Understanding “African Colors” for Graphic Designers

By Encer Design, a division of The Oyemaja Group.


Facebook is blue


Colours, for graphic designers, go beyond making your designs ‘pop’. It’s not merely cosmetic and it should not be an afterthought - “Let’s go with Blue. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn all use blue. Blue will be good for my new app”. NO. Understanding the psychology and purpose of colours helps you create an impactful brand.



Colours create a strong connection between a brand and its customers by strategically evoking emotions you want your audience to associate with your brand or product. Red for instance, naturally gives off a feeling of excitement; on its extreme use, we sense danger. It can also incite feelings of warmth, energy, playfulness etc. Yellow gives off happiness and cheerfulness; purple oozes luxury and authenticity while green has come to be associated with health and nature. Therefore, if you were to start a clean energy company, you would be tilting towards green. If you were to open a hamburger joint, red or yellow might be a great choice.


Colours are so powerful that the brain automatically processes and associates them with distinct moods and emotions. Babies, for instance are more drawn towards bright colours. It aids their brain’s learning capacity and creativity. This is why kids’ toys, clothing, books and even their rooms are usually painted in a mix of red, yellow, pink, orange, blue colors. This is because of the feeling of playfulness and cheerfulness around them, and its potentials to make them energetic all day.





Africa





A quick glance at the flags of African countries reveals something striking – an almost excessive, obsessive use of red, yellow and green. You could almost bet your favourite sneakers that these countries, working with a tight deadline, outsourced the same brand agency who used one template for everyone. But no, it’s not one agency or designer. Taiwo Akinkunmi designed the Nigerian Flag. Theodosiah Okoh designed Ghana’s. Paul Ahyi designed Togo’s. They never met or knew each other. Is it telepathy? How’s this crazy colour sync possible?

The idea behind the colours is the hack. And NO, again; red wasn’t chosen because of dangers in Africa. Yellow was not preferred because Africans are naturally cheerful and happy folks. It’s historical and it’s deep. You heard that right. Colours can have a historical undertone.

The 1960s was when the breeze of nationalism was blowing hot across most African countries. Folks wanted the colonialists out. Africa was desperate, rightly so, for its independence. These colors, were borrowed from Ethiopia’s over-100-years old banner.


Ethiopia.




Why Ethiopia? Ethiopia is one of the two African Countries that was never colonized (the second is Liberia); they fought quite well and tossed out the Italian army. It would therefore make sense to borrow from their flag design from Ethiopia – the living example that Africans can resist colonization. The Ethiopian flag comprises of red, yellow and green colors. There is no clear consensus on the rationale behind Ethiopia’s choice of colors but the common belief is that it represents the Holy Trinity, linking it to a line of emperors said to be descendants of Solomon – the last being Emperor Haile Selassie.

The flag of Ghana, borrowing from Ethiopia’s and designed by Theodosiah Okoh, makes use of Red and Yellow. Red, for Ghana, represents the blood which was spilled for the independence of the country. The Yellow represents gold and other minerals in Ghana. The black star represents black people. Keep in mind that the former flag of Ghana (then ‘Gold Coast’) was predominantly blue with an illustration of an elephant and the British flag.


Pan Africanism


Other countries, after gaining their own independence, soon began to follow Ghana’s rich and powerful choice of colours. For instance, Togo, Cameroon, Senegal etc. These colours became the synonymous with Pan-Africanism. Speaking of Pan-Africanism, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) in 1914 with red, black and green as its Colors. Guess again? This was a modification of the Ethiopian flag. Red, for him, represents the African blood and ancestry; black represents the color of African skin, and green represents the fertile African lands. Being one of the pioneers of the Pan-African thought, coupled with desires for a unified African government by great men such as Nkrumah of Ghana, the colors Red, Yellow, Green and Black became synonymous with Pan-Africanism.




Must Africa be red and yellow?


A good number of companies and start-ups founded by Africans, in Africa and for Africans, do not use any of those colours or a combination of some or all. Some do, several don’t. Calendly, founded by a Nigeria, is all blue. Paystack loves blue too. Chipper, founded by Africans, favours black and purple.

So, why are Africans not championing the red and yellow movement? Why the betrayal? Well, it’s not betrayal or disloyalty to a cause. On the contrary, these founders are patriotic and loving. But the choice of colours for a company is never primarily based on racial or cultural identity, unless the purpose of the company is to promote culture or race. Instead, a brand strives to pass across an emotion or message with its brand design. This is the purpose for the choice of colours. If I want to incite feelings of playfulness and cheerfulness, I would pick red and yellow. It is merely coincidental that I am African. It has nothing to do with my continent. If I decide to pass across emotions of trust and luxury, I would soak my brand in purple and gold. I should not be persecuted for betraying my kin.


The middle


You may find yourself asking – “I’m building a luxury real estate company for Africans. I want Africans to feel a deep connection with my brand. I want to build an African luxury company. Must I adopt red, yellow, green and black, then throw in some purple and maybe gold somewhere?”

The answer you have in your head in right. That will be chaotic. Understand that colours are only one aspect of an entire brand identity. There is the choice of type, the brand story, sonic identity, etc. A good brand designer is able to effectively utilize all these elements to pass across the emotions and feelings you hope to communicate. Your brand colours might be blue and purple, and yet, still be able to create a connection with Africans. Ask questions such as “Why are we choosing purple?” “How will Africans perceive this colour?”, “What message are we hoping to pass across with this message?” “Is this colour offensive to Africans considering the sector we currently operate in?” etc.


That the symbol of Pan Africanism is red and yellow does not mean Africans detest blue or are incapable of drawing a connection with purple. Pan-African colours started with Ethiopia, but Africans existed before humans learned to spell “yellow”. You can create a stronger connection with your purple shades than another brand can with blinding red and yellow. It’s all about strategy.


Oyebanjo Olamide,

Lead Designer, Encer Design.




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