I've just spent the last couple of weeks in Accra, Ghana. From the moment I stepped off the plane I was greeted by a wall of heat, noise and activity. Taxis hoot to get your attention, street sellers tap on car windows offering everything from sweets to scrabble sets, and billboards are bright and colourful. Amazingly, but perhaps inevitably, this organised chaos of the physical world is being replicated in the online digital world of Ghana. Bright garish websites are the rage, with buttons shouting out to be pushed and menus flashing their wares. It's an interesting reminder that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that good visual design might not be universal, but local.
Take GhanaWeb as a prime example. This is the 9th most viewed website in Ghana according to Alexa's rankings, and the top Ghanaian website. On its homepage it sports about 200 links to other webpages, and the site's different sections meander across an array of colour palettes (Opinions and Entertainment being my personal favourites). To an outsider it seems incredible that one of the most highly read Ghanaian sites is designed in such a way. But you would be mistaken for thinking that this is down to site negligence or poor design.
While in Accra I was fortunate enough to spend a day at ExplainerDC , one of the country's top web development agencies. The CEO of ExplainerDC, Kojo Abedi, a recently returned Ghanaian who spent all of his adult life in the UK, explained to me why the Internet in Ghana is how it is. "Subconsciously people compete with a visual cacophony of light and sound. As a web designer, you have to go with what works and attracts the particular audience you're aiming for. Minimalist websites in Ghana get no attention."
Paul Boakye, a creative consultant at ExplainerDC, pointed to everyday life to explain this behaviour. "The way people dress is so much more colourful. It's continual competition for attention. That becomes the norm and so everyone has to compete for attention." At a launch event for one of ExplainerDC's clients I saw this first-hand. A few local chiefs had dressed in formal attire for the occasion, with each one looking to outdo the other with elaborate jewellery and colourful garments.
But it's not only online that design sticks to its traditional African roots. As Paul went on to tell me: "Dark blues and pastel colours are not so popular here. They are much more European or even Caribbean. They almost don't belong... I was getting my house painted and wanted a pastel blue paint. People thought I was crazy to want sky blue walls. Two years later I'm still living with a green that I didn't want in the first place!"
With the recent high profile launch of iOS 7, and the increasing unification of what is termed "good design", it is fascinating to get a fresh perspective from an alien marketplace. Design is about simplicity and familiarity. In the case of Ghana, this does not translate to the vision of white minimalism that we are used to in the West. Instead it is a world of colourful chaos that needs to be navigated in context, much like Ghana itself.