When Lawrence Okoth speaks, it is the sound of a youthful mind with a big imagination. He is a creative person taking charge and responsibility of his own creation, the Object Lab, which is a research-driven, workshop for product prototyping and testing based in Kampala, Uganda.
The main objective of the Lab is to explore past and present knowledge of African craft, production processes and material culture and build on these toward new future possibilities - serving the art, design, and construction and manufacturing industries.
Okoth’s Object Lab is already leaving a mark on society, contributing to several design teaching programs and design events, most notable being Kampala Fashion Week 2017 and Kampala Design Week 2018.
He refers to himself as a Product or Industrial designer. “I design and develop objects for low volume and for mass production in a workshop or factory context. Such objects could include furniture, consumer electronics, medical devices,” explains the design enthusiast who also works with Design without Borders Africa (DwB) as the Head of Product Development.
DwB comprises a multi-disciplinary team of designers who apply design as a tool for development... A lot can be achieved when different brains and skills come together as Industrial, Product and Service designers do at DwB. To achieve his vision, Okoth leverages the strengths of the teams from both the Object Lab and DwB. “ The Lab is a project that I am currently setting up in collaboration with Design without Borders Africa which is a design studio providing services in product and service design, design training, research and social development,” he says.
Okoth at work
It has operated for the last 21 years, having started out as a design program funded by Foundation for Design and Architecture in Norway. It has since then grown in leaps and bounds from a non-government organization into a commercial product & service design entity since 2017. Since its inception, DwB has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and organizations in Uganda to advance the delivery of design training through workshops, guest lectures, student internships, design competitions and design fellowships. Their most recent work has been with the Ministry of Tourism where they rapidly delivered basic product design training over two days to 40 arts and craft businesses.
Beyond design training, DwB has contributed to the conception and development of several products that are successfully offering more value to clients. These include eco stoves, game based financial literacy and family planning tools, agricultural tools, medical devices, and safety equipment. Both studios are on a mission to offer design training, and the provision of quality product and service design expertise.
The lab has worked with notable organizations like The International Trade Center, ,The SASA Innovation Center Limited (SICL),SASA Industrial Design Academy with the goal of earning a reputation of a central reference point for innovation teams providing services.
Okoth, who is also an architecture graduate, is so passionate about design, he wants everyone out there to understand its importance. It is one of the many hurdles faced by both Object lab and DwB. “One of the major challenges has been in getting our target market to recognize the value of design. In general, mainstream design practice in Uganda is still in its infancy, more in areas beyond graphics, fashion and more recently architectural design. In recent years design training and promotion has therefore had to remain one of our foremost services,” he explains.
According to him, with a market that is yet to fully recognize the value of design, comes the challenge of being able to create a viable business out of the practice of design. It explains why there is constant change in ways of operating. “Since evolving into a commercial design office, at DwB we have had to constantly sift through a number of business models that are more compatible with the Ugandan market but still maintaining the essence of what our design team is truly passionate about. We are a result of a massive amount of 'trial and error' but this is also at the core of our design process,” says Okoth.
Object Lab and DwB also find it difficult to access quality materials as well as fabrication and production techniques, this calls for designers to navigate and forge ways of delivering products that are useful and affordable for end users. “The sooner we can make quality materials and production processes more accessible, the further we can advance with Ugandan design practice,” he cries out.
Okoth holds the view that Uganda’s arts and crafts sector needs to break the shackles and move on from what was picked from the colonial masters. “I think that the arts and crafts industry in Uganda is, for most of the part, 'stuck' in the colonial era. The industry is yet to break from the approaches, materials and ideas or concepts taught in the colonial era and truly encourage originality,” he says.
He also acknowledges that the transition has been delayed by a number of factors like limited access to basic inputs, the fact that most talented artists, designers and makers are still struggling to practice their craft for purposes beyond the need to support their own basic living. All this makes it difficult to appreciate the evolution of true Ugandan art and craft because colonial teaching brought certain advantages but also interrupted pre-existing methods that now struggle to get any recognition according to Okoth.
''I think that digital tools and approaches available to artists, designers and makers today are a huge opportunity to unearth and explore pre-colonial approaches and materials but this is a decision that artists, designers and makers have to constantly make to eventually redefine the role of colonial teaching particularly for the positive contributions that it made, “ he explains. As a key stakeholder in the industry, Okoth is already making an impact through Object Lab and DwB. The design driven pair has its work cut out, there is need for more emphasis on design through different training programmes and workshops. He would like to be part of a sector that takes more ownership of its own identity, and of its power to define the identity of Ugandans, East Africans and Africans. This can only materialize if the industry becomes more curious and expressive of its full and vast history. Okoth also dreams of an arts and crafts industry that takes full advantage of both traditional and digital tools available not just to compete on a global scale but more importantly to unearth approaches, techniques and materials that seem currently stuck in history. “ I would be curious to see how these then merge with modern knowledge and hopefully redefine our arts and craft identity,” he questions. He also thinks the local arts and crafts industry should celebrate its own with more art, design and craft movements, associations and events driving more relevant social agendas. It should also be inclusive and able to adopt forms of dialogue that welcome contributions from people of all walks of life, and blind to income level, social standing, level of education among others.
As he keeps a keen eye on the industry, his works at Object Lab and DwB define how key design is in any product development.
A polished design process has clients as part of the main team that leads the process like it is done at both Object Lab and Dwb. They run a human centered design process which is extremely collaborative across the board thus leaving all parties satisfied with the end result.
Written by : Deusdedit Bugembe
HOW TO REACH: Design Without Borders
This article was produced as part of the Handicraft Souvenir and Development Project implemented by the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities and the International Trade Centre funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework .