Design’s two worlds

2015-02-22 09:30

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THE LIBERATOR: The introduction of 3-D printed bullets to arm the first 3-D printed gun has raised new questions of what design can achieve

The first open source 3-D print design for ammunition made out of lead became available for free download towards the end of last year.

It made the 3-D printed gun, called The Liberator, a fully armed machine.

A group ominously named Defence Distributed designed this elegant 16-piece gun kit that will cost interested DIY arms producers a mere R250 to produce.

On their website, the group claims the “Wiki weapon” is “less about a gun than about democratising manufacturing technology”.

Design innovations such as these raise questions the public have never really had to think about before, even if most will only care when the 3-D gun is pointed at their heads.

As we gear up for the opening of the 20th Design Indaba in South Africa, our current predicament is that on the one end of the spectrum you have the real world of everyday life, with all its challenges and problems, while on the other you have the “design” world of highbrow events like the upcoming Indaba, where the criticism has been that these events are often too exclusive and expensive, and don’t use design to address our most pressing problems.

Design could work to bring solutions compellingly into the lives of the common person – say by designing better toilets for townships or streetlights that don’t put strain on the national electricity grid – to be “gritty and not just pretty”.

But a new report provides further evidence that the poles between the designers and the people supposedly having things designed for them couldn’t be further apart.

In South Africa and the rest of the continent, there is no shortage of problems that require innovative solutions. Designer, educator and researcher Mugendi K M’Rithaa rightfully asks: “If necessity is the mother of inventions, then why isn’t Africa a superpower?”

Not only is Africa nowhere near being superpowerful, South Africa is reportedly the most miserable country on the continent – if you believe the World Misery Index that was published last month by the Cato Institute.

Through a simple sum calculating inflation, unemployment and lending rates, the continent’s most developed country was the 10th most miserable out of 108 countries analysed – one place more depressed than war-ravaged Sudan.

Whatever we and our designers seem to think we’re doing, it’s clearly not making anyone any happier.

SA'S MOST BEAUTIFUL OBJECT: Flag Prophecy by Thandiwe Tshabalala looks at how the design of the SA flag predicted the outcome of the elections. She explains that ‘it is not a celebration of any one political party, but rather an observation of the relationship between the design of the flag and the election outcome’
PHOTO: Thandiwe tshabalala


Designers need to understand how much they are capable of. As has been the case with pharaohs, queens, presidents and dictators over the centuries, design is often employed as an instrument of power – from swastika armbands to Taser stun guns – but design can also be an immensely useful tool for social progress.

In totalitarian regimes, where power is not subject to public scrutiny, design is held captive and manipulated as an element of propaganda and control.

But under democratic conditions, design can help governments deal with pressing social issues outside the realm of the traditional market-driven product sector, from designing better low-cost housing to improving transport grids.

Nowhere are the effects of this relationship between design and authority more present than in the surviving legacy of apartheid urban planning.

South Africa has attempted to develop a design policy as part of 2014’s World Design Capital project, but the prospects of that happening appear elusive.

As Paola Antonelli, the director of research and development at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, says: “Since democracy is by definition pluralistic, inclusive, universal and popular, and decisions too often happen by committee, many democratic societies do not display a consistent design philosophy.”

South Africa will struggle to change that reality. But we can at least do more to “bring design to the people”.


Last year was a big one for design in Cape Town, which took the title of World Design Capital (WDC) 2014 and additionally hosted the biggest Design Indaba to date.

It is estimated that the WDC project was allocated R60?million last year by the City of Cape Town and just under €150?000 (R2?million) was paid to the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design – the owners of the WDC brand – as a licensing fee for the designation.

But the WDC was subject to intense scrutiny by locals concerned with what the title meant. Most were unable to tangibly quantify the amount of money being put into the project, which even the organisers admitted was difficult to measure.

Director of policy and strategy at the City of Cape Town Craig Kesson opened the Design Policy Conference discussion hosted by the WDC by asking what a design policy could do to create a systematic approach to creativity.

The question was answered later in the day by Italian Ezio Manzini: “A design policy in South Africa can enable a double leap from premodernity to a sustainable society, skipping both the industrial and postindustrial ones.”

Certainly, that alone is a compelling enough reason to pursue design policy, but a big worry for Kesson, along with other designers, was the effect of our underperforming manufacturing sector. South Africa was a lowly “24th in the world in terms of global manufacturing competitiveness”.

Nkhensani Nkosi, founder of fashion label Stoned Cherrie, raised concerns that commercial enterprises needed to be worked into the policy as well. “Building commercial success is about the ability to create an entrepreneurial entity with commercial aspirations and not just a vehicle for self-expression,” she said.

“In South Africa, we still tend to view creative industries as nice to have, but I think that for us to build creative industries that can contribute to our GDP [gross domestic product], we need to start looking at how to create commercial enterprises that are interdependent and self-sustaining to create opportunities and revenue streams to solve some of the problems that South Africa is facing.”

In short, Nkosi was asking our designers to “get real”.


THE WORLD'S DESIGN CAPITAL: Cape Town’s contribution to a national design policy may be the only tangible element to come from the year long initiative

All the same, the promotion of commercial aspirations is at the heart of the Design Indaba business model. An infographic detailing the Indaba’s reported contribution to the country’s GDP over the past six years reveals an amount of R1.7?billion – with R385?million last year alone.

Organisers also say they have created 1?146 jobs “as a single source within the design industry”.

So it’s clear that the power of design and the Design Indaba cannot be ignored. Its global reach has changed the careers of countless young creatives. One of them, who benefited from the Indaba’s Emerging Creatives platform, is Laduma Ngxokolo, creator of the MaXhosa knitwear label, now a household name.

His collections weave together the creative “inheritance” of his history, as he calls it, into contemporary items that are sustainably home-grown in both production

and appeal.

When he was nominated in 2012 for the Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in SA Award, his simple idea went into overdrive. He was offered production contracts from established knitwear houses worldwide; massive retailers were scrambling to get his items into their stores; celebrities everywhere donned his jerseys as symbols of national pride.

But when Laduma and I met, he was struggling to find a way to keep his idea from becoming another “mass-produced object”. He was stuck in a creative quandary and felt he was being cornered into moving his production base, which remained a rural development programme, into something more commercial.

He decided to stick with his initial vision, at great financial loss. But his project could potentially have mobilised a large workforce – and probably will one day. Many would argue, too, that Laduma’s idea belonged as much to the country as to him.


The Design Indaba was included as a core part of Cape Town’s WDC bid. Its founder, Ravi Naidoo, was even a member of the WDC 2014 International Advisory Council.which has three main roles: to assist the curatorial panel in placing submissions within a global context; advise the Cape Town Design NPC on programme development and be global ambassadors for WDC 2014.

He later stepped down before the second meeting of the IAC in September 2013.

The inclusion of the Design Indaba in The City of Cape Town’s bid process is not surprising beacuse it was, and still is, a huge part of Cape Town’s existing design assets. Now, since his departure from the council, he has become more outspoken about the value of the WDC title.

In a recent interview, he said: “Maybe the most telling fact is this: There are 3?400 cities in the world, yet only one applied for World Design Capital status in 2016. And that’s Taipei. Maybe that points to how highly the rest of the world rates this marketing appellation.”

He told City Press: “It was largely a political construct – a nice bit of PR and largely in the realm of promo, but I think for people with a long-term contribution to this industry, the big issue is unclogging the blockages and discovering where people need real help,” he said.

The opportunity to make a difference to the way society works is implemented by both those in positions of political power – like those managing WDC – to create long-term solutions, as well as those in the private sector, like Design Indaba, to ensure sustainable business growth.

It’s summed up in the two approaches adopted by Design Indaba and WDC: the former to “make change” and the latter to “make a plan”.

As we grow into our democracy and investigate how we’re going to move forward, these two entities need to come closer together and offer us real solutions to real problems.

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