words Justin McGuirk
Seven secrets of a great design conference
Design Indaba is not your average conference. It’s a sun-splashed jamboree of some of the world’s most impressive design talent, and the kind of event it’s clear that the audience feels lucky to be witnessing. Now in its tenth year, Design Indaba takes place over three days every February in Cape Town’s shiny convention centre, presenting to an audience of 2,000. Undoubtedly, the real secret of its success is that founder Ravi Naidoo was smart enough to milk the appeal of a summery hotspot to a group of American and European creatives stuck in mid winter. Other than that, it’s all down to the calibre and diversity of the speakers.
1. Bring out the Old Masters
This year’s line up included a crop of white-haired legends, among them Massimo and Lella Vignelli, designers of the New York subway map, and advertising guru Wally Olins. Olins gave an entertaining talk about how you brand a country, which seems to involve distilling national cliches with great handfuls of spin. His exemplar was New Zealand, which in recent ad campaigns has managed to translate its remoteness into the idea of purity. Trade on your uniqueness, said Olins, calling up a list of the 69 places that have marketed themselves as “a land of contrasts”.
Meanwhile, there was a surprise speaker in graphic artist Milton Glaser (Mr I love NY), live by video link from New York. The audience’s awe at its virtual communing with the old wizard soon faded as Glaser unleashed an interminable series of drawings in complete silence, so that we might appreciate them as music. Luckily there was a connection meltdown, which Glaser himself had predestined with the words “Since technology knows it is my enemy, it betrays me”.
2. Think Differently
If anything, Design Indaba was best for the quantity of wonderfully lateral thinking on display. Dutch designer Jurgen Bey revealed his habit of personifying objects, from dust (which is more likely to let itself be swept up by a broom made of peacock feathers) to microscopic spores (“which are so beautiful it’s almost as though they dressed up knowing that one day they would be able to be seen”). Swedish design group Front bowled over the audience with its leftfield conceptualism: furniture made by animals, sketched in the air with motion sensors or morphed into a schizophrenic hybrid of two design classics. And Spanish designer Jaime Hayon had people queuing up for his autograph after opening the top of his head and pouring out the fantastical world inside. “I’m going to do furniture that’s like Las Vegas,” he said.
3. Predict the future
According to Li Edelkoort, trend forecaster and director of Design Academy Eindhoven, the West’s paranoia about Islam in general and its obsession with terrorism in particular are inevitably – and ironically – going to filter down into fashion. “Extreme religious dress will become fashionable,” said Edelkoort, showing a series of heavily art directed photographs of women in veils and all manner of hoods and masks. In fact, in what seems like a plausible extension of design’s newly decorative mode, we’re going to be covering everything from our faces to our walls and table legs. “We’ve been stripping our architecture and design for 50 years,” she said, crossing her fingers for an imminent U-turn.
4. Be Provocative
There was plenty of challenging rhetoric at Design Indaba but the provocateurs-in-chief were British. Graphic designer Neville Brody ought to have been wearing a beret as he pronounced that design is a political act. Brody, who has joined the make-it-impossible-to-read school of graphic design, sees it as the designer’s duty to intervene between the product and the consumer, otherwise he or she is endorsing the commodification of culture. Perhaps there were a few too many preachy truisms but his endpoints rang true: there’s so much space out there to fill but “no time to do anything properly”, and technology has made everything so easy that “we’ve forgotten how to be difficult”.
Jasper Morrison followed up with a characteristically laconic attack on the values of the design industry. He accused designers of “over design” and blamed the media for perpetuating a culture of “visual pollution” by forcing designers into a vicious cycle of novelty and sensationalism. Morrison, who takes five years to design a fork, is the antidote to all this. But he wasn’t all bile – he was very amusing on the subject of his disastrous series of appliances for Rowenta, including a coffeemaker in which the water “went everywhere except in the coffee”.
5. Change the World
Alex Steffen, co-founder of Worldchanging.com, was the conference’s only advocate from the eco movement, but he made up for it with zeal and sheer physical size. Quoting sci-fi author William Gibson’s maxim “The future will have its way with you”, he cited countless small projects that he feels are helping to save the planet where governments and big business are failing it. The audience erupted into spontaneous applause when he showed a flower that has been genetically modified to turn red if it detects landmines in the soil.
More impressive and even more zealous, though, was head of Architecture for Humanity Cameron Sinclair. Sinclair, a fusion of architect, politician and motivational speaker, accused architects of belonging to “a narrow and irrelevant profession” for failing to engage with the needs of the world’s poor majority (“most buildings in the world don’t involve a design professional”). Sinclair used the conference to announce the launch of AfH’s Open Architecture Network, an open source archive of all its relief work designs, which he hopes will make “citizen architects” (see interview on page 128).
6. Blind us with science
Daljit Singh and Simon Waterfall, from London-based digital design agencies Digit and Poke respectively, took the comedic route to initiating the audience into the mysteries of the virtual world. From trying to demonstrate how many pixels there are in the universe, they moved on to Singh’s holiday in North Korea to witness the world’s biggest digital screen. The technical explanation of why the images flashing across this stadium-sized interface weren’t as fast as we were used to caused the audience’s collective jaw to drop: every pixel was in fact a schoolchild holding up a placard.
Meanwhile, Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, tackled the more serious stuff. Somewhere in the blur of protein folding sequences and bedazzling science-speak he outlined a global scheme called FabLabs, in which young designers are shown how to test their ideas on industrial grade software and fabrication tools before developing them for manufacture. There was a noticeable buzz of excitement when he revealed that there was a FabLab in Cape Town.
7. Take the Piss
Local advertising creative Alistair King set the tone for this year’s event with a funny take on how to set up your own company (which included hiring a manager who wears chinos and has lost most of his hair through worry). The beauty of this year’s Indaba was that lots of the speakers had the audience laughing, from British illustrator Paul Davis (“I’m no good”) to Brian Eno (who offered up Westlife’s wide-stance posturing as an art object). But the prize went to American comic Reggie Watts, who closed the proceedings by mixing up beatbox improv with a ruthless impersonation of Eno’s slightly ponderous art theory lecture. Since when were conferences so much fun?