Optimizing for empathy in design

There are a few things that are important for optimizing one’s design work. First, it’s important to know what I optimize for

  • I optimize for the usefulness of what I am making. I want the user to find it necessary and sufficient, but not over-the-top for what he/she needs.
  • I optimize to use as little of the material as possible, unless absolutely necessary. Leather, the vegetable-tanned type I favor these days, is usually expensive, and also quite heavy/dense, which is a disadvantage for some objects like bags that are to be carried around.
  • Speaking of which, I optimize for lightness. I buy the lightest-weight leathers I can find, that still retain all the other properties of the heavier leather that I love. I cut away excesses after sewing, keep designs simplified. Anything to end up with something just a bit lighter.
  • I optimize for the lifestyle of the end-user. If someone lives in a small space, I don’t want to make them something they can’t fold away or tuck away and forget it’s there. If they like certain finishes or shades to their furnishings or leather, I want my design choices for them to align with that. Dark wood finishes like the interior of an Irish or English pub, vs. light woods like pine or oak. Aligning small aesthetic details with the intended end-user’s life can greatly affect how often they want that object around their lifespace/workspace/playspace.
  • I optimize for delight. I generally am drawn to happy things: joyous, if minimalist art; open, airy and sun-flooded spaces, patterns on clothing. There’s another type of design, and it’s also fun, I’m sure because I sometimes explore it (like that time I made flagellators), though I have to consciously place myself in that mind-space. But generally, I just want to make things where the owner sees them and is a tad bit happier. Sometimes it’s in how I combine the threads for a stitch in an unexpected way. Other times, it’s how a design is evocative of something the user grew up familiar with, but never gave a conscious thought to until now.

Now, for the considerations.

  1. Time: designing takes time. I don’t really sketch; I do it all in my head. Though I do know that the more complex my problem-solving becomes, the more I’d need to sketch parts. Yesterday as I walked to El Corte Ingles and back, I had Bonobo playing through my earplugs and was just playing about with ideas in my mind. Should I make a roll-up tool storage bag? No, because so far I don’t know what all the future tools will be, number and sizes. Ok, so a toolbag for one chisel, then. No, that’s a waste of leather. It’ll need to have a long closure flap. I don’t want to make a thoughtful Christmas present; I want to make a useful one. Ok, so what’s the need? To keep the chisel edges from blunting or contact when not in use. Possibly to hang the chisel in a toolshed. What about the plastic cover for my awl that covers just the metal part of the awl? Could I make something like that, in leather? Yes. Will it hang off a hook if hung, or will the chisel fall out from the weight? I’ll try to make it fit snug so it hangs. Ok, that’s good. I can also picture it being used without much fuss. A toolbag seems like it’s for people like carpenters who travel with their tools a lot. This is just for protecting a tool when not in use, in the home-space. Now that the ‘what’ has been solved, how can I design such a cover? That will be the subject of the next line of thinking.
  2. Design thinking. In 2010, I got into Stanford’s mechanical engineering masters degree program to study product design for two years. I didn’t go, but I do go on their web site from time to time, to align my thinking with their best-in-class practices. And they do this whole empathic design schtick where they observe the user for a long time before designing. The insights are priceless. In his book Emotional Design, Donald Norman alludes to how objects with sensual appeal seem more useful. I’m a big believer in this. Make minor design decisions that favor the person or group that you’re designing for, and watch them never let the finished product leave their side. One day, a vegetable-tanned fuchsia bag I’d made for a friend, Z, got stained with splashes of wine. After telling her how to rub them off gently with a cloth dampened with distilled water, I suggested a few weeks later that if that didn’t work, I could take the bag and dye its leather black. “Dye it black, she says,” mocked Z, “that would kill the whole essence of it.” For her, the color was the thing.The empathic design aspect of design thinking is much more than seemingly-superficial considerations like color preference. It involves astronomical levels of empathy for the user’s lifestyle, income, how they weigh things that are important to them e.g money or experiences; family time or solitary travel; proximity to city life or affordable accommodation, and not necessarily as binaries. Also, their physical living/working/play space, how they commute to work, whether they are religious, whether the like sunlight or prefer dark spaces, preferred climate, whether they consciously put on music when they’re in a shared or isolated space, what kind of music and how loud, their eating habits, whether they’re partial to wood/metal/plastic/paper, and so on. I’m painting in broad strokes, but the specific considerations to note in empathic design will depend on what problem you’re solving in the person’s lifestyle. Still, it’s not to be underestimated how much seemingly unrelated factors can end up being the ones that most inform each other in designing for a person or group.
  3. Communication. It’s nice to know someone or a group of people enough to be able to divine their preferences. In the case of making the tool covers, it’s what I’ve had to do, since this is a Christmas present. I also know I have it right because 1. we have the same aesthetic taste 2. I am good at listening for preference details 3. I can make associations between design styles. E.g. if someone has an Eastern-style saw with bamboo handle, that’s crying for some natural/untanned leather accessories, maybe black, but not mahogany-colored leather and not really bold primary colors like red or yellow unless that’s an on-going preference the person has going on. For instance, I like all the gold, shiny things, he he, and if someone got me a gold, shiny leather case for my tools, I’d just be amazed and amused and delighted, regardless of my other aesthetic preferences or what matches my tools.This to say that for the things you don’t know, it’s better to ask. And you need to remember the most mundane of details – jot down if you must.

I will be back to update this post with pictures of the items that I made; I can’t post them right now because it’s not Christmas yet.

Well, if you have some comments about empathic design or other factors that are key to your work, whether as a designer/architect/craftsperson/landscape architect/interior designer, post them below. It’s just such a cool approach to design, compared with throwing everything at the wall and hoping some of it sticks. Of course it gets more complex when you’re designing for a group of people e.g. building a well in a village. But if you’re designing for one person: a client who has placed a  personalized order, or your mum or partner or sibling or child, then the more of their observed behavior and preferences you can factor into the design, the more likely they are to find delight in the finished product.


A different photo shoot than the ones I usually do.

This has been a pretty amazing week, with trips to get fabric for work, attendance of social media week lagos events, and a photo shoot that I had been conceiving in my mind’s eye for months.

It’s hard to know how everything would come together: this top, those pants, that hairstyle, those ad-hoc aso-oke earrings, that backdrop, this camera lens versus that one… until you’re there, on set, just click-click-clicking.

Akor, the model brought it. This was a different photo shoot than the ones I usually do, because it was as much about the clothes as the bags. A Minku bag and clothing collection. I can’t wait to present the full lookbook. These are some grainy shots of the camera viewer, because I couldn’t really wait to say, “here, dear Minku loyalist, is a sneak peek before everyone else gets to know, of what you can expect to see on the Minku social media pages, web site, and hopefully some press, in the time to come.” So I hope you’re liking it all as much as I am.

Model: Akor
Photographer: Kunmi

Listening to the Cut the Rope mobile game soundtrack.

Getting some much-deserved yoghurt (Akor) and vanilla ice-cream (me) on our return from the photo shoot site. When I was a kid, the best part of church was after-church when my parents would buy my siblings and I these ice-creams from the ice-cream bicycle man. It was always a bummer when our favorite flavor was sold out. Still is.


This is me wishing for snow.

Winter is here for real and like many in the Mediterranean, I’m in full-on denial about how cold it can get on a January afternoon in these parts. So for instance, today I ran work errands in a thin jacket over just two clothing layers. A thin down jacket it was, yes — albeit one of those featherweight ones made with ultralight backpackers in mind. I should reach back for the proper one I stashed away last week, thinking the worst of the cold was over. It isn’t.

48°F (9°C) is cold, no? This is me wishing for snow. I’d go to the park, lay facing the skies, make snow angels. Be competitive about it because I have the longest arms of my friends, designated human selfie-stick. Maybe we’ll have enough snow that we can make balls, snowballs, and throw them at one another before they sublimate in our gloved palms. It hasn’t  happened in all my winters in this city, but a girl can dream.

There’s a lot of activity in the now, including preparations for 080 Barcelona Fashion Week’s Fall/Winter 2017 edition that starts at month’s end. My favorite designer isn’t showing, again, but I’m determined to find new designers to root for, photograph ouevre of, write about. I’ll also be doing a press round of Barcelona Fashion Summit 2017. So, similar to my joint coverage of Lagos Fashion & Design Week’s Fashion Business Series and fashion shows in the February/March 2016 issue of Yonderland, you can look forward to a concise report of both events.



Pictured: Barcelona Fashion Week coverage in past Yonderland issues. To read either report, tap on the image.

Things have been pretty amazing here, and work has been interspersed with not-work. I’ve been waiting for La-La Land to be released in Barcelona, and we’re (finally!) going to see it this weekend. This la-la-lady can’t wait.

MinkuAt080_2014-15b Pictured: An old poster (2014) announcing our participation in the Fashion Week pop-up section.

Out on a disorderly artistic limb

For my most recent birthday, some of my friends presciently gave me a sketchpad.

Although I thought nothing of it at the time, I recently took a break from bag making to return to my first love: art. In the new year, I hope to develop my own illustrative style, and I’m glad that stylistically, illustration seems to give me a broad space in which to explore. I hope to stay in this space and explore it a bit longer.

img_2518 img_2526

There will still be bags, not to worry.

Happy new year!


Listening to Lead Belly’s Christmas is A-Coming.

We got the funk

I’m excited that it’s Friday. We’re about to go and watch a funk band (the guy loves funk :-)) and I’m happy to put away work and go and have a weekend. Or at least a Friday night. I’ve been working on a few things, including the FW2017 collection. Yes, time flies.

When I was in university, I used to count time in semesters. Now I count it in fashion seasons. Here is one of the most recent things I’ve been working on:

MinkuWosanBucketBag_Main WosanBucketBag_interiorDetail_b

It’s called the Wosan bag. One of the ideas I’ve been toying with for the new collection is the idea of love, and what we do for those we love. So perhaps we are excited to see them laugh, so we try to make jokes to make them laugh (palerin), or we nurse them to health when they’re ill (wosan) or we forgive them when they forget something important to us (dariji) or we sing to them or with them (korin), or support them when they’re rooting for their favourite football team (tilehin). It’s been a bit of a shift working with verbs instead of nouns for the names of the bags, but that’s just what I’m feeling at the moment.

Ok, so we saw the Hungarian GP on Sunday. I was quite unexcited to see the race, because something interesting had happened at qualifying the day before, but my <3 was like well, I think Hamilton will win the race, and he did! His fifth win at Hungaroring. And with this, he now leads the championship points table. German GP this Sunday before August break (pardon my error in the previous post, where I thought Hungaroring was the last race before the break).

Well it’s sweltering hot and funk is good for working up a sweat, so off we go. Are you liking the Wosan bag? Which colours of bags would you like to see more of this season? I personally can’t get enough of that pink…



Work, play, and dreaming of the weekend

I worked all of yesterday. Today, too. I am simultaneously working on four bags. You can see one I completed on Monday, here, and also below.


The extra lovely weekend prepped me for such a busy week. On Sunday afternoon, we hung out in plazas watching castellers and drinking canned juice. Then we met up with friends for tacos. On Monday evening, we went to an outdoor cinema where we lay on the grass with maybe 800 other people and saw a movie we had both seen before, and both love. Tuesday came and I started prepping for work and then Wednesday came and I woke up early and started to work and then today too, though I let myself sleep in a bit longer.

I’m making progress, and it is all looking good. You can’t rush this work, though. For two of the current projects, I’m designing as I make, and you can’t rush design. It’s a series of decisions that need you to be well-fed and well-rested and just chill. So yeah, I’ve been having some Zen days of creating, but when it’s all done and mailed, I’ll also just have some Zen days of serious resting.

This heat is not helping things. I don’t know what it is called, but the air here has been stagnant since yesterday. As in, you open the balcony door, but no breeze. Please, summer, have some chill :-)

Speaking of chill, well on Saturday, we will go to a friend’s birthday party. I’m pretty excited — maybe just the thought of taking a break, seeing this friend again, meeting the new people that will be at the party, and exploring a neighborhood with them after tapas. It’s Formula 1 on Sunday :-D :-D :-D, Hungraroingaroing in Hungary. Ok, the circuit is actually called Hungaroring; still, it reminds me of Antananarivo, where I have to consciously learn how many times to repeat the middle syllables. After Sunday’s race, the drivers are going on… August break, he he. ‘August break’ is funny to me because it is the name of a poem we had to read in Junior Secondary 1 (like 7th grade), regarding the rainy season in Nigeria, which runs from April to October, with a break in August. When I start cheesing at my own jokes, it’s time for bed (just kidding, it’s something I always do). I hope you’ve been having a fulfilling week.


New Yonderland issue now out

The new issue of Yonderland is now out, and I wanted to invite you to take a look (or better still, give it a read :-)).


It’s fashion week in Barcelona and yesterday, a friend and I went to see some shows. I want to do a review shortly. For now, recovering from the work that is the production of each issue of Yonderland. Oh, and I saw Joy today, the movie with Jennifer Lawrence. Reminder that entrepreneurship is not an easy journey, but can be so worth it.