Design Indaba 2011: Day One

Cape Town’s annual Design Indaba conference kicked off yesterday and the sold out 1,500 capacity crowd in Cape Town International Conference Centre has been treated to some great talks…

Raw War by graphic designer and artist Richard Hart

Cape Town’s annual Design Indaba conference kicked off yesterday and already the sold out 1,500 capacity crowd in Cape Town International Conference Centre has been treated to some great talks, with presentaions by a bevvy of British speakers including Michael Wolff, David Kester, Deborah Szebeko and Luke Pearson and Hat-trick’s Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat. Here are my highlights from a great first day…


First to speak was Michael Wolff who elected to gallop through a range of his branding projects created over the last 40 or so years – including a redrawn VW logo, the painted P&O flag motif, the Labour logo with a red rose, and the apple motif used on the central vinyl labels of Apple Records – explaining only the core (excuse the pun) idea behind each piece of work. For example, he explained how making the livery for Camden Council trucks and vans bright orange would mean that locals would actually see the council out and about doing things around the borough.

Wolff identified Lyle’s Golden Syrup as the first client to pay him for not designing new packaging. “This was the first time we were paid to tell someone not to change their branding,” he told the audience. “Even though it does depict the carcass of a dead animal surrounded by flies!”

Actually, as Wolff zoomed through projects, it became clear that animals have featured a lot over the years. He showed a logo drawn for Quintessentially which featured a yellow gibbon, and foxes (beautifully illustrated by Maurice Wilson) appeared on Wolff’s work for Hadfields paint. Apparently the idea for including a fox on the packaging was inspired by a particularly wiley looking client, and this approach, Wolf revealed, nearly caused “the first break up” of Wolff Olins.

The packaging for seed company Carters, Wolff told the audience, was a project that highlighted to him just how much language is a critical part of branding and, he went on to say, humour in particular can play a big role in building client / consumer relationships.

Wolff left the audience with the interesting thought that one idea can prevent you from having another, potentially better, one. “When you get an idea, he said, “throw it away, because then you’ll have more.” Along the same lines he said that he mistrusted his experience. “If you think you know how to solve something based on something you’ve already done, then that’s not nearly such a good place to start as ‘I don’t Know’, which is”, he says, “a wonderful context to work in.”

Dana Arnett of VSA Partners spoke about his obsession with motorbikes and muscle cars and how that led to him contacting Harley Davidson when just 25 to see if he could work with them on their communication as he didn’t believe Harley Davidson’s squeaky clean brochures really spoke to the brand’s devotees.

He showed some fantastic work for the brand which embraced the idea that the brand could be both good and bad. Clean and also a bit dirty. As well as some fantastic posters, the work shown included a spread from an annual report which featured a photo of a biker’s beard with the words “Read the financial section. That’s my favourite part.” The image was funny but made even more amusing by Arnett’s revelation that the man in the photo was later found to be the head of a stolen bike ring. Oops!

After showing a preview of a recent project to design 100 different iterations of IBM’s logo, Arnett signed off with a quote by furniture designer Henry Bertoia: “… the urge of great design is much like the urge to go on living, the assumption is that somewhere hidden there is a better way of doing things.”

Product designer Dror Benshetrit of New York based practice Dror, wowed the audience next with his infectious fascination with simple forms and concepts. He demonstrated how a love of an idea or concept has led him from designing products and furniture to designing shape-shifting buidings – and even a whole island resort called Nurai Island off the coast of Dubai based on the idea of hiding all the structures on the island “under the carpet” so as not to spoil the views across the tiny island:

Nurai from Dror on Vimeo.

Dror then spoke of his most recent project, called QuaDror – a simple folding interlocking frame structure that has the potential to be utilised in a large array of architectural ways – and not just for swanky beach-side homes. He’s been developing a bracket system that could allow local materials such as bamboo or tree branches to create the QuaDror structures.

QuaDror from Dror on Vimeo.


The idea that good design can make the world a better place was a strong theme throughout the day, and David Kester – chief executive of the UK’s Design Council – spoke about the potential for design to encourage social change.

First, he spoke about social psychology, and about the fact that as a general rule people don’t want to be told what to do. Rather than telling society what to do, is there a way, he asked, that good design can persuade everyone to eat more healthily or consume less alcohol, or make a change that will actually help them live a better life?

Kester then talked of a few particular initiatives he’s instigated such as Design For Patient Dignity and also the Design Bugs Out project – in which a team of designers worked closely with a host of advisers including nurses, patients and hospital users to work out how objects in hospitals could be function better and be easier to clean, maintain and store. Kester then introduced British product designer Luke Pearson of PearsonLloyd who has, as a result of these initiatives, designed a new easily cleanable portering chair (above) for the and also a new hospital commode (below).


Gando primary school, Burkino Faso

Architect Francis Kéré deservedly received a standing ovation for his hugely charismatic presentation of his work creating public buildings using local materials and local man (and woman) power in the village he grew up in in Burkino Faso in west Africa.

The buildings, which he calls “breathing houses” not only feature a clever air-flow system, to prevent temperatures soaring to the almost oven-like temperatures Kéré himself endured as a boy, but they were built by the villagers most of whom can’t read or write. The sense of community created by this project cannot be underestimated and Kéré perfectly encapsulated the idea of harnessing good design to make life better. Bravo!

Nobody envied having to talk next, but Karin Fong of Imaginary Forces spoke of her fascination with transitions in her animation and film work. This love of finding the best path from one visual to another has led her to creating title sequences – both for movies and for TV series such as Boardwalk Empire.

She showed various projects, revealing the how she’s worked with directors to find the best way to set the scene and transport viewers from their everyday lives to a fantasy place where the following action is about to take place. An insightful look into the often overlooked art of title sequences.

Display Book Shelf, by Daniel Eatock

Durban-based graphic designer and artist Richard Hart opened his talk with a really funny self-illustrated life story to introduce himself. He then shared some projects he described as “totally useless” that nevertheless inspire him, such as Daniel Eatock’s sagging shelf artwork (shown above), the illustrations of David Shrigley, and the turntable animations of Jim Le Fevre. He then showed some personal art projects (including Raw War, shown top of this post), and a collaborative poster project called Them-and-Us instigated by his studio, Disturbance. I particularly enjoyed his One Love neon work, a gif of which is shown below to show how it functions.

Another highlight of the day was Hat-trick duo Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat who showed a selection of work for various clients which included sets of stamps for The Royal Mail, typographic building site hoardings for Land Securities (see our previous post about it here), The British Heart Foundation, The Salvation Army and a really great identity (more animals!) for the Sumatran Orangutan Society:

Sutherland also showed some personal projects which included a pack of typographic cards and a charming book full of photographs of illustratively arranged objects found in his late father’s garage:

Yes, all this conference joy was had all in one day… I’ve already seen Bibliotheque today so will blog day two’s highlights soon…

More info on Design Indaba at

Follow events at Twitter, too, by looking for mentions of #designindaba.

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