Stories from Cape Town

Collaboration was a strong theme at this year’s Design Indaba, with talks from a diverse range of speakers

Back in February, I visited Cape Town to attend annual creative conference, Design Indaba. I’d heard a lot of things before going – including that it was one of the biggest and best design events in the world – and it didn’t disappoint.

It’s 20 years since organisers Interactive Africa first decided to host an annual conference in the city. Since the first Indaba a year later in 1995, ticket sales have increased from a couple of hundred to around 3,000, and this year’s event was broadcast to thousands more in five South African cities.

Perhaps the secret to Design Indaba’s continued success, aside from its location and a great social programme, is the range and diversity of its speakers. This year’s line-up spanned architecture, visual activism, product design, graphics and photography, hailing from Europe, Africa, the US and New Zealand.

On day one, delegates were treated to an A-Z of Experimental Jetset’s creative influences, a first glimpse at Thomas Heatherwick’s plans to turn a Cape Town grain silo into an African art museum and Pecha Kucha-style presentations from a range of graduates – including the RCA’s Agatha Haines, who creates silicon body parts in an effort to investigate how far we could modify ourselves to suit our lifestyles or changing environments.

On day two, the morning session began with a moving talk from Pentagram designer DJ Stout, who discussed the importance of a sense of place. Stout showed some beautiful imagery from his home state, Texas, including photographs of cowboy poets shot for Pentagram Papers and of the devastation caused by a wildfire in 2011, accompanied by live piano music from Texan composer Graham Roberts. “If [designers] forget who we are and where we’re from and focus on being too global then something gets lost,” he said.

The projects and perspectives varied hugely, of course, but there were some recurring themes – most notably, the importance of collaboration and collective storytelling. Ije Nwokorie, managing director at Wolff Olins London, said any brand created with thousands of people was undoubtedly more powerful than one created by a small team of designers. “We should be hackers, makers, collaborators, instigators,” he said, citing the agency’s product, Little Sun, a solar powered light by artist Olafur Eliasson, which aims to provide a low cost light source for people in off-grid towns and cities.

Chriz Gotz from Ogilvy & Mather South Africa shared the same sentiment, and spoke about the agency’s move from story telling to story making, creating campaigns that rely on audience participation such as one using Google Street View for Volkswagen and a mobile app for football sponsors Carling Black Label. The work wasn’t wildly inventive but it had connected with audiences, attracting millions of page views and votes.

Perhaps the most powerful example of interactive storytelling, however, was designer Jake Barton’s work for the 9/11 New York memorial site. Barton spoke about using audio recordings from visitors and survivors to provide an emotive alternative to a traditional curator’s tour, allowing visitors to create and watch video responses to questions raised by the event – such as “how has 9/11 changed the world?”

He also showed interactive work for Cleveland Museum of Art and an app that helps schoolchildren learn physics through physical activity. Citing the Confucius quote, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”, he explained how interactive experiences could improve learning in the classroom as well as in cultural institutions.

Collaboration was a point raised by OpenIDEO founder Tom Hulme, too. Describing his creative crowdsourcing platform as an open online suggestion box, where users can make and rate projects from around the world, he said anyone can create things now – so professional designers must collaborate on inventive solutions that meet real human need in a low friction yet delightful way and work with audiences to create them, rather than dictate how products or inventions will be used. The company is also working with charities to launch international aid challenges, such as improving women’s safety in rural communities.

OpenIDEO was one of just several innovative tech projects discussed at Design Indaba: Juliana Rotich, co-founder of crisis mapping platform Ushahidi, introduced a hard wearing internet modem for people in rural areas that can withstand blackouts and power surges, while Vinay Venkatraman presented an alarm clock that doubles as a health monitoring device to relieve pressure on Indian hospitals.

Among this was some sound advice and inspiration from Almap BBDO’s Marcello Serpa, Alt Group’s Dean Poole and Stefan Sagmeister – three of my favourite talks, which you can read more of on the CR blog – and a range of discussions on what good design is or should be. Some said it must change lives, others said it has to serve a purpose, while Sagmeister asked, why can’t it simply be beautiful?

The programme also included talks from South African creatives and as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid, it was fitting that those speaking should include a generation ‘born free’ as well as someone who has spent decades documenting South Africa’s race problems.

Eighty-three-year-old David Goldblatt received a standing ovation for his poignant reflection on images capturing life in the country’s townships, sharing the moving and often harrowing stories behind his photographs.

Younger artists also engaged with issues of race and national identity – ‘visual activist’ Zanele Muholi spoke of photographing South Africa’s black LGBT community to encourage greater acceptance of same sex relationships, and artists from platform 89plus (a new project set up to support those born after 1989), used installations, video and performance to document teenage life post-apartheid, while reflecting on the struggles of previous generations.

It seems almost futile to sum up three days of talks in just a few hundred words: Design Indaba was packed with interesting insights, inspiring quotes and honest reflections on creativity. But what each speaker shared was a genuine passion for their craft and a desire to, in Poole’s words, “give the world a bit of a wobble”.

For more information on Design Indaba, see and @designindaba

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