Messages hit home without the glitter

Travel undoubtedly broadens the mind, but I found on a visit to South Africa last week that it can also be quite humbling. The messages emanating from the country’s third Design Indaba conference in Cape Town were awesome. And it wasn’t just the global greats such as Australian star Ken Cato, David Carson from the US West Coast and I-D magazine founder Terry Jones, who impressed as they presented to a largely local audience. It was the ideas and sophistication of the South African design community.

There was a vibrant energy about the place and a hunger to share information. There was none of the apathy we might expect from a reserved UK audience. One of the greatest manifestations of this energy came from the Design Indaba team, who, undaunted by cancellations by two international stars as the two-day event began, flew in Tomato Interactive creative director Tom Roope from London and rigged a satellite link with Neville Brody.

It was impressive to see Brody and others who’d been involved in previous Design Indabas so keen to help out in a situation that had no tangible payback for them. Such is the spirit of people caught up in the passion of a country so determined to push forward in a very human way.

There was consensus among the speakers that as life becomes more complex, designers need to stop and think about exactly what they are doing. There needs to be more sharing, said Cato, who urged those with good clients to introduce them to other designers to widen their experience of design. Richard Ford, creative head of Landor in New York, argued that designers don’t solve clients’ problems – that’s the job of business folk. But clients’ respond to the emotion of design, he said, so designers should have greater passion and belief in their own ideas.

The case for content over mere matter was most eloquently expressed by Brody, who believes “we’re so obsessed with glitter, we’ve forgotten the message”. Designers need to stop to think not just “how” (the process), but also “what” and “why”, he said.

In this information age, information isn’t content, Brody contends. “It’s simply an excuse to create more electronic noise and keep ourselves in business.” Balance this with Carson’s belief that “you need to get more personal and put more of yourself into the work” and you get a powerful message not just for South African designers as they start to colour in their clean sheet, but for the UK industry too. There is potential, even in a commercial environment, for more confident design that engages all the senses.

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