In this episode, we sit down with Wanjiku, the visionary behind Hisi Studio, a groundbreaking lifestyle and fashion brand. Hisi Studio is dedicated to exploring inclusive design and revolutionizing fashion by considering the unique needs of visually impaired consumers. Wanjiku shares her journey, delving into the successes, setbacks, and invaluable lessons learned along the way.
She sheds light on the sensory experiences of persons with disabilities, offering insights into their perceptions of color and daily life. Moreover, Wanjiku imparts essential knowledge on fostering inclusivity in interactions with persons with disabilities, providing a guide to understanding and embracing diverse perspectives.
This is the 33st episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.
*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.
LinkedIn: Wanjiku Angela
[00:00:00] Wanjiku: With each person, each definition is different. So there isn't a particular way to just explain color to all visually impaired people. It matters individual to individual.
[00:00:11] [Afrika Design Ident]
[00:00:14] Naitiemu: Welcome Wanjiku. It's nice to have you here as speaker. For those who are listening in, this is Nairobi design twitter spaces. We are design agency and we have a festival once a year, Nairobi Design Week. And for this year, we had our festival in March, 11th to the 19th, and we were happy to have Hisi Studio, as one of the participants, Wanjiku who came through with a amazing installation that taught people how to write their names and other words in braille and have meaningful conversations around inclusivity and even teach children how to use these tools.
[00:00:53] Before then in 2020, we had the festival with the theme design is for everyone. And in 2020 Studio Hisi also participated in a way that really amplified what design is for everyone actually means because you, came in with clothes that were able to be read in braille. And one of our participants, Brian, was able to come and read what you wrote. And Brian is actually a blind photographer. He was participating in the Blind Photography Project in 2020, showcasing the Blind Photography Project, showcasing his photographs. And so he was able to come and read the artworks or the writings on the T shirts that were displayed by Studio Hisi.
[00:01:38] That was something that also taught us a lot. A lot of people including myself didn't know that you could be able to take photographs you know, as a blind photographer. It was a new concept, which I was glad to have known and be um, in the space of understanding it and see the importance of actually spreading the news of what it means to have inclusive design. And yeah, so I let Wanjiku talk more about what they do in Studio Hisi and yeah, how that impacts the lives of other people.
[00:02:08] Wanjiku: We're lifestyle brand based in Kenya. Our origin is in the town of Thika and our beliefs are centered around inclusivity and accessibility. Our designs leverage and rethink and include the needs of visually impaired people. We aim to create a holistic, sensorial experience that fosters independence and dignity for our users. And how we achieve that is that our clothes feature textured prints as well as tactile braille phrases. We also have accessible QR codes and braille tags on our clothing that offer a complete description of our products as well as wash and clean instruction for the gar ment. And the essence of this is to all make sure that we drive a conversation around disability inclusion. And as I said that we're a lifestyle brand. We started off in product, but we now offer services around consultancy on making spaces more accessible.
[00:03:09] Not only for visually impaired persons, but also for persons with disability.
[00:03:15] Naitiemu: Thank you for sharing this. And of course, what you're doing is something that is needed and unique. What I'd just love to know is why did you get yourself into this? Is there a particular motivation?
[00:03:27] Wanjiku: How I got into designing and especially inclusive design, I'd say it's a confluence of very many factors in my background. One was that, as I mentioned, we're based in Thika and I grew up in Thika, and we have two main institutions for visually impaired learners. We have the Thika High School for the Blind and the Thika Primary School for the Visually Impaired.
[00:03:52] And growing up in Thika, I think most of us grew up with an awareness that they're visually impaired people. The second part of the confluence would be I took design at the University of Nairobi, and it happened that in my final year as we were required to do our project papers, our final thesis. What was on my mind was mainly about how my time in Nairobi would end and I'd come back home and in what ways would I be able to apply the skills I had learned?
[00:04:20] And so, as I thought about my community, I thought about the visually impaired people I had interacted with, and that's when the question came to mind that led to everything that we do now is, how do visually impaired people Interact with design. How did they interact with fashion? What's the shopping experience like?
[00:04:41] What's their visual and sensory experience like when looking for clothes or choosing what to wear? So that's how it started and I was able to follow through to answer the question with a research process. That led to our first collection that was known as Ono.
[00:04:58] Naitiemu: And what was your research process like when you want to design a t shirt, for example? How do you do it in terms of until you get to the final design?
[00:05:09] Wanjiku: Okay, so we still apply a lot of the principles that informed our first collection, which is at the time I had made a series of questions that I took to the students at the school for the blind, and this one mainly just to get a feel of what they require from the clothing they would wish to have and also an observation guide.
[00:05:30] So, if you're going about creating a new T shirt, what we would do, we now have a panel of core designers with us for visually impaired. So we sit down and I'll come up with a creative vision for what we will need. Then we'll sit down and discuss. So we'll talk about what is required to be in tactile, what features they would prefer to have more felt than the others.
[00:05:54] So our key consideration as we design a new product is that we have the users in the room so that we're able to really identify what exactly we're going for.
[00:06:05] Naitiemu: Have you had to try different things and see, okay, this does not work as well as this because maybe of the texture or like how, for example, a particular fabric reacts with what you're trying to add to it's tactile wise. And what are these takes you might be able to share with us in your design process?
[00:06:24] Wanjiku: There's a lot of iteration that goes into the product we make because it's one of its kind. And we have been the only ones making it for a while. Our first iteration was around 2019, right after I graduated from uni with the first collection. So, I've told you we designed it with the students at the school for the blind. And these are under age, they are below 18.
[00:06:48] So, after a while, the government passed laws that you couldn't access students and learners, if you weren't a teacher, and there are a lot of permits that were needed for that. So the school got me in touch with a group of visually impaired students in KU, and we were able to interact. So in that first iteration, it was about texture, whether the texture was really felt or not.
[00:07:13] So one of the challenges we faced at first was that as much as the Braille was tactile and the prints were tactile, they weren't the best they could have been. And so communication was hazy. So they could feel some of the dots and some weren't felt.
[00:07:29] In terms of materials, interacting with different types of fabric... we expose our fabric to heat so that we're able to get the raised patterns. So we've gone through a series of materials that some burn out, some lose color when exposed to heat. So it's been a really intense process of iteration.
[00:07:50] We've also tried to add dyes into the products we use to make the braille. And I remember this one run when we had done a couple of t shirts in the new dye, and it was now time to test whether it would stick on, how well it would wash, how well it would iron. And it all came off on the t shirts and mind you, they were white, so it ran off and spoiled a whole bunch of clothes. Ah, it was a deep loss. It was a really deep loss.
[00:08:20] Naitiemu: So sorry about that.
[00:08:21] Wanjiku: We recovered.
[00:08:24] Naitiemu: Good, good.
[00:08:25] What informs your colors, for instance? What makes you choose a particular color to others? Is there a particular reason for the colors you use, or is it inspired by just what feels good?
[00:08:39] Wanjiku: Sometimes it's around what feels good. We're a bit whimsical like that. Our last collection from 2020, and it's the series we continue to explore the 20Thuku collection is based around the Gikuyu culture and the nine daughters of Mumbi. So the colors that come off from that collection are a lot of earth tones, creams around cowrie shells, as well as the colors, navy and maroon. So sometimes the story we're trying to tell we try to stick true to its roots. So we remain true to the colors that came off that kind of culture.
[00:09:15] But with our latest t shirt, it's mostly been whimsical, it's colors myself I like.
[00:09:21] Naitiemu: Nice. And you've also mentioned that you work with a team including your co founder, right? Could you tell us more about your team and what they do to support the projects you work on?
[00:09:32] Wanjiku: We're currently four of us. So there's myself. I run the creative side of things. I offer the creative direction to the team. So I come up with the collection research. I come up with the collection concepts. Then we have Sandra, who is visually impaired, so she helps a lot with the checking of the braille phrases, how correct we are in it, as well as how tactile the materials are.
[00:10:02] Then third, we have Joan, who's our admin. And she works around the logistics and all the things that go into the team. Then our last partner is Simon. Simon is also visually impaired. So he also helps with the same roles as Sandra. And mostly with Simon, we work on the braille for our print work. So that's the team for people, but we're not always together.
[00:10:27] So we come in together for projects. Then once we're able to develop the product. It's more of a consultation basis. So that's how we look like.
[00:10:36] Adrian: It's really good that you've got visually impaired people on the team to actually experience and give you first hand feedback. That question that I asked about colors. It made me curious. How do you visually impaired people experience color? There's a scale or a spectrum of visually impaired. How do certain people interact with color compared to others?
[00:10:57] Wanjiku: Okay, so vision impairment is a spectrum. So we have those on the spectrum who have severe vision loss. Those were totally blind. Some have severe vision loss. Some have moderate vision loss. Then we have those either have lost vision in one eye. Just slight vision loss. So with the different people on the spectrum, some are able to conceptualize what colors are by sight. Then we have a unique set of people, in terms of when a person acquired vision loss.
[00:11:29] So there are those who are born blind and those who later in life became blind. So for them, they knew the colors and they're able to understand what their colors are. Then for those who are totally blind and who were born blind there are phrases that people have learned to communicate to them to explain different colors.
[00:11:49] And with each person, each definition is different. So there isn't a particular way to just explain color to all visually impaired people. It matters individual to individual. That's a really good question.
[00:12:03] Adrian: Thank you. And welcome diversity extravaganza. So good to have you guys here. We'll open up the conversation. So you're welcome to put your hand up and become a speaker at some stage if you have anything else to add. Yes, we're really excited to have Studio Hisi here.
[00:12:19] So, what kind of products are you developing right now? What kind of developments have you made? You told us about some of the prototyping and the research and development you've been doing. So where has that led you now in terms of furthering your range?
[00:12:34] Wanjiku: Change of clothing now extends to a ready to wear collection for work. We'll have that dropping at the end of the month. So it's now full on dresses, short dresses, blouses, pants, that kind of thing. Our product range also extends to print designs. We also have cards and books.
[00:12:55] We're currently working with a poet to develop a poetry book that includes Braille in it, and we're helping him develop that amazing book, and it's really moving. And it's sort of a journal poetry book that will also include Braille. We're also taking on projects around rehabilitating spaces so that they're able to accommodate visually impaired persons and I wouldn't want to leak that just yet but they'll be soon up on our pages.
[00:13:24] Naitiemu: Wonderful, we can't wait for that. That's exciting. And also we had the chance to see the cards you did with Wiz and Crafts. And the impact it has with the kind of messages and colors that they have. Could you tell us more about the collaboration? How did that come about? And what influenced the choices of designs that you have?
[00:13:48] Wanjiku: Okay. So coincidentally, Wiz from Wiz and Crafts, that's Nora was my classmate in uni. So as I developed Hisi Studio from my projects paper. She had been there all along. So when she got into making cards and printed designs. We wanted to work together. We knew we wanted to work together from the get go.
[00:14:07] And so, we were able to now fuse together our values and what our brand offered. So what's unique to Hisi is braille and what's unique to wiz and crafts is the crafting part of it. And we're now adding braille to handcrafted cards. And that's how it was born. After a while, last year, Nora got to work in Uganda.
[00:14:32] So, we moved away from handcraft to digital products. So we make the designs online, digitally. And then we print out and then we here at Hisi, we add the braille onto it. And with every card we produce together, we make sure that there's braille on it.
[00:14:50] Adrian: I just wanted to talk about those cards because they have honestly proven one of the most popular souvenirs I've taken outside of Kenya. On my last three or four trips, I've had those cards with me and I've managed to gift them to people. One of those people was a lady I met in Warsaw in Poland.
[00:15:09] She runs a art gallery. I'm not sure if I've told you about this Wanjiku, but they have an art gallery at the Polish coast that exclusively takes art that is touchable. So artists have to be comfortable with their art being touched by visitors. And the reason is that they very highly focus on visually impaired visitors, so that's really something, and of course you got one of the cards as well.
[00:15:36] We talked about Studio Hisi and, and so on. And it's definitely one to look out for, for the future and to get in touch with, so to see if we could curate some Kenyan art into Poland. Yeah, so really thank you for those cards. We've given them out for weddings, birthdays, and yes, they've gone to Cape Town.
[00:15:56] They've gone all over the place. So, thank you.
[00:15:58] Wanjiku: Oh, lovely. That's so good to hear. Thanks for sharing.
[00:16:02] Naitiemu: Yeah, they've been wonderful cards, actually. And, just seeing as you're diversifying outreach in terms of like using different ways from clothes to bags to cars to communicate and share these beautiful works. Are there other ways you've had to factor in as you're working in your brand to increase your reach or to be more diverse in how you do your work? Are there other means you've had to add along the way as you grew?
[00:16:32] Wanjiku: It's amazing you asked that question because Nairobi Design Week provided a way. The 2023 edition provided a new way that we had not foreseen to have a braille installation and a point of interaction with audiences at festivals and gatherings.
[00:16:48] So when I started out my vision was to have a clothing brand and at most a design house that now considers persons with disability. And we were really focused on making products and even at most just consultancy on accessibility but it became more apparent as we went on... that advocacy was something we'd have to pick up on. Advocacy and awareness.
[00:17:14] So by 2023, when we got the opportunity to join Nairobi Design Week, unfortunately, we didn't have ready products. At the time we had had a series of issues with the factory. We were working with at the time, so we really had to pivot and this pivoting is what led us to working together with Nairobi Design Week, and that's when we got our first installation.
[00:17:39] And it's something that we're continuing to do, and we're looking forward to doing it at the coast later in the year in October. We've also been able to do a couple of pop up markets in Nairobi, and we also take that concept with us at each market. So it's really helped us to now grow into that space of advocacy.
[00:17:58] Adrian: Sorry to cut in there, but I was really interested in what you said as well in terms of some learnings and assumptions. What are some of the assumptions that you perhaps made as a person who's not visually impaired that you've learned?
[00:18:12] Maybe something that you have to ask to learn these things. Or it could be a particular example of a product that you may have thought.
[00:18:19] Wanjiku: I think one of the pitfalls I've happened to get caught up in is it hasn't really been with visually impaired people, per se, because from the early onset, the people around me were able to mentor me around interacting with visually impaired persons.
[00:18:37] The teachers at the School for the Blind were really helpful about just the basics of interaction with blind people. I later went on to take a course at the Kenyan Institute of Special Education in Braille Proficiency, and VI. So it hasn't really been with visually impaired people, but a faux pas I did was interacting with deaf people.
[00:18:59] So, our recent collection, we had a shoot that was an inclusive shoot with different persons with disability, visually impaired people, someone with albinism, a hearing impaired person, and someone who has a physical disability. And later when we were now doing post production, I happened to call my friend, the person on the team who's deaf.
[00:19:22] And I couldn't really imagine the mistake I had done because they had to write back to me and, you know, ask me, why are you calling? And it was something that was really poor and I wasn't mindful in the moment. And that has really made me be more mindful about my actions, especially with communities that I haven't interacted with. I have interacted with visually impaired people, but the rest of the persons with disability, I have to be more mindful about our interactions and the language I use.
[00:19:55] Naitiemu: Maybe you could give us a few tips as you've learned, right? Can we be more... mindful in how we interact with the visually impaired and the deaf people and any other people with disabilities that we know of?
[00:20:09] Wanjiku: So when interacting with visually impaired persons to get that attention, speak out, speak out clearly, speak out and explain direction. Especially if you're going to greet them. Introduce yourself first. Let them know where your hand is, whether you're standing to the left or to the right.
[00:20:27] You have to be keen about direction when wanting to assist someone who's visually impaired, maybe crossing a road with a task you ask ahead because it's not everyone who requires the assistance. Most people prize their independence. So it is very important that you ask before guiding them or giving assistance.
[00:20:48] It is also important to sit down with the individual and get their needs because different individuals have different needs and you do not want to upset them because you did not ask what they needed at the moment. You don't want to be presumptuous to what they need.
[00:21:05] So I think the main basis is conversation and open communication so that you ask and they say what they need. Also, in terms of titles and language, it's also important to ask how they like to be referred to as. Some have such humor, but there're conditions and they don't get offended with some names used towards them.
[00:21:29] But some people take offense to other names, so you have to be keen on who you're talking to. Again, different people have different preferences. So it's mostly around that. And maybe I'd say one last thing is empathize and don't sympathize. People with disabilities a lot, even people without disabilities are able to pick up on when someone is being sympathetic and a bit insincere. So the basis of interaction has to be open, sincere and empathetic.
[00:22:00] Naitiemu: And what are some words that, you know, are obvious from or rather, let me not use the word obvious, but what are some words from a general knowledge that we should avoid using that are not necessarily something we are used to knowing, right? Some words, and also What are some that are actually better to use?
[00:22:19] Wanjiku: For deaf people, there are some who do not prefer the word deaf. Some would prefer hard of hearing. Words like retard, they're demeaning, especially for someone who might be intellectually challenged. So you'd be wiser to identify what their disability is.
[00:22:37] Someone who has a short syndrome, either from a syndrome around dwarfism not all of them prefer... prefer even the word dwarfism. So some would prefer short statured. Some of my friends who are short statured dislike the word, dwarf... midget.
[00:22:55] It's offensive to some and I say to some because different individuals have a different sense of understanding and sensitivity. So I think again, it would be also a matter of understanding who you're talking to and what their preferences are.
[00:23:13] Naitiemu: Thank you. Thank you for that. And what are some things we can also apply on online platforms as we share content around this kind of topics, or even outside, you know, it doesn't have to be... what are some things we can apply online that are inclusive to everyone?
[00:23:29] Wanjiku: That's a great question. For online accessibility, especially towards visually impaired persons, it's important to describe the images that we're posting. So, one of the ways to do it is either add to the caption of your post, you add a photo description. For example, I'm looking at the image Nairobi Design has of the braille installation we had.
[00:23:54] So it would be a matter of describing it's a brown board with bamboo cuttings used to make braille on it. That kind of description allows visually impaired persons to participate in online sharing platforms like Instagram and Facebook. The other thing is there is the alternative text option that is provided by most of the platforms.
[00:24:18] That's Twitter, Instagram. I mean, the whole meta suite. So as you post your photo, you'll see ALT text. So, that would require a user to write in the description of their photo. So this would allow someone who's visually impaired to be able to then access the details of this photo that they may not be able to see.
[00:24:40] Another thing about online sharing that we could do, especially with persons who have hearing impairment is to add closed captions to videos and any recordings. This would be important to help them follow along what is on a post or what is being shared. I think those three things would improve accessibility online for everyone.
[00:25:01] Naitiemu: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. We should have those in mind as we post moving on forward. Thank you for that. What are the other communities that people who are living with disabilities, other than the schools, are there other communities that offer such a platform for people to interact and meet other people and just engage in more activities?
[00:25:26] Wanjiku: Yes, yes. There are many organizations for persons with disabilities across the country that offer different programs, um, creates safe spaces for, for persons with disability to have support groups to have resources, to have community. And how they tend to be organized here in Kenya is around a particular disability.
[00:25:52] Recently we got to work with an organization that advocates for persons with albinism called Black Albinism. And at the point we were working together, we were working on a project around climate change. Catwalks for Climate Change Advocacy, and this was bringing in a fashion show, there was a tree planting event, there was a hangout event with students at Machakos School for the Blind.
[00:26:21] So different organizations across the country offer a variety of resources and activities for their members. So we're also trying to plug in that kind of space, working together with organizations for persons with disability. And there are many in Kenya. Very, very many. And they're doing amazing impactful work.
[00:26:39] Naitiemu: Wonderful. Wonderful. Thank you so much for the conversations we've had. I'll just put in the space for anyone who has more questions to ask and follow up with these conversations. Check out Hisi Studios works. Beautiful pieces that are like T shirts, bags dresses and other products that are giving a voice to inclusion in design and telling new narratives.
[00:27:09] Adrian: Thank you again. And I'm really looking forward to doing more things in the awareness space that you said that it provided you with a new way to interact with the public during the festival. Really happy to hear that and grateful.
[00:27:23] I remember we talked a few years ago again in Poland. I went to an exhibition which was supposed to recreate the feeling of blindness. You walked in and actually all the staff were visually impaired from reception. Every single guide was visually impaired and you walked in and it was a pitch black room and you had to walk and the guide would ask you, where are we?
[00:27:48] And then you would walk around very carefully and touch the objects in the room and, and feel where you were and there was another one where there were sounds and we had to feel the sounds and where we were walking. That was a really inspiring exhibit both in terms of the execution, very well done and in terms of inclusivity and telling the stories.
[00:28:12] So that was something that really inspired us. And looking forward to uncovering new ways. Of course, the way you did with bamboo this year was just amazing. It was such a great way to interact for all of us with bamboo and kind of have this big braille installation and yeah, the more tactility we can include the better in the festival.
[00:28:34] So always looking out for that and perhaps you can tell us whether it's Hisi Studio, Studio Hisi. And for those who don't know, tell us what it means and then the meaning behind the name of the studio.
[00:28:45] Wanjiku: So, the studio is Hisi Studio. I think on the platform Twitter for a while we went by Studio Hisi but both apply to us because the sense is the word Hisi which is a Swahili verb that means to feel or to sense, and it communicates the essence of one, our process of work, which is around empathy around feeling and then getting to understand what our users are feeling.
[00:29:13] And two... feel because of the means of identification that visually impaired persons use and that's touch. So they feel the design, the tactility, the braille messages. Yes, so that's what he sees about. Maybe something I'd like to highlight is an important lesson I took from Nairobi Design Week, this year was, it's more like a confession. So when we got the invite to be participants at the design week. We were really trying to launch our new line of T shirt at the festival, but we were not able to. We really wanted to be a part of the festival.
[00:29:52] So we came up with the idea to set up an exhibit. So this would be a braille exhibit with the words 'it's what we make it' the theme of the festival at that time. So this would be set up and it would be exhibited like how one would exhibit a painting but having come in three days before the launch of the festival, we were not able to complete the piece we had thought out.
[00:30:18] And I got to interact with Barry, who had the bamboo stand next to where we were working from. And as we talked, he helped me come to the realization that the work didn't need to be perfect. And in one of the break rooms that the festival crew was working from there was a quote that read better done than perfect.
[00:30:40] And this isn't a principle I've always exercised myself, but it was a principle that really helped us open up a new avenue. As I told you, the braille installation wasn't something we were working towards. We're working towards an exhibit piece. And at the end of it all, we got to now make the installation together with part of the audience.
[00:31:02] We got to now engage the audience and this in turn allowed us to build a community. It helped us engage with those who knew us before and welcomed in a new community that was curious about braille.
[00:31:16] It was just amazing and beautiful when we do not desire perfection, but we work towards excellence and ease into what things are, and that was a valuable lesson I learned. So, thank you, Adrian, and thank you, Naitiemu, for the opportunity to share our story. Thank you so much.
[00:31:34] Adrian: Well, so grateful that what we put up for the crew in the crew room was helpful. I was laughing now because yeah, sometimes you put these things up and it's good that it sticks. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that in all of your kind words.
[00:31:48] Naitiemu: Great. Thank you. I'd like to give a shout out to you and your team for being featured in Teen Vogue. Well done on that.
[00:31:56] Wanjiku: Oh, thank you. Thank you Naitiemu.
[00:31:59] Naitiemu: If anyone needs to read about the feature, you can check out in Hisi studio profile. Thank you for everyone who's joined us. Thank you for the conversation and yeah, we look forward to seeing what you're going to be putting out next.
[00:32:12] Just wanted to say thank you to Wanjiku because a lot of the works and, you know, she puts out and with the team is very informative. I think a big part of it is also that education bit where whenever we put out work, there's a story behind it and there's that element of learning and that's apparent in your works.
[00:32:32] So thank you for that.
[00:32:34] Adrian: Cheers, everyone. Thank you for hosting us Wambui.