Tamirirashe Zizhou is a man on a mission. A born creative, he is driven by his passion to interpret the world through visuals and to see the creative arts get the credit they deserve. He speaks to The Corporate Canvas about pursuing a career in the creative space and his ambition to establish an African publishing behemoth.
Interviewer: Kudzanai Thondhlana
Tami you are the definition of a creative; a graphic designer, budding photographer and practising artist. You have been clearly bit by the bug of visual expression. Talk to us about how you decided to pursue the creative arts as a career, was it a childhood passion or a calculated career choice?
I think something happens to all creatives when we are young. Something clicks in you and you start to reinterpret or reshape the world around you – because that is what it is, looking at things with a fresh eye, a creator’s eye. It may begin with trying to reproduce but it almost always ends with reshaping. So in that way, I always wanted to show what I see and I believe that is still what I am doing now. But in our country, to actually pursue a creative profession, you have to be deliberate about it and work extra hard to make something of yourself. If you truly believe in what you are meant to do, you will find yourself at the right places at the right time.
There is an existing stereotype, especially among the older generation, that the creative industries are not a wise or viable career choice. A lot of young people lack the family support when they try to pursue a career in the creative space, sometimes even being forced to take up the more traditional career paths. What has been your experience regarding your career of choice?
It is such a sad reality for many of us. There are few things as difficult as having your family not support or understand what you are doing. The beginning stages are especially bad as you are also battling with yourself internally. In my case, it was only after I faced immense opposition at school that I saw just how much the arts meant to me. After going through that, facing the same at home might have been harder, but I was now firm. I loved to draw, to write and tell stories. I did not know about graphic design or what career I would like to have, I just wanted to do what I loved.
I made the very hard decision to go against my mother’s wishes and keep my mind thinking towards creative arts. As a fun fact, for my A Levels I actually registered for Sciences. I had tried to wiggle out of doing A Levels completely, but my mother prevailed. After that though, I was pretty one-minded and so here I am. To put into context how serious I was; most of what I know in creative arts is self-taught. I only formally learnt about the history of graphic design but everything else was on the job training coupled with trial and error. Now my work is competent enough to be sought after by local, national institutions. If it is your thing, nothing can stop you.
Do you feel that the perception of a career in creative arts is changing?
I think as more of us become successful it is starting to get better, but I could write a very long list of things that are happening that have a different perspective. As a newly publicly recognized sector, we have old and then new problems too. For instance, creative work is sought after and is needed everywhere, but its true value is not seen. An artist friend once asked me, “Is it not strange that the moment my artwork crosses our borders it immediately costs more?” Art is not only culturally meaningful and important; its real value is priceless. In other countries this value is not only recognized, it is exalted, as art has become another avenue of investment.
Creative work is valuable to every sector to every sector; it provides the lens by which all of the participants in the market are viewed. Locally, however, it seems that only in an agency-to-corporate relationship do we see services billed according to their worth, but even then, it is more like company to company with working individuals barely benefiting. Even the agencies themselves have to work with increasing reductions in budgets for creative work. I really believe we do not adequately value creative work in Zimbabwe and that needs to change to make a career path in the creative arts more widely accepted.
Let us talk about the local graphic designing space. There is an opinion among some that there has been an explosion of graphic designers locally, with anyone owning a laptop and some software claiming to be a designer. Is this notion misplaced? How do you set yourself apart in such a challenging and competitive industry?
Hmm, there are two sides to this. I want to go backwards and look at one of the biggest problems we have had with graphic design – there is not enough formal education available for it. People only really discover it after leaving high school, which is around the time a lot of us suddenly realize we have to actually earn money for ourselves. People discover it when looking for any avenue that could put food on the table. Since graphic design is in demand, and like you said, seems like a simple thing to get into, you really can get software and start teaching yourself. Obviously that does not make one a designer, but I would argue that most of us get into the profession in much the same way. Sure, someone like me used to design with pencil, drawing stuff I would put on t-shirts and things of that nature but I do not think our paths will ever be the same.
The only thing I would say about true talent is that it does not follow rules or trends but always stands out on its own merits. So it will be easy to separate the two kinds of designers for a client. Do you want original work or do you want cheap and nice looking stock vectors to represent your brand? I chose original work and after a while I started to specialize in a particular sphere. I think I understand designing and producing publications more than most at this point. Other than specializing, instead of simply following the trend of working for anyone and charging the least, I have found another way of getting the value of my work – investing in my clients. There are some people who have never given me a cent and yet are some of my biggest clients. How? I invested and have become a part of my clients’ businesses, those I believe in at least. Your work can be an investment too, that is how valuable it is.
You are one of the founders of Structure & Design, a magazine on architecture and design that has taken the market by storm. This is against the backdrop of the death knell being sounded for the local print magazine industry as a lot of publications are either shutting up shop or going fully digital. How has Structure & Design been able to go against the grain and build a robust following and business model?
To be honest there is not much you can do in this climate as a magazine if you do not have a stellar team. Everyone needs to treat the project like their lives depend on it, whether digital or print. We chose to run with print as all of us had experience in it. The business model we have is only as good as the team implementing it. What is scary about my team is how well we are performing before our model is perfected. We made the intentional decision to produce a high quality product from the get go. We have also not let our success and recognition get to our heads.
Our team meticulously studies foreign publications and we have noticed that they do not relax; they have huge teams but they work hard to do one better over each issue they release. Look at Wired magazine; it is such a force to be reckoned with to a point where other magazines like GQ have featured them in their publication! That is because they are always innovating and getting better. They led the digital magazine revolution but also care about their content and their audience. We are aiming to do the same. Architecture in Zimbabwe is on the rise and we will grow with it; we are innovating in a way that will shake the market and redefine how magazines are done.
You have mentioned before that this is just the start and you harbour ambitions to create a home-grown Conde Nast (one of the biggest mass media companies in the world). What are the next steps in your grand plan and what does that vision look like upon completion?
Well, I am currently trying to learn more about the market and trying to see what people want. Having said that, I do have two projects that I am developing with organisations I am affiliated with. I am not going to say much for obvious reasons, but I can confirm a plan is in place. The idea is to have really high quality content distributed in really creative and engaging ways. Also, the more publications that are out there, the more that industry grows. I like being a spark, but I want to be a good businessman too.
Do you feel that the local creative arts industry has what it takes to be competitive beyond our borders?
I think we do but creative education needs to be bolstered first. Beyond the borders it is a different reality as you will be dealing and competing with people who have formal education in that field. But like I said, talent will always show itself and seeing as we have a different reality here, we take everything we have and put it in our work. As long as we are original we will have a chance wherever we aim to compete.
What are some of the obstacles preventing us from becoming a regional creative hub?
Not enough of us can export our work. I think not a lot is known about our industry outside of Zimbabwe. We are very quiet about our exploits as well and could do a better job of promoting ourselves. I see an upward movement in visual art though; people are starting to recognize Zimbabwean art. It also helps that those guys are traveling, which we need to do to even be known for our creativity, never mind being a regional hub. Nigerian creative arts are known better in South Africa than ours, yet we are neighbours. We have a lot of our people based there too so it does the ingredients are there but we are not fully utilising them.
What is the legacy of Tami? How would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a single spark in the eventual boom of creative entrepreneurs. The creative economy has a long way to go and I am hoping I will be able to contribute my bit to getting it where it needs to be. I am investing in research and education, I am building myself within my niche and have several other projects that I am doing that I believe are scalable. If I can achieve half of any of that, I am sure it will leave a mark. I also aspire to invest in teaching others, which I believe is an amazing undertaking and one way to leave a legacy. Related to that and my overall grand plan is building something for the industry, literally. I hope I achieve that.
The biggest sacrifice I’ve ever made is working for months without pay to get a project running.
The greatest marketing/self-branding tool is being original. I rarely seek clients. The people who are my perfect clients find me for my work. And referrals are always a thing when you are original.
Best investment? Learning more about what you do.
Worst money mistake? Not saving.
Advice in 3 words? Be ‘True to yourself’.
Interview by: Kudzanai Thondhlana
Director – Creative Natives Africa
FB: Creative Natives Africa