi FM. It was one of the first things I worked on at an agency right after I finished varsity. The radio station decided they needed to rebrand themselves as an African entity, and that’s where I really fell in love with everything African. We would sit down with cultural experts as the project moved forward to make sure the work captured the meaning and influence it was based on, and it was such an enriching, mind-blowing, and beautiful process.

I’ll also never forget that project because I was given the opportunity to present the entire process to company leadership. I used to have so much trouble presenting; I would stammer and struggle to collect my thoughts. My creative director at the time, who was leading the project, decided to leave the firm. That’s when my copywriter, Zamazwide Nxumalo and I had to step up. Under that circumstance, I went from someone who couldn’t speak properly, to someone who was able to articulate and sell this new logo to executives who make the big decisions. Between that and seeing how much the public loved the logo, it was dope and it taught me so much.

A woman sits in front of a wall structure with geometric shapes and designs.

Photo courtesy Osmond Tshuma.

The business card of IKwekwzi FM is shown on a background of colorful geometric shapes.

Photo courtesy Osmond Tshuma

A white van is pictured with geometric shapes on it and the name IKwekwezi FM.

Photo courtesy Osmond Tshuma

Q: What an incredible journey. Now that I understand more about how you developed your style and process, I’m wondering if you can you walk me through how you brought the Foundation’s Leaders: Africa program designs to life?

A: Well, I started by sketching. 60 percent of that process was me thinking and trying to get the concept right in my head. Often it’s not actually pencil on paper. There have been projects where I get the concept right, but then the execution takes a long time. It really depends on the project, and this Leaders project took me a while.

The original concept for the program logo was the protea flower—a flower native to South Africa. After rounds of feedback, I needed to find something more pan-African, and that’s when the Zulu and Xhosa necklace emerged. That necklace is really a symbol of leadership that can be recognized as one of the most iconic necklaces in South African culture. For me, women and mothers are the first leaders children see. When you’re growing up, mothers are really the anchor for youth—they’re the first person you have to look to as a guide and protector. That combined with the welcoming nature of round shapes led me to pick that symbol for the logo.

Pencil sketches of the protea flower and the Obama Foundation logo are shown on paper.

The patterns throughout the rest of the space were influenced by various Zulu patterns, Ndebele mural art, Adinkra, Kente and Kuba cloth designs, Shona wooden art, and other African artifacts.

Osmond wears a yellow flannel shirt and is shown drawing a pattern for the Leaders: Africa program.

In all of my work, I’m trying to lift up the beauty of African design by expressing it in new and innovative ways.”

—Osmond Tshuma, designer

Q: Everyone here at the Foundation and our audience really loved everything you made for the 2018 program. What did you change in the designs for this year’s event? The new version feels quite cohesive with the original.

A: Yeah. This year’s brief asked me to update the existing pattern and change the colors. I thought that was so cool—for a client to like my work enough to keep it and want me to iterate is special. Like, pattern iOS1 to iOS 2.0 (laughter). That simple directive turned out to be pretty hard, though!

I tried to see the pattern in different parts, and I tried countless variations. The more shapes and colors I added to the background, the busier it became, so I had to make those shapes much larger. I ended up creating two concepts: the pattern from last year on top as a mesh and giant shapes of color as the background. Then it turned into a game of layering the two parts and seeing what would work. I had to be mindful of what colors I added; there had to be a balance between the colors, mesh, and background.

To create the updated version of the Leaders: Africa pattern, graphic designer Osmond Tshuma inverted the existing pattern and added an additional layer of colored shapes. See for yourself:

Q: What was it like seeing your original work in the space for the first time?

A: It was crazy. I’m freelancing right now, and I’m really doing my own thing. So being able to get to come to the convening at the African Leadership Academy and see what can only be described as a creative explosion was incredible. My work was everywhere and on everyone. People were talking about how much they loved it and were so excited to meet me. I was thinking, “Are you serious? Can I get some water please?” It was beautiful (laughter).

I think the best part of it was walking into the auditorium and seeing the hanging banners and the stage, and watching people take pictures with all of it. I didn’t expect it to be that amazing. I sat in the very back row to take it all in, and at one point I actually zoned out because I was like, “Mama I made it.” I was speechless.

This project gave me the stability to be the same cool Ozzy, just more confident.

Q: I can imagine that was a really powerful and rewarding experience. What do you hope for yourself and for your work in the future?

A: My greatest hope for the future is that the design company I co-founded, Mam’gobozi Design Factory, continues to grow and becomes the best design agency in Africa, and even in the world. But for now, I’m trying to spend more time on design rather than advertising. I’ve been invested in finishing my African-inspired alphabet series, which I have featured on my Instagram page. Lately, it’s been hard to do it while I balance my other work because I have to do a lot of research to inject the history and culture of an African country into the project.

I can actually show you. This is my letter R. It’s inspired by the Imba or Nimba mask sculpture. It’s a profile-view of the artifact, but if you were to see it in 3D it’s a shoulder mask. It takes a lot of time to do the research behind each design and its meaning, but my goal is for each letter to feature an aspect of a specific African country.

An abstract letter R is shown with what looks like a traditional Africa mask.

Artwork courtesy Osmond Tshuma

For the Leaders: Africa 2018 program, I designed the quote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” By using Obama Foundation’s main typeface, Gotham, as a guide, I created graphic letters that were inspired by the visual language. This helped me tie everything together seamlessly. This year I was able to finish all the letters for the alphabet, which allowed me to use the font in other collateral elements, like specific country stickers.

A diptych shows the custom pattern alphabet Osmond Tshuma created for the Leaders: Africa program.

Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. To close, is there anything else you'd like the world to know about you and your work?

A: I hope the world knows that in all of my projects and in all of my work, I’m trying to lift up the beauty of African design by showing it in new, innovative ways. There is so much inspiration on this continent, and who knows if I’m doing it right, but it’s always my hope to show the beauty and richness of Africa, one design at a time. That’s why creating designs for the Leaders: Africa program was so important to me—it’s the perfect showcase of all that Africa has to offer, and it was a beautiful example of how we’re all connected no matter where we’re from.

You can learn more about Osmond Tshuma here, and you can learn more about the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program here.

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