Thursday, May 7, 2015

Designing with Passion, Love, and Social Change Introducing Lulu Kitololo

Running an art based graphic design brand and a studio, Lulu Kitololo is a power house, and brings so much inspiration to us. Lulu Kitololo is an artist, designer, creative director and blogger, with Africa as her main muse.

She owns Asilia, a London-based graphic design studio that creates vibrant and eclectic communications materials for visionary people. This has involved designing branding, print and websites for international NGOs, film festivals, fashion brands, theatres, musicians and more.

In 2014, Lulu launched a line of art and design goods, including greeting cards and art prints.

Lulu is also founder of the blog, Afri-love, which explores creativity, enterprise and wellness – and the balance of these three – for African creatives, on the continent and in the diaspora.

Lulu holds a BFA in Communications Design, with Highest Honors, from Pratt Institute and an MA in African Studies, with Distinction, from SOAS, University of London.

Lulu lives in London, calls Nairobi home and, dreams of living by the beach in Dar Es Salaam. It was a pleasure chatting with her, as we laughed, and as we learned about her journey as a woman and a Bosschique. Hope you enjoy!

Lulu Kitolol Photo Credit: David Lau



Q: Lulu, If you were to describe your personality in one word what would it be?

A: I would definitely say I am an Optimist. I'm one of those potentially annoying people who is convinced that there is always a solution, always a way. No matter how difficult things are, I believe that there is something valuable to be gained from the situation - something that makes us better in some way (wiser, stronger, more self-aware etc). 

A large part of it comes from me just thoroughly loving life, people and this beautiful world we live in. So much to smile about.

Optimism has been a very useful mindset for me, when it comes to business, relationships and my health. If anything, identifying myself as an optimist had helped me get through tough times because I'm accountable to this label I've given myself!

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself, your cultural heritage and what brings you to this work? 

A: My father is Kenyan and my mother is from Tanzania and I was born and raised in Nairobi. My parents are very connected to their roots and I grew up with a strong sense of patriotism. I had the fortune of attending great international schools but, what was lacking in my education was the history of where I was, where I was from.

I went to university in the US and there, my yearning to learn more about, not just Kenya but, the entire continent of my birth, grew stronger. I was meeting people from all across Africa and was fascinated what was different about our experiences but also, by how much similarity there was. So while I was at school, working towards a BFA in Communications Design, I was also taking courses about African film and literature and the politics of it all.

This interest took a more formal route when I enrolled at SOAS, University of London for an MA in African Studies. I focused on governance and politics, literature, film and anthropology. It was an amazing year

Many questioned why I, an African, should need to learn about Africa. Many wondered why such a departure from my first degree. Sometimes you just have to follow your gut and trust that all your seemingly disparate experiences have a purpose. Of course I can say that in retrospect but I do believe it to be true!

The work I do now gives me the opportunity to combine many of my interests, knowledge and experience. 

My company, Asilia, works with a lot of individuals and organisations who have some connection to Africa and a big part of our job is to challenge perceptions and present new ways of representing 'Africanness'. I am satisfied if I've gotten one person to think, and hopefully, to think differently!

Q: So with all the work, how do you take care of yourself  and what to you enjoy doing to take time for yourself outside of work?

A: Balancing establishing a business with self-care has been one of the toughest things and I'm not sure I've 100% got it down yet. Yet I appreciate more and more how taking care of myself HAS to be my number 1 priority.

Over the years, through experimenting, I've discovered what I need to be well (physically and mentally). I try to meditate every morning and write in my journal (these 'morning papers' have become essential!). I'm working towards a daily yoga practice and this year, I've also set myself a daily challenge around making plant-inspired art. I've taken up swimming again, which I love - I'd prefer for it to be in the ocean but, I'll work with what my location allows :). Dancing and enjoying live music and performance are other neglected pastimes that I'd like to partake more in this year.


Q: Give us more insight on your  brand Lulu kitololo and the company Asilia. What made you start these companies at what moment did you decide you wanted to launch?

A: Asilia came to life quite organically. I had left my job as a designer in a communications agency because I wanted more autonomy over how I spent my time and what I spent it on. I was working on several design commissions, often with a friend who is a web developer and at some point, he and I decided to go into business together. At first it was the two of us, working from our respective homes, and as the years went on and we were receiving more work, we slowly expanded the team.

We set up the business in Kenya and built a team there too.

A lot has happened over the 4 and a half years that we've been operating full-time. At present, the Kenya arm of the business is in the process of transitioning into an independent new company with a new offering. Asilia is thus now a London-based graphic design studio, with a core team of 4, and a network of various others who provide complimentary services.

Lulu Kitololo is the art brand that I've only really started to establish this year. It's birth is the result of me finally embracing that I am, after all, an artist and that, to be happy and fulfilled, I need to create my own work. So far I've released a series of printed paper and textile goods and I'm really excited about developing the brand as the year goes on so, watch this space!

Q:  What problem are you trying to solve with your company Asilia? Tell us about  what are the types of services you provide what would an ideal client receive from you?

A: Asilia specialises in working with passionate visionary people who are up for challenging perceptions and doing things differently. We help these individuals and organisations to express what is special about their work and to ensure that their marketing materials are aligned with this, their values and their personality.

We provide graphic design services ranging from creating visual identities and print materials, to creating websites and design for other digital spaces including social media and apps. An ideal client would receive a comprehensive visual identity ‘toolkit’, enabling them to create and commission engaging and consistent communications materials that get their message across but also, help to build brand recognition and loyalty. We would then also apply this visual identity to the materials that are appropriate for them which, might include their website, stationery, promotional collateral such as brochures, flyers, posters, packaging, social media pages, email newsletters, t-shirts … and the list goes on!

As far as clients, we kind of split our target audiences into three groups, one is the larger organizations they tend to be NGOs and nonprofit organizations, we worked with the African Union as well, another audience is small businesses and often it is people who are experts in their field and they after long careers say they are going to set up their own thing, but they have seen a gap and something that can be done differently and they are doing it. E.g. we worked with a woman who set up a homeware brand she is from Senegal and the Gambia and moved to the UK balances African inspired textiles but in tones that are more conducive for the European context that we live in, we did our branding for them, the third group is start ups they tend to be individuals who have an idea and are at the very early stages and they are building up on the side they aren’t ready yet to commit fully as far as financial investment but they need something professional to kind of get going.

Q: What is an interesting project you are currently working that you don’t mind sharing with us?

A: We’re currently working on a new logo and website for the African Women’s Development Foundation (AWDF). It’s their 15th anniversary this year and they need a site that reflects just how dynamic, exciting and prolific of an organisation that they are. It’s about presenting a diverse 'world of African women’. Not only is the subject matter absolutely up my street but, the AWDF team are so wonderful. Having meetings feels more like hanging out and chatting with sister friends. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of work getting done but, without the unnecessary formality that you sometimes find with many large organisations. Instead, it feels more like creative collaboration amongst people invested in a common goal. That’s what all projects should feel like! 

Q:  As the  person Co-running your company tell us the 3 most important things you have learnt in your work that you want to share with others who are interested in starting their own branding business?

A: 1. You have to love what you’re doing because you’re going to be devoting a lot of  your time and energy to your business. Also, it’s that love that will help you to hang in there when people are doubting you and encouraging you to give up and get a job. It’s that love, and commitment to your vision, that will sustain you through the difficult times. Because there will be most definitely be difficult times.  

2. You have to be prepared to take ownership for things – the good and the bad. When you’re running a business, while you may have support from business mentors, coaches, peer networks, partners and colleagues (all of whom can be very important), at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. You have to be ready to take responsibility (and a lot of it), to make decisions and to deal with their consequences.

3. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and to say no to things that are not aligned with your values and your vision. Every time I’ve made the mistake of saying ‘yes' in these situations, I’ve paid for it and it’s been painful. I think we often say 'yes’ out of fear. But when you are clear about who you are, what you want and what you need to do to achieve it, it’s easier to have conviction. Therefore, it’s crucial to make time and space for reflection so that you can constantly review whether you’re doing what you need to be doing and, whether you might need to readjust your priorities and activities.

Q: Tell us about a personal challenge you overcame as a leader in this capacity and how did you overcome it?

A: As a leader, your decisions have a bearing on other people. So when I commit to things, I’m aware that this has an impact on my team. As the team has grown, I’ve had to deal with my natural propensity to say ‘yes’ because, now, it’s not just my workload, work/life balance or finances that I may be compromising. I have to consider the balance of the entire system which makes it possible for the business to run. Taking time to step back and create solid systems empowers me to make more informed decisions. It’s a work in progress because, I’m always reviewing our systems to ensure they satisfy our needs as best they can. Obviously, as the business evolves, the systems need to do so as well.

Lulu Kitololo Illustration Portrait


Q:  What advice do you provide to young women who may be interested in this field and are looking for how to actually start their businesses?

A:  Start now. I’m not saying take the leap and quit your job but, start your business on the side. This is a great way of building contacts and practising. You’ll be astounded as to how practice improves your skills over the years. I look back 10 years and I’ve grown as a designer, by leaps and bounds. Not just technical skills but also, my problem-solving abilities.

Also, always make time to work on your own projects. They bring great joy and, the more you do – and show – the more commissions you’ll get from people who want a piece of this work. Which leads to greater joy (which you get paid for).

Be yourself. There are millions of designers but there is only one of you. By definition, being yourself eliminates all competition. I believe that there’s enough bounty out there for everyone and so I choose to not even think in terms of competition but rather, in terms of peers.

Finally, you cannot be the expert on everything. Be strategic and get help for the areas of running a business that don’t fall within your expertise. Reserve your time for what you do best. In the bigger picture, money invested in getting help enables you to up the earning potential of your business. Don’t let money be the excuse that you’re spending most of your time doing things that ultimately don’t grow your business.

Q: 10 years from now where do you see yourself?

A: I’ll be spending half of the year in London and half of the year somewhere on the continent, preferably by the coast. I’ll still have some oversight over the design business but won’t be much involved in the day-to-day. I will however, be spending the majority of my time making art and writing. Not to forget, I’ll be financially free and my partner, Lusungu and I will be raising some kids who keep us on our toes!

Q: Finish the sentence  “Women Change Africa because…..?”
A: We’re not afraid of leading with heart

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