The year is 2018 and Caleb Uzuegbunam, a founding member of Àșà Coterie had been an experience designer for two years. He was in his fourth year at University studying Mechanical Engineering. But he knew that in his heart he wanted to become a designer. One thing was missing — a community.
“I remember thinking how difficult it was to connect with other designers. I didn’t even know where to go to meet other designers,” he said in an exclusive interview with Technext about starting Àșà Coterie.
Before he started Àșà Coterie, he had known that a community was important having been in communities before, like the Google Developer Group, Usable, Figma Africa etc, where he learnt the basics of design.
“I saw how these communities were very adept at organising and facilitating the interactions with people, but there wasn’t something like that close to me for design,” he said of what propelled him to start Àșà Coterie.
None had what he was looking for. “I felt that the scope was too narrow, too small for the kind of experience I was looking for.”
And so with two friends, he started Àșà Coterie, or simply, “The Coterie” for those who know it well; a community for graphic designers, products designers, marketing designers, niches design fields like web3 designers, game designers and all kinds of designers you didn’t even know existed.
What is Àșà Coterie?
“Right from the beginning, we wanted it to be a cross-disciplinary community,” he said.
The name “Asa,” the Yoruba word for “culture” and the Igbo word for “beauty” was very intentional.
“I was very specific about choosing a Nigerian word,” he said “because I didn’t want it to be radically westernised. We do consume a lot of western media, but we don’t live there, so a large part of our experience is still much rooted here, and I needed that to be reflected in the community experience. I wanted to encourage people to be more culturally aware, even as they are designers,” he said.
And so they created a waiting form, opened a Twitter account, and gradually built their community of designers on WhatsApp; posting job opportunities, asking questions, answering questions and exchanging ideas.
Today, the community is made up of some 7000 Nigerians, scattered across the globe as millennials and gen-z globe-trot for greener pastures, looking for like-minded professionals, a digital abode of some sort.
Together with the admins of the WhatsApp group, Uzuegbunam has been able to create something called Àșà Sessions, a series of digital classes where they invite members to teach the community about new trends in the trade.
“It’s a learning experience where we invite someone from the coterie. They teach the community,” he said.
Growth and focus of Àșà Coterie
But even as members have spread abroad, holding design jobs in the gazillions of tech companies that have sprung up in recent years, and a waitlist increasing, Uzuegbunam doesn’t want to rush in opening the gates to Àșà Coterie to the rest of the world. He said he wants to maintain a close-knit community that will be more productive for members.
The core of what Àșà Coterie seeks to achieve in the Nigerian design space can be likened, as he puts it, to the act of Mbari. Mbari is the ancient Igbo tradition where children are dedicated to the practice. When they come of age they are put into groups and given a plot of land where they live for the rest of their lives, storing cultural artefacts, and making sure the Igbo tradition doesn’t die.
The idea is that they document the happenings and events of their period as well as venerate the town’s gods and goddesses.
“What we are trying to do with Àșà Coterie is to encourage a lifelong practice of creativity in such a way that it’s more valuable to keep doing something, and let it compound over the years, with the hope that the work will improve and benefit the people that get to experience the work,” he said.
Except for Àșà Coterie, the focus is on passing down the wisdom of design.
“Our major goal has been education,” he said. To achieve this, he regularly partners with key players in the tech space to teach and onboard all kinds of designers. Just last year, The Coterie partnered with CowryWise to train and onboard women as product designers.
Within The Coterie, the admins have created a repository of all the designs and classes that have been shared for members seeking knowledge.
“For people who love being self-paced, we save all of the things that are constantly shared within the community. Available for anyone to us to learn,” he said.
But Uzuegbunam recognises that he has his work cut out for him before he can achieve what he wants to achieve.
“In a country where we lack genuine appreciation for properly designed systems, the act of Mbari is kind of a rebellion against the status quo,” he said. But this rebellion, he will gladly be a part of.
“This is not a side quest,” he said. “It is not a side hustle. Design is so much bigger than that. It’s its own industry. On its own, it derives value. Design should be an utmost priority.”
Will the Coterie be monetised?
But even with the success that they have made at The Coterie, he isn’t quite ready to monetise or even sure that they will ever monetise the community.
“We are a community. We haven’t really been interested in monetising. The times that we’ve gotten something of funding has been donations,” he said.
At some point in 2020, the admins of The Coterie made grid pads which sold out. But the pandemic happened, and they were unable to make deliveries until July, so they’ve put the breaks on that.
The future of the community
They had tried to meet physically once, but as members have taken up jobs in places like Microsoft and Google across the Atlantic, the turnout was worse than they had expected. And, as members have been meeting in small groups to keep the bond from The Coterie alife, Uzuegbunam said that they are planning another physical meet soon.
But for now, their focus is on creating more offerings, laying the groundwork, if you like, for the future that he wants for the industry.
“We are intensifying efforts for our product design course coming out this year sooner than you expect,” he said. “The website is being built.”
He is hopeful that with the work that they do at The Coterie and the work of other design communities, sooner rather than later they will break the idea that design is an afterthought, but rather an intrinsic part of the human community.
“I’ll like to see a lot more genuine conversation happen about the ethics of design,” he said. “I’ll like to see design as an industry take on its own form. A lot of people align design with tech so tightly that we forget that design is as much a defining force of society as much as technology. I’ll like to see design exhibitions happen.”
Get the best of Africa’s daily tech to your inbox – first thing every morning.
Join the community now!