The power of design is a curious thing

How to make the world a better place was the starting point for projects by the most engaging of this year’s Design Indaba speakers

Being the only member of Creative Review’s long-serving editorial team not to have sampled its delights over the last few years, I was, naturally, thrilled at the prospect of attending this year’s 16th Design Indaba in Cape Town. The conference line-up this year was as impressive as ever with an international cast of speakers – including Alberto Alessi, Ben Fry, Bibliothèque, Dana Arnett from VSA Partners, David Kester from the UK’s Design Council, Karin Fong from Imaginary Forces, Google’s Robert Wong, and Michael Wolff – on board to talk about every conceivable aspect of design.

As in previous years, the conference venue’s 1,500 capacity auditorium was sold out, although more people were able to witness the talks and presentations via the two ‘simulcasts’ which saw them beamed live to a huge room in the same conference centre, and also, for the first time, to the Arts Centre Theatre in the Kingsway Campus of the University of Johannesburg.

A better world through creativity
It’s always interesting going to design conferences as the people whose work you know and love can sometimes turn out to be a bit lacking in public speaking skills, and the people who, on paper, might look rather uninteresting can be thoroughly engaging. I wasn’t expecting, for example, to have my mind blown by the concept-driven single-mindedness of product designer Dror Benshetrit of New York-based practice Dror. He demonstrated how a love of an idea or concept has led him from designing products and furniture to designing shape-shifting buildings, and even a whole resort called Nurai Island off the coast of Dubai. Nurai is based on the idea of hiding all the structures around the coast ‘under the carpet’ so as not to spoil the views across the tiny island.

Nor was I expecting to feel so moved by architect Francis Kéré’s talk for which he deservedly received a standing ovation. Hailing from Burkina Faso, Kéré, who is not yet 40, told of his return to his home village of Gando after studying architecture in Berlin, to create a new school building using local materials and local man (and woman) power. The buildings, which he calls “breathing houses” not only feature a clever air-flow system, to prevent temperatures soaring to the almost oven-like levels 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.

Other speakers also touched on the conference’s theme, ‘a better world through creativity’. David Kester, chief executive of the UK’s Design Council spoke of making life better by solving problems and beating disturbing statistics such as the fact that 4% of all deaths in the world are attributed to alcohol, and of those, 12% are caused by intentional injury. In the UK alone the NHS has to foot an estimated £2.7 billion bill looking after 87,000 victims of glass attacks each year. Kester showed a pint glass designed by Design Bridge that utilises a thin film of bio resin that prevents a smashed glass from breaking apart when broken. Having had one such glass smashed into my face the other year, I was reminded how lucky I was to still have the use of both eyes.

Kester then introduced Luke Pearson and Deborah Szebeko. Pearson’s company PearsonLloyd has worked with the Design Council on its Design Bugs Out project to minimise infection in hospitals by designing better, easier-to-clean products that take into account an empathy with both patients and hospital orderlies. The resulting Patient Chair and Commode, introduced as a result of this project, not only look great but they’re easy to clean, comfortable to use and make for happier patients, happier hospital staff and a cleaner hospital environment.

Deborah Szebeko also explained how her company, thinkpublic, worked with the NHS in the UK to create the Experience Based Design toolkit, a “co-design methodology for healthcare” in which patients are asked about their hospital experiences in order to work out how simple improvements could streamline health services resulting in patients feeling safer, happier and more valued.

Ben Fry, co-developer along with Casey Reas of UCLA of open source programming tool Processing, showed various projects of his that utilise his skills as a graphic designer whilst looking to visualise highly complex data in a way that makes it easier to interpret. Highlights included a project called Isometricblocks which combined several different methods of displaying hugely complex human genome data.

As well as making life better, several speakers talked of making things more beautiful, more poetic, more fun, beyond mere function. Alberto Alessi used the Alessi 9091 Kettle, designed by Richard Sapper in 1982 as an example. The kettle features a melodious whistle that plays a perfect fifth chord when steam is forced through it. The whistle’s sound is superfluous to its function, but it demonstrates, Alessi said, the company’s attitude to design, “which combines both art and poetry”.

Durban-based artist Richard Hart also picked up on the fun element of design, showing several projects that inspired him despite their lack of commercial potential. As did Jen Bilik of US-based company Knock Knock, who possibly missed her calling as a comedienne but demonstrated that her personality is actually channelled through her invariably funny books and products.

Each one is designed to make life a little bit more fun – from file folders labelled Total Crap, Other Crap and More Crap, through to helpful sticky notes with headers such as All Out Of or Don’t Forget To and, even, Things You Do That Really Piss Me Off. There’s also a WTF note pad.

For some reason, Bilik’s talk really resonated with me, as one of the least organised humans on the planet. If it can transform the mundanity of filing receipts, leaving memos and writing shopping lists into joyful experiences, then design truly is a more powerful agent for life improvement than I ever previously imagined.

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