Designed to Succeed – take three! Meet Natalie Anderson of Design Express Ghana Ltd. She is one of the young people in Accra leading the charge to change the interior design landscape. Eighty percent of Natalie’s past projects are offices for corporate clients and showrooms, although she is getting more clients in the hospitality space having recently completed a lounge bar in the Accra Mall. Having started her company only 4 years ago, her client list is admirable, boasting of Vodafone Ghana, Alcatel Lucent, Nokia, Seimens Networks and Ghana Commercial Bank. Below she shares her nuggets of entrepreneurial wisdom mined from her journey at the helm of her own design firm.
Lesson 1: Do not be afraid of changing your area of focus.
NA: “I originally wanted to design cars and went into mechanical engineering. But while in school, I discovered that perhaps this was not the right course if I wanted a design career. There was too much theory and not enough practical application. I found an Interior Architecture academy in Marbella, Spain. There I discovered Industrial Design and had an a-ha! moment- it fit me perfectly. So I moved to Cape town, South Africa to study at a university that offered this course. In my third year there I was chosen with two other students to take part in an exchange program in Malmo , Sweden.. There I took a course called Body Technology and it changed my life. It was a very bizarre course with a heavy science fiction ideological backdrop. It forced me to be introspective and innovative as a designer. Camille, the course lecturer, inspired me to reject conformity and indulge my imagination, a very hard thing to do in university where graduates are mass produced to design mass produced products. I returned to Cape Town bursting with a new found sense of purpose.
Lesson 2: Use the unexpected to take that leap of faith.
NA: “I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. The original plan was to start a bamboo farm and produce sustainable furniture with a design edge, pieces that were contemporary and updated. But life got in the way and I worked for a while as a freelance graphic designer. When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Kiki, that was a wake up call. It was time to regroup. My daughter’s father worked at the time for a firm that needed to refurbish one of their showrooms. I decided to roll up my sleeves, called a friend and put forth a proposal. Despite being novices, my partner at the time and I maintained a confident exterior during our presentation which I assume is what won the clients over. Lawyers were called, the company was registered and the rest is history, as they say!”
Lesson 3: Consider ‘see then seek’ marketing.
NA: “Clients mainly come to us through referrals. We do prepare and write proposals but not very often. Usually, people walk into other people’s offices and say ‘oh, is that what they’re doing over here?’ I would say we have a ‘see then seek’ type of customer referral as well as a demand driven one. Rightly or wrongly, on some level ours is a culture of followers. Some clients need to see it to understand it and to want it. Having said that, the majority of our clients are multinational companies that are looking to establish a head office in Accra and hence need our services.”
What is your biggest design pet peeve?
“Exposed wiring! I even dislike trunking. So most of the time even when the client tells me they do not need additional or too many power sockets, I ignore them and add additional ones where I foresee a potential need. That is what as a commercial interior designer you have the luxury to do. Another thing that really bothers me is not using the same tile to replace damaged ones. I literally loose sleep over it! It is visually haunting.”
Lesson 4: If you can, keep staff lean.
NA: “We are only three staff. I do a lot of the creative design and external relations. There is also an Office Manager who doubles as our customer service coordinator. Then, there is an architect who I work closely with to translates my visions into sketches and technical drawings. Our accountant comes in once a week and we have interns join us for short periods as well. We have a network of subcontractors that we enlist as the project demands. One of the best pieces of advice I got when we first started out was from a financial strategist who advised me to keep a lean office – have a structured system in which to operate, have as few employees as possible and outsource when necessary to keep overheads low and maximize profitability.”
Lesson 5: Understand the needs of corporate clients.
NA: “In commercial and professional environments, you have to put the creativity in subtly. Most corporate clients do not want their staff to walk in to the office and think they work in an art gallery. However it our responsibility to make sure we don’t hand over a sterile office space. We always try to add something typically ‘Design Express’ in there. There will be a cultural element, or some kind of symbolism. For things to be authentic, you need a story behind it. It is just that with commercial spaces, you have to consider the clients brand guidelines and customize the décor elements.”
Lesson 6: Embrace the stress of not finding that perfect piece.
NA: “If the project is long-term, we can fabricate things. If it is short- term, we source and supply. Ready-made office furniture in Ghana is not bad at all. But there are instances when we would buy a basic chair and re-upholster it or buy an existing table but put glass on it, for example. For retail spaces, we do everything from scratch. You always have to go out there and find what is available in Ghana – what new materials are available on the market, what new furniture is in stock, discover new artists and artisans – that is what makes it exciting. I believe that the so-called limitations of products and technology we face is a blessing in disguise – it makes your work more unique, forces you to be creative and innovative and prevents you from becoming lazy as a designer.”
Lesson 7: Remain optimistically critical of the industry.
NA: “In Ghana, we are getting there for sure, but there needs to be a design education. I wrote my to finish final dissertation on “The Deconstruction of Traditional African Art” – which spawned from my annoyance with the fact that the West was capitalizing and mass producing African-inspired design. But then I asked myself, well what are we doing? To begin with, most people do not understand or appreciate design as a credible service. Design is more than making a space pretty! It impacts your well-being, influences your behavior and mood, and even the way you interact with other people. There is also the issue of quality appreciation. I fear that with the flood of poor quality “affordable” furniture on the market we have missed the mark in terms of sustainability. We are adopting a consumerist culture that feeds on knock-offs and products with short lifespans. I strongly feel that we should introduce courses such as Interior Design, Interior Architecture, Industrial Design and Product Design in schools. We also need a community of designers, not only Architects, where we can come together to share resources and ideas and discuss our challenges and successes.”