Don’t stop believing that design makes a difference

Terence Conran could hardly have chosen a better time or place to make an impassioned plea against the mooted war with Iraq. Cape Town’s now annual Design Indaba has become a melting pot for creative ideas and cultures, while South Africa’s track record on drawing the positive out of a difficult situation and building on it through design is an example to us all. Everything is deemed to be possible there if you want it enough.

The Indaba audience of some 800 people – largely young South African designers – was clearly moved by the words of a tearful Conran and instantly gave him their mandate. Many said later that they hadn’t appreciated how close the western nations were to war in the Middle East, despite an earlier gloom-laden presentation at the conference by UK designer Neville Brody. Would that the response here were as strong.

Conran’s intervention can only add weight to the anti-war lobby in the creative industries, led so far by architect Richard Rogers, but with the support of many, including Alan Kitching who created the Guardian ad ahead of last month’s peace marches. But while in the UK eminent design figureheads are trying to use their influence to get through to the politicians, in the US more commercial leaders are taking the helm to push the case for democracy.

Take the stunning work that New York-based Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister is doing with one of the guys behind Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream brand to try to divert US government military spending to what they deem to be more socially important areas such as healthcare and education. This is a public-awareness campaign with freshness, wit and great design.

There is nothing like a cause to raise the stakes for design, in terms of passion and creativity. If you look at the work of young South African designers, fired up with the notion of rebuilding their country, you see an energy that is not so common in more established nations. And this is despite the fact they’ve had the double knock of a decline in digital and film design over the past couple of years – areas earmarked as potential design hotspots.

The same tends to be true, sadly, in the work surrounding any war, particularly the poster campaigns.

While it may not on its own be able to change the world, design can make a difference, not least in communicating emotional and functional messages regardless of the spirit of the times. But does it always have to be hardship that brings out the best in creatives? If as an industry we worked more passionately on client briefs – or selected clients more carefully and pushed them harder – the quality and immediacy of the result could be so much better.

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