Kenyan Web Designers, Wake Up!

I will not mince my words. No. The truth is that most of the Kenyan (even African) web designers who designed (or rather attempted to design!) the sites I often visit have become a disgrace to the profession. They have smeared the art and jumbled up the beautiful poetry that was once called web design. If you doubt my seemingly harsh words, please take a look at our State House web site and compare it to the awesome White House web site! By the way, you know why I had to pick the White House. Apparently, our cousin is the current resident!

I’ll save you the trouble of visiting the sites. Look at the screenshot comparison below.

State House web site

And now, ladies and gentlemen, gaze upon the White House web site…

White House web site

Need I say more?! And yet I’m still proud to be Kenyan! (no sarcasm)

Let’s face it… Kenyan web design sucks. Plain and simple. The few good sites that I have seen are largely unaltered premium themes. No one seems to be “creating” anything. How then can it remain a creative field? Has it ever been a creative field, to begin with?

The undesirable effects of this trend are more than you can imagine. It’s a total mess. I’ll soon (TLW) compile a list of the most common mistakes that I see Kenyan web designers making. Today, however, I’ll try and give you a sketchy picture of the web design reality that is as a result of quacks working for big time clients while a few professionals work for clients who have absolutely no inkling of what it takes to design a good web site. This is not comprehensive, and I am prone to being subjective, but what has to be said has to be said.

1. Clients expect extremely cheap quotes

Oftentimes, when clients have asked me to give them a rough estimate of what it will cost to design the web sites they want, my response leaves them looking at me as though I were a Martian. No kidding. I remember a particular incident where a jaw literally dropped! I am assumed to be an extortionist. The most common tactic is then pulled out at this juncture, and it’s almost always the same.  “But… You know… There’s this web designer who told me he can do it for only 40K! (Kshs)” Sometimes, I am forced to hit that straight on: “Then why are we here, talking about your site?”

It becomes tricky to try and convincingly explain why CSS layouts are better than tabular ones, or why designs should always start on a sketch pad and not with Dreamweaver 8 (let alone CS5)  templates. This, however, would not be an issue if the integrity of the web design profession had been upheld by the majority of the designers themselves.

Kenyans should note that in places like the US, designers are paid per hour! We have a long way to go before that level of professionalism and trust is established. We have to reprove the ‘designers’ who quote peanuts, go download a free template, change the logo and photos in a day or two, then sit around for three weeks to give the impression that they are working hard before they go to collect the cheque. Crazy, huh?

2. Everyone assumes it’s easy

If someone in Kenya were to ask you what you do and you say you are a web designer or developer, they’ll give you as much respect as a form-four leaver who took a course in Microsoft Word. I do not believe that I am the only passionate designer out here. Those of you who feel me know how almost everyone who approaches you starts by saying “I just want a simple web site.” That is usually what precedes a long list of programming and theming back-flips that you have to do to achieve the desired result. Yet it’s still considered ‘simple’! Some even go the proverbial extra mile to let you know that they can do it themselves but they either just don’t have the time or they don’t want to hog work. How amusing!

The right way to approach it is to tell the designer what you want, then he/she get’s to decide whether that is simple or not. If people can do it themselves, they should for instance explain what’s the best way to construct a pagination algorithm in php, and I’ll be convinced.

3. Web site’s users are hardly considered

‘User experience’ is a term that does not exist in the typical Kenyan web designer’s vocabulary.

When the web design and development industry becomes a two way interaction where designers and clients are trying to extract the most out of each other, guess what? The users of the web sites get completely left out of the picture. I personally have to constantly remind myself of this.

‘User experience’ is a term that does not exist in the typical Kenyan web designer’s vocabulary. Either the designer want’s to pay his rent, or the client was told by a friend that they must get something called a web site because it’s good for business. What people forget is that in the same way that you can buy a fully furnished customer care centre, it won’t do you any good if your customers can only stare at it from closed glass doors and windows.

4. Visitors don’t expect much

It’s gotten to a point where even the web site visitors do not expect much from Kenyan web sites. Daima mi ni mkenya, but I particularly loathe the designs of government web sites. Of course, I can openly critique them coz they are mali yetu! Because of the lack of concern for quality and professionalism in web design and development, the kind of sites that we have littered around cyberspace give visitors absolutely no desire to stay or return. Indeed, a disgrace to the profession.

5. A major ‘get rich quick’ attraction

Just a few days ago, I was chatting with a few young men during an event. Somehow within the conversation, the subject of careers came up. I then ventured to ask one of the bespectacled and aloof guys what he wanted to be in life. It went like this:

Huston: What would you like to do?
Dude: Of course, programming!
Huston: Which language?
Dude: All of them! I do all ten.
Huston: (surprised!) All ten? Are they only ten? Even if they were, it’s hard to focus and be proficient in just three!
Dude: I am doing them all. I know Java, HTML, JavaScript…
Huston: O.K then. What is a class?
Dude: Eh… you want a definition?! Eeh… a sub-program.
Huston: What is the latest version of HTML?
Dude: Eh… Dreamweaver 7.
Huston: Ahahahaha! Auwii! Haha!
Dude: (puzzled!)

I have met several such newbies who are self proclaimed gurus. Whether it’s strictly programming or designing, the element of creatively solving problems is indispensable. Along with passion and an unquenchable curiosity and desire to keep growing. Many of the young web designers only seem to do it because they were misinformed by minimal introductions that web sites can be made easily, and that the payoff is good if you land the right jobs.

6. Don’t blame the student?

I have to mention that although the majority of designers are a product of their own desires, there are some honest aspiring ones who have been shortchanged. I was one of them. I attended a well known IT college to do web design. Cost me an arm and a leg! However, what I learnt there was the basic of the most basic training. They taught us how to insert tables and images in Dreamweaver and how to drag links into the document. Period! By the time we finished the course, no one had even been shown how to upload their shoddy site. Had it not been for my constant search in blogs such as Vandelay Design and Smashing Magazine, I would have been as crappy a designer as the ones I now describe here.

The last straw of whatever respect I had for our institutions submerged when I found out during my online search for knowledge that the course book we had used in the college was a FREE e-book, downloadable from the internet. Word for word. Just how muddy can it get?!

Since I’ve been through the same system and in the same boat, I can confidently say that going through sub-standard training is not an excuse for any designer. If you wanna be pro, it’s attainable.

Parting Shot

What do you think about web design in Kenya? East Africa? Africa? Am I just frothing and foaming over unsubstantiated beliefs, or have you experienced the same? For our international visitors, what is the design industry like in your countries?

  • Huston, You are so right! Kenyan web designers are stuck in following design practices that were all the rage in 2001 -2003. They still use tables! Even big design firms like 3mice use tables. Its a pity.

    Just like you I had to take one year off to study and really understand the basics of good web design and most of the knowledge came from the design blogs that you mentioned and others!

    But am tired of complaining. If we want change we should let it start from us!

  • Webmaster X

    Indeed, Gacheru! Indeed. I like your site, by the way. Clean and nicely done. We gotta break the silence and lead by example. It’s good to know I am not the only one feelin this way.

    • Thanks for the kind words about my site.

      The point you made about the term User experience not existing in the typical Kenyan web designer’s vocabulary is so true. I tried applying for my PIN on KRA’s website sometime back and I actually had to get an attendant on a cybercafe to help. The worst part of it was I design websites! If I could not do it how in the world is a guy from shags supposed to do it??

      One point that is missing from your argument is clients also have a major role in this whole mess! For them to accept such quality of work is what is making this industry not grow. They look at their friend’s website or some Kenyan company website and think that’s the standard.

      I am sure the guys who ordered for the statehouse website to be designed are proud at how cool their site looks because they compared it to other govt websites.

      Here is a website from a kenyan web design company (at least they claim they do design amongst other things) for you to enjoy.
      http://www.penumos.com

      • PAUL MAINA

        yeah so true.. I hate their site with a passion

      • Thats kinda why I dont want to start kama ntakuwa
        statistic….Huston do the worst websites in kenya tuzicheki air them out…

  • Webmaster X

    Hahahaha! Did I just see a scrolling marquee saying a web site costs Kshs 3,000?! LOL! And look at the logo! And the distorted images in the banner! And the lack of white space! I haven’t even looked under the hood yet!!

    What you’re saying is true. The clients play a BIG role in all this. As for me and my mouse, I’ll stay international and do all I can to work with people who are after value and not shortcuts.

  • Great theme and design. Always glad to see good stuff that does not come from woo,forest etc Kudos.

  • Webmaster X

    Thanks, Murimi :-)

  • Story of my life! I kept nodding at every single point…

    I am getting my feet wet in web design… and I pray and work so that I get better.

    Gacheru… that website just killed it… oh man! Marquee! For real?

    Awesome work man. God Bless.

    • Webmaster X

      Hey Chris. Good start you’ve gotten! Keep it up. N God bless you too. Peace.

  • Huston you’ve nailed it. I’ve got the same beef with kenyan designers. Professionalism lacks kabisa. From the design to the images to the typography. Gotta second gacheru on that KRA site, those guys who did the site seem to have been using the html hell page http://www.catb.org/esr/html-hell.html as their design guide. And I bet KRA paid loads of cash for the site. And that’s just one of them.

  • Webmaster X

    True, Kibet! I hadn’t seen the HTML hell page… I’ll be featuring that on the fan page. Thanks.

  • I bumped on this website today and I’m already in love with it. You my good man are on point like a ballpen. Kenyan web designers need to get into a time machine and come into the 21st century. With all the Internet resources available for web designers I do not understand how someone cannot come up with a XHTML/CSS compliant website in this day and age. As far as the government and other big corporations are concerned, I believe the problem is corruption and a lack of basic understanding on websites. Just because your cousin or son did packages does not mean he can design a website! NKT!!!

    • Webmaster X

      Maurice, kabisa kabisa mayne! Something’s gotta shift, and the shift is here! Let’s show em how it’s done. Thanks man.

  • Amen! to all that. And am glad that a greater/powerful/creative generation of web/graphic designers is coming out already.

    • Webmaster X

      Yes indeed! Have you met any noteworthy so far? I’d be glad to feature them.

  • Just bumped into your site on Skunkworks. Man just when I thought web design in this country was going to the dogs then came this.

    Thank you for the initiative. and yes here are a few links of othe good designers, of course I am on the list. :-)

    http://stephengacheru.me
    http://jomoro.carbonmade.com
    http://www.84inspired.com/

    • Webmaster X

      Hi Jansen. It’s great to see serious guys still out here! I had seen the pitches on your portfolio earlier. Good stuff. Pity I can’t feature it coz it’s hosted on carbonmade, but I appreciate the design skills. Keep up.

  • hey i am one of those new and upcoming designers. would you recommend college ama the self taught self made experience. I have taught myself graphic design through tutorials and other designers but the CODE….seems like mathematics ya shule…

    • If the code seems like “mathematics ya shule”, then you probably should stick to graphic design…

  • Oba Eke

    Houston, I have bumped into your site as I was researching on behalf of my company for web designers. We have already interviewed 3 companies but we are yet to make a decision. Since you have really blown your trumpet, I’m curious to know what kind of work you have done. Drop me an e-mail and give me your telephone and we’ll call you. We want to know if you walk the talk. Thanks for your audacity though. Oba Eke.

  • kenn

    hae,am a bigginer,very interested in webdesign n would like to learn more…where can i get great information,sites u might know…

    • GIYF :-)

    • Esther

      I agree but not completely,that is because am a graphic/web designer and i attended my classes at Nairobits Trust.The trainers there are awesome they are updated and really design cool websites.Alll am saying is may be it all boils down to who taught you and how curious you are.for a learner i recommend Nairobits 100%

  • You have truly spoken for us. The over obsession with lazy developers over-relying on joomla CMS and don’t have the aptitude to develop the templates themselves.However sometimes it is the clients fault for not allowing the designers doing their work hence they have their input in all aspect of the design making the site look crap.

  • I love this blog post….it’s so true I nearly fell down in laughter. I am an upcoming web developer at a company in Nairobi and this sought of clients come every time. They think web design or development is like cooking rice.Big ups on your site

  • Paul

    So True! You nailed it! I experience the same with UI design. “Ati, you know the are softwares out there that can create UI within minutes and am like *silently* , si uende huko then”

  • Ambani TheSon

    Holly molly this is me in a very concise synopsis kwanza that one of “I just want a simple web site.”…But mostly I feel number 6 most, considering almost everything I know is self taught, even though I claim I have accreditation from our “zombie factory”. Thanks for the wake up call it’s about time

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  • Nandy Frankyy

    i hear you plight, i am currently learning php and javascript since i wanted to be a web designer who designs website from scratch, i need some advice on which is the right way to go about it because i am ready to take as much time to learn as possible as i continue to design website part time before i become a full time developer

    • Geoffrey Barnard

      Learning PHP and JavaScript would be a great idea. However, after you learn the basics you will need to move on. Don’t take too long in the basics. You can design websites using CMSs like WordPress or MVC Frameworks like Laravel just after a basic php course. You wont really have to do everything from scratch if you want to be efficient.

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  • Nelson Mbau

    I fully agree with you. As just having completed a course in web design but being self taught prior to this, I have to say that I am quite disappointed in Kenyan web design. The teacher taught nothing I didn’t know. Also more frustrating is our use of backdated technology. Most designers in Kenya haven’t even used Ruby on Rails let alone heard of Node.js. We use JavaScript ES3 while ES6 and ES7 are out there. Most developers use jQuery, no Angular or React or Vue. Seriously. Web design and development is pure disappointment here. CSSwise we use CSS2, people hardly use CSS3 features. What is wrong with our systems? Hosting platforms don’t even support other languages except PHP. I use node.js JavaScript on backend and I have to look for hosting outside country. This is just wrong. We have to realise that the web is quick to move forward, and we should move forward with it. Tech wise, we are about 15 years behind. No. This should not happen. Let’s work to change this.

signed. martians.™