Universal design themes surface at Design Indaba

If they work well, conferences can give a snapshot of what’s out there, as much from the questions from the floor as from the speakers’ presentations.

Last week, therefore, it was interesting to hear questions put to Tomato’s Michael Horsham and Ian Anderson of Sheffield-based The Designers Republic by UK design students at the Four Designers event in London echoed by a largely South African audience at the international Design Indaba held in Cape Town.

The question was how you balance ‘creative’ work with client projects – naive, perhaps, when the obvious answer is that you never stop doing great work and creativity and commerce should go hand in hand. But that isn’t easy to achieve.

Designers most revered by their peers never compromise their creative standards and turn out fantastic work. But they rarely rank among the high earners in the business. In some instances, this is down to their fairly primitive marketing skills and the fact that their client relationships are often personal, working with a ‘patron’ on the client side rather than a commercial board.

Their teams and projects tend to be small and their methods co-operative – Tomato and The Designers Republic pride themselves on the latter. Above all, they tend to be keen to give something back to the industry, seeing the sharing of ideas and projects on conference platforms as important as making a living through design. Indaba stars Peter Saville, Vince Frost and Tomato’s Tom Roope all do this.

But how do you balance this attitude with client work? Horsham has one solution – you view the client as a catalyst along the way as your ideas develop – while product designer Ross Lovegrove, another Indaba ‘great’, often takes his concepts to the appropriate client rather than waiting for a brief. If you can develop relationships while preserving your integrity, everyone wins.

Another theme around relationships that emerged at Indaba was the reintroduction of humanism to design, a phenomenon that has evolved from the social-consciousness aired for the past couple of years.

Ilse Crawford’s work at Marks & Spencer’s inaugural Lifestore homewares outlet in Newcastle is rife with it and we can expect more to come. Patterns, texture and colour are replacing pristine minimalism, boding well for South Africa’s growing contemporary crafts community who showed at the first Indaba Expo.

What a foil this is to the techno future foretold by New York design giant Karim Rashid, and what a welcome direction for designers to take, showing that it can be done with intelligence and care, rather than in the makeshift way favoured by TV makeovers.

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