How we’re building Ginjan – Part 1: In trying to Create an Icon

I often hear questions coming in through the website, from social media and when i’m out and about on Ginjan missions from people I meet, “how did you come up with the label?”

This is, in and of itself not a revolutionary question, but a completely reasonable one.  The thing is, many times, the people who had asked it, asked it in a way that betrayed more interest, as in “no, but i REALLY want to know…..”  as in asking for advice.  So to all those who asked, here is my humble attempt at shedding some light and imparting advice on the crucial importance of design when you’re starting out – in anything you will inevitably need to do from flyers to eventual billboards – and everything throughout your business venture journey.


The Ginjan Design Journey

I guess one way it may start is with inspiration, and in Ginjan’s case, that requires no explanation – one look at the label and it’s easy to find it;  Africa, in symbol and color. Most notably, the entire design system I’ve created (and continuously add to) is about squaring the concept(s) of Born of Africa / Made in NYC.



It’s the simple premise of our brand;  Indeed, our founders Mohammed and Rahim are born and raised in Africa – hailing from Guinea – and making a life for themselves here in New York City.  The Ginjan is a traditional drink enjoyed – and has been for thousands of years – all across West Africa, and our modern, 21st century version Ginjan is made right here in Harlem, NYC.  Even humble old I hails from the southern tip of Africa, from the Republic of South Africa and have called New York City home now for well over 12 years.  So as our product and, like we the people behind the creation of it – indeed exist at the nexus of Africa and NYC.  Africa runs in our blood and our central mission as a company, is to highlight and grow interest in African products here in the US.  It’s our primary inspiration and the basis of our brand and as a result, the Ginjan design system.

If you’re not enjoying viewing your brand, then no one else will.  Appreciation is driven by affinity.

It should be fun, not hard.  In designing Ginjan I’m really having more fun than should be legally allowed.  I have such freedom and foot tickling joy in working on the brand and hope that I bring the same joy to others who appreciate good design, and in context, Africa for that matter.  But mostly, i’m ever cognizant of the fact that the Ginjan brand needs to be relevant and tailored for the audience.


I feel that too many people forget this and put a brand out there that isn’t relevant or coherent, or promote it in such a way that glorifies the founder or creator behind it way too much.  People see right through that – not unlike how a hot knife seamlessly glides through butter – and ego puts them off forever. Humility makes them relate, and appreciate.   If you speak to your audience – and design accordingly – to what inspires and drives them in their daily lives, then you’ll always stay on point and be relevant and people will be more likely to develop an affinity for your brand, an affinity that will grow into love, and something they will share with others.


Message Reigns Supreme: Legacy is the Story to Tell

Firstly, fuck the logo.  Sure, you need one.  But a logo comes after the story.  We’re not specifically lucky in that we just knew the story from day one.  It wasn’t as apparent initially.  Rahim and Mohammed just wanted to develop this drink.  While it seems obvious now that there were all these wonderful brands stories to tell, it needed reductive soul searching in order to get there, first.  And that took attention, and yes, some time.  That was my job:  to round up the context of our people and product and put that into something comprehensible, romantic, sexy, marketable and relevant to the eventual (but at this point still largely imaginary) target market we thought would buy it;

  • In our case, Africa is such a rich continent, not just in resource, but in its people, cultures, languages and crafts.  First and foremost I tried to capture that in the logo itself.  A bright statement that is positively outward looking, showcasing the continent’s vibrance radiating outward to the whole world, through the rounded disc shape spokes – representing the sun and fire – so important in Africa.  Captured within the rings is the excitement of what is happening in Africa right now, the vitality and creativity of its people, and in the center, a traditional power motif signifying that we tend to do things together.
  • The central motif is at once a drum and shield – unifying and defensive – that we’ll protect what’s ours and always look out for, and celebrate each other.  When all these elements are combined, you get a dynamic in and outbound narrative that Africa is both receptive, but also leader and teacher.  I tried to make this logo a siren, a beacon of all the varied elements of similar symbolic references from the 54 countries across the continent.  Out of many, one, and of many influences, one power. The logo is benevolent, highly symbolic, but inviting, a banner of protection and inclusion, welcoming all, but ultimately signaling the waking lion that is modern Africa.
You don’t need earth shattering legacy, just a sound starting point.

Where you don’t have an immediately apparent legacy, a point of reference or inspiration should be central to where you start.  If that comes through in the final design, then you know you’ve succeeded.  I always find that drawing by visualizing and illustrating the inspiration or legacy on paper fuels motivation to continue, but most importantly anchors your starting point.  Always save these papers! In fact, frame them for future reference.



Design Strategy: Developing Legacy, or Inspiration into Coherent Audience Messaging & Touch Points

I would perhaps list the process of refining a brand and identity and overall design systems along the following points in progress – this is called your design strategy;

  • legacy point of reference: essentially your inspiration, something relatable that people can objectively relate to
  • purpose & mission: what does this aim to do, what is the purpose of the product/service?  Let the identity reflect this
  • audience and messaging:  this is probably the most important part.  Define your audience or end user; what do they like?
Try this exercise:

You can start simple, as I did below in those beginning days in 2014 when I first bootstrapped our identity together.  I placed our product directly into a large negative space ad environment, but notice that I’ve already put the above work into the label, so now you have the legacy, purpose and mission living together in the audience & message environment.  Anything that’s not needed has been eliminated.  It’s important to do an exercise like this one, so as to eliminate any “crap” that doesn’t belong there.  For first time entrepreneurs, the compulsion to put everything and the kitchen sink onto your first message point is irresistible.  Resist the urge.  Less is more. Don’t tell more, tell smarter.  Trust:  it will give your brand, and yourself much needed clarity to build from.  Your exercise will most likely look completely different than my example below: remember we’re selling a well defined product, you may be selling a service (which means you’re selling yourself… without the ego, mmmkay)



Having Fun with Touch Points

When the strategy has been well defined and tested, the resulting touch points flow almost organically.  You stop being the creator and become the custodian and the messaging and brand ethos almost writes everything follows so organically.  I’m not going to say that I’m the best designer out there, but I can say that all the touch points that flow from this starting point in what I’ve done for Ginjan is sound.  They’re authentic, and they have their own voice.

Disclaimer of luck:  at this point, Ginjan was already trading in about 20 stores and had just been placed with 3 WholeFoods stores in NYC.

Below are touch points I created after I felt confident with the strategy.



There are somewhat different rules for brand & website

Website are not driven by the brand system, but by online user needs and other technical aspects – just to mention a few – such as ease of use, usability and speed load time and SEO (search engine optimization).  Since creating a website will be one of your first (if not your very first) steps you will take as a nascent brand, it’s crucial that you define its purpose on the ground floor.  A website’s primary reason for existence is all about user, user, user, explained here below;

Consider these 4 things that 95% of your customer audience looks for when viewing a site:
  • what is this?  do I need it?
    • like I wanna see relevance, needs, benefits
  • how much is it and how do i get it quickly?
    • i’m not spending a small fortune and I want quick checkout, shipping tracking (and if possible, free shipping)
and to a lesser (but still important) priority;
  • who makes this?
    • i kinda wanna check them out to judge whether they’re shady or trustworthy
    • do i connect with them?
  • where can I contact them?
    • do they make this easy?
    • what if i’m not happy with things?

Why Websites are different from your brand design

You see, the rules for a website is based on UI/UX – user interface and user interface technology.  Design is secondary and in this instance is less reliant on the touch points above and would refer more to your styleguide and be driven by color (first and foremost) and typography.  Your website visitors don’t give a f*&k about how pretty it is (that’s an afterthought) they want ease of use and all the info they need displayed logically and viewable within the FIRST 10 SECONDS.  Or else, they’re gone, and they’re never coming back.  


Having said this, design is still relevant, take everything away, but add barebones brand system elements that enhance the visual experience.  Contrast is important, clarity in typography is crucial (people don’t all see the world the way you do with your 20/20 vision, you sexy beast you!) and softness in color guiding and displaying things in order of importance and website flow is a neat trick.  We wouldn’t think about it, but web accessibility is often overlooked.  I’ve gone ahead and pulled the best possible research on accessibility out there for you right here. It’s by RGD of which I’m a proud member since 2013. Happy Reading >

Pro-tip time:  keep your website relevant – even if you don’t have anything new, re-arrange.  it does wonders for your Google ranking, but also gets you in the discipline to pay attention to it.  A website is not SET IT AND FORGET IT, no sir.  It needs love all the time, which is why starting and nursing a blog is so important, but also such fun.  

The Ginjan Website

I’ve tried to keep the Ginjan website as simple as possible.  It’s the least revolutionary part of our brand system, but then again, a brand website’s job or goal is not to be revolutionary, but to be effective and user friendly.  This was the first iteration, since then, i’ve put a little bit more love in it, and since our launch, it’s also grown a bit 🤔😍.



Additional Reading

This article and it’s thinking takes a lot of strategic content on a deeper article I wrote for the agency I am a Creative Director for back in 2013, but it’s still relevant.  It’s about the importance of research as the fuel for good design.  You can read it here

If you have to (be careful with it) base your design on trends (be so on trend and good with it then) these type of things might be useful. This is an example of 2017 trends in online design, which turned out to be pretty damn accurate.  In fact, 90% of it is relevant in 2018 and will be in 2019.  >

I respect the work of this agency, AREA 17 so so so much.  They’re wizz kids in design and thinking.  Here is a case study they did where the intersection of brand with website was at the forefront of their problem solving. It may not be immediately relevant, but try to spot the steps, and care they took in understanding what exactly was needed >