Culture is an intrinsic aspect in branding. While there is a business aspect to branding and African design inspired by heritage, there is also a personal aspect as well, that comes from people behind the scenes. It is informed by their experiences, their upbringing, and their everyday rituals. In this way, “culture” can describe something as broad as an entire country and as intimate as a family. The question is how to harness your heritage with intention so you can create designs that are authentic and empowering.
This was the same question that faced a San Francisco Bay Area coffee provider, Mimo’s Coffee. As a family-owned business, founder Mimo Haile wanted to express the culture that had brought her brand to life. Mimo emigrated from Ethiopia over twenty years ago, and she brought with her deep knowledge of Ethiopian coffee ceremony that was absent in the land of startups and tech. But how to own that heritage in every aspect of her business, including branding?
How Mimo’s Coffee created an Ethiopian brand
As a staple morning beverage, it’s not uncommon to drink a cup of coffee (or several, on a busy day), and give no thought whatsoever to where those beans come from. In fact, not only do many coffee varieties originate in Ethiopia, the entire practice of coffee brewing itself may likely have begun there. In one particular legend that Mimo shared with us, coffee was originally discovered by a shepherd who realized that his goats were behaving erratically after eating a strange red berry. After learning the coffee berries could be adapted into a bold, flavorful, energy-fueled beverage concoction, the shepherd had to share this discovery with the world.
Coffee culture is still alive and well in modern-day Ethiopia, but it’s so much more than a quick morning drink chugged from a to-go cup. Traditionally, coffee is almost never consumed alone: it is a daily social event that comes with a great deal of preparation and care. An Ethiopian coffee ceremony begins by roasting green coffee beans over an incense fire and grinding them up with a mortar-and-pestle. The ground coffee is then boiled inside a jebena, a traditional pouring vessel made out of black clay and decorated with various symbols and geometric designs. Once the coffee is ready and the grounds have been sifted out, it is poured into sini—small painted cups—and it is shared with friends and relatives.
Mimo first experienced the coffee ceremony as a way to bond with her family. “Since I was pretty young I remember the coffee ceremonies with my aunts and family coming together to enjoy each other’s company.” When it came time to open her coffee business in 2020, it made sense to channel that sense of communal coffee sharing, particularly in a time when COVID-19 had made such in-person gatherings difficult.
Her brand was thus inspired by the coffee ceremony, choosing the jebena as its logo symbol, the Ethiopian flag as the brand colors, and geometric patterns inspired by the sini cups. “The jebena … is a staple in every household,” Mimo explains, “especially coming to America where you’re far away from Ethiopia, that is literally how you’re connected with each other.”
However, the new direction was also influenced by more than one culture. Mimo explains that what inspired her to take over the family business was “to bridge the gap that I was seeing between being Ethiopian and being African-American.”
Shortly after Mimo’s Coffee launched in late 2020—when shelter-in-place orders had halted the communal coffee experience—Mimo sought to deliver that experience right into people’s homes. She envisioned subscription gift boxes that would give customers a chance to taste her various coffee flavors, with each bag named after coffee roasting regions in Ethiopia—Limu, Harrar and Yirgacheffe.
After 50 beautiful design proposals during her packaging design contest, Mimo was fortunate to find a designer who was able to tap into the brand’s heritage. Mimo recalls, “The design that I finally chose was based on the inspiration I provided. I believe they also had experienced a coffee ceremony within the Ethiopian community, so they had an understanding about how that should feel and look. There was a synergy between both of us and they understood the assignment really well.”
25 more examples of African heritage-inspired design
Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries with varying languages, history and traditions. While Mimo chose to hone in specifically on Ethiopian-inspired influences in her branding, another design approach is to widen the lens and represent Africa as a whole.
“Pan-Africanism” is a movement that aims to express solidarity within the global Black community. In terms of design, Pan-Africanism is a way of reclaiming cultural roots through shared imagery. It uses the generalization of African art to unite the African diaspora, both as a form of protest against the dominant culture and as a celebration of mixed heritage. The following are a few common ways Pan-Africanism is expressed in art.
Pan-African design colors
The official Pan-African flag is actually modeled after the Ethiopian flag, with Ethiopia being recognized as Africa’s oldest independent nation. The flag consists of green, yellow, and red bars. Alternatively, another version of the Pan-African flag uses red, black, and green. These color combinations can also be creatively repurposed in graphic design to express and celebrate African heritage.
Interpretations of the African silhouette
One of the more obvious ways to express Pan-Africanism in design is by harnessing the silhouette of the African continent itself. This appeals to nostalgia and the idea that Africa will always be home, no matter how removed its inhabitants are by physical location and the passage of generations.
Nature and landscape
At the heart of Africa’s silhouette lies its nature. In many designs representing some portion of the continent, we see animals and landscapes specific to that area. They may appear as abstract shapes and patterns, or be portrayed through picture-perfect portraits, according to the brand’s aesthetic. But whether implicit or explicit, these symbols are used as identity markers. They mark out the geographical heritage of the brand and encourage different types of emotional engagement from audiences.
For instance, the baobab tree is known as the “tree of life” and originates from the African savannah. It flourishes in harsh terrain and, when featured in art or literature, often symbolizes positivity, longevity, strength and calmness. Featuring a baobab tree appropriately in a branded design encourages audiences to apply these symbolic traits to the brand itself, ultimately appearing more trustworthy and dependable than competitors.
Africa is also home to many awe-inspiring animals including the iconic “big five”. Featuring specific animals, such as a lion, in branded designs communicates that the brand may not only share the heritage of these animals, but also the traits we’ve culturally assigned to them (in the lion’s case—pride and courage). Applying humanistic traits to animals can foster a deeper emotional connection with audiences.
African-inspired textiles in graphic design
Textiles are another important feature of African art. Whereas Europeans created a distinction between fine art and craftwork (as part of a division of class), African craftwork carried no such distinction. The art of weaving is centuries-old, and many African textiles were made with vibrant dyes and abstract repeated patterns. Textiles were also used historically as a form of currency, with weavers sharing their designs across the continent. With that said, some specific patterns and colors will reflect certain African cultures and the social status of the wearer (for example, kente cloth historically denoted royalty in Ghana). Pan-African graphic designers can reclaim more generalized patterns of traditional weaving to translate the craft into the digital medium.
With that said, some specific patterns and colors will reflect certain African cultures and the social status of the wearer (for example, kente cloth historically denoted royalty in Ghana). Pan-African graphic designers can reclaim more generalized patterns of traditional weaving to translate the craft into the digital medium.
Depictions of African people in design
The depiction of African people through portraiture is an essential feature of Pan-African design. The African people are, after all, what makes Africa Africa. The more realistic these illustrations are, the more they can appeal to an individual African culture by incorporating traditional elements.
Modern interpretations involve broad themes of empowerment. Communities support brands that showcase authentic, diverse and realistic representation, feeling pride in doing so. We see this particularly for contemporary African art inspired by heritage in the relaxed-yet-direct stances of its muses. In each design, vivid color is used to complement such figures, surrounding them with positive energy and attention. The result is refreshing, both for the people behind the brand and the audience in front of it.
The power of representation in design for small businesses
If we think about what the term heritage means, we think about the physical and cultural place from which a person comes. We look backwards to honor the traditions, objects, beliefs and places we identify with, to share them with those we care about. We also look forward in hopes that future generations continue to feel rooted and inspired by their cultural legacies.
As a small or medium business, reflecting your heritage helps audiences to connect with the people behind the brand, the people at the core of it. In this way, the specificity of culture can actually widen a small business’s audience because it humanizes your brand. The community experience becomes integrated with your brand story. As Mimo herself puts it, “representation matters because when there is a person out there that looks like you doing anything under the sun, and you see them doing it, that empowers you. If they can do it, I can do it. We all can do what we put our heart and mind into.”
Discover how Mimo created a brand around her Ethiopian heritage, available on YouTube now.