Conference Report: Design Indaba

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Cape Town is a bit like the city of Baltimore, couched in the landscape of Big Sur, with the good food of California, and the cultural diversity of somewhere like Mexico.

There seem to be some interesting things happening in the graphics arts in South Africa. As I learned, Cape Town may be the public face the country shows to the world, but Durban on the east coast is where the real creatives live. The country is struggling to define its position in the world, but also in relationship to its own past. As one might imagine this is proving difficult but providing fertile ground for a rich discussion about what design is, whom it can help, and how design is relevant to both the global community and the global economy.

Here’s a brief rundown of the conference itself:

Like most conversations, it was the diversity of opinions that made the 7th annual Design Indaba most interesting. While Elsi Nanji’s presentation provided a peek into the current issues of the Indian design world and was an eloquent discourse on the topic of designing within the constraints of a specific locality and strong culture, it was only after seeing Karim Rashid tackle the same issues that the discussion really showed its strength.

With enough effort one can manage to see the world’s best designers talk about their work at any number of gallery sessions, university sponsored lectures, or signings. What makes the Design Indaba a uniquely powerful venue is the condensation of some of the design world’s leading minds into one conversation. Even this, the gathering of many people, is not a particularly novel concept; the name “Indaba” itself is an old Zulu term for “meeting.” The Design Indaba’s secret weapon is its position in Cape Town—a first world city in a third world country that’s putting all of its might behind becoming the next global style capital.

To an American, exposure to even the smallest facts of life in South Africa provides insight into a complex balance of political and social forces far more diverse than we ever have to deal with. Three major ethnic groups, eleven official languages, two power standards, and sharply contrasting economic conditions are just the beginning of the complexities that define the milieu South African designers have to address. While this seems overwhelming, it’s also a potential breeding ground for the next wave of designers who may effortlessly deal with the realities of a world accepting globalization and seamlessly acknowledging diverse audiences.

Was it planned that the questions the Design Indaba implicitly posed were answered by the very structure of the conference itself? How can design cope with the global marketplace? The answer is by making sides instead of taking them, by understanding the realities of globalization’s effect on economy and production, and by balancing this with an ever-stronger attention to locality. Simply because one exists in a global context does not mean one must be a global homogene, quiet and uniform on the shelf. When discussing South Africa’s own design future, the conversation moved into a critique of reliance on traditional motifs for the driving force behind current design. This is, however, a valid lesson for all young designers: How do we use our past, our traditions, our localism not to craft historical rehashes of old ideas but to design a new and vibrant future?

—Bryan Boyer