The meaning of Design Indaba

2012-03-03 13:20

It’s a catalyst for ideas and solving problems

Ravi Naidoo could not have ordered more beautiful weather for the three days of Design Indaba even if he had tried.

Cape Town was at its most irresistible as thousands descended on the city to attend what design royalty describe as the world’s best design conference.

Now in its 15th year, Design Indaba attracts speakers from the who’s who of design and draws delegates from across the world.

South Africans may not realise that in less than 20 years, founder Naidoo has created an event with global appeal that excites the design fraternity in the same way the music community regards the Grammy Awards.

Those that wonder how much of a big deal Design Indaba is, not just to Cape Town but to South Africa, wonder no more; it is a really big deal.

Even the selection of Cape Town as the design capital of the world for 2014 was partly because of the way Design Indaba has put Cape Town at the centre of global design consciousness.

When these highly influential individuals visit Cape Town and spend a week in this beautiful city, they become ambassadors for the city, South African and our design ambitions.

Design Indaba is obviously very successful as a conference, but it is far more than just a conference – it is a catalyst, turning old ideas on their head and inventing new ways of doing things.

After the first day of the indaba, it becomes obvious that ideas and their role in creating solutions for various products and social problems are the main currency of the conference.

Even though many of the designers work for clients with global reach, none works without taking the immediate context into consideration.

As Rahim Bhimani says: “As an industrial designer my job is to solve problems. I don’t see myself as a stylist.” He is not alone in going beyond merely making a fetish of objects in his design.

Many of the designers who spoke at the event made connections between their role as designers and solving some of the most pressing social problems the world faces.

These include the democratisation of space, as architect Heinrich Wolff pointed out when he said architecture cannot limit itself to serving the needs of the privileged.

It is not just designers from the developing world who are integrating social issues into their practice.

The work of US designer John Bielenberg is of particular interest for South Africans because it combines graphic design and social entrepreneurship.

Bielenberg encourages those he works with to discard conventional wisdom and to “think wrong.” This echoes the work of architect Alfredo Brillembourg, whose work in Caracas offers new ideas about working within the “informal city”.

South Africans have not yet dealt with the permanence of informal cities and tend to see them merely as halfway stations towards formal housing.

They have watched the experiment of all kinds of social benefits as part of the democracy dividend turning communities into passive recipients of solutions to their problems. It was thus a moment of hope to see how Brillembourg’s approach collaborates with the local community to find sustainable alternative solutions.

South African architect Y Tsai brings the idea of social justice into his work, whether designing stacked beds or a container school.

Instead of creating solutions that are ugly or utilitarian, Tsai brings beauty and elegance and colour to his work which focuses on the marginalised.

The trio of Brillembourg, Tsai and Wolff highlighted the role that elegant design can play in creating or reshaping the informal city. Dignity is a core concern in their practice and as South Africans we can surely grasp the importance of restoring the dignity of the historically marginalised.

Design Indaba provides some of the best minds a platform to explore social relations even as they use their talent for design.

But most of the designers insist on having fun even as they solve the most pressing of social problems.

As Bielenberg notes, “If changing the world isn’t fun then nobody is going to do it.”

Young Canadian designer Rahim Bhimani quoted his professor, saying: “Question everything generally thought to be obvious.” This is one of the refreshing approaches that makes Design Indaba a melting pot for powerful ideas to reinvent our world.

South Africa has been blessed with an abundance of natural and mineral wealth but it has received relatively little in return, merely mining its wealth and not adding much value to its primary produce.

Design Indaba provides a focus for how ideas can create significantly more value in the long run.

Perhaps the last word should go to Naidoo, whose vision has given us this most valuable global conference. “Since 1995, Design Indaba has bet the farm on South Africa’s creative future.

We bet on the slowest horse in the race, but we think the nag is a champion in the making.”

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