In the year Design Indaba celebrates 21 years, perhaps it is time to reflect on how Ravi Naidoo has turned the platform into the most significant annual gathering in global design. Perhaps one of the most striking things about Design Indaba is that it has managed to belong to creatives, rather than the suits who fund the creative industries. Crucially, it has not become simply a showcase of success, but has consistently featured speakers who critique both design and society. At a time when global corporations are both more powerful and everywhere, it is important that forums like Design Indaba remain not just independent, but substantively critical of corporate shortcomings.
In a country that spends vast fortunes on spectacular launches of initiatives that soon fizzle out, what’s remarkable about Design Indaba is how quietly and patiently Ravi built it. You only need glance at the Design Indaba alumni to see that it has attracted the very best names from across the creative industries since its founding.
The 2015 edition of Design Indaba will have the likes of Dan Wieden, co-founder of the agency Widen-Kennedy which created Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. Shubhankar Ray, the brand pioneer will also be at the conference. Previous speakers have included Joy McKinney, DJ Stout, Marcello Serpa, Ije Nwokorie, William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, David Adjaye, Porky Hefer, Koto Bolofo, Brian Eno, and Lindsay Kinkade. The roster of MCs includes the likes of Designer Michael Bierut, who is both incredibly funny and deeply knowledgeable.
“It’s our job to get out there and fight for great ideas; it’s creative people that will make the change,” says Sir John Hegarty, one of the major voices that have insisted on challenging the status quo during memorable presentations at Design Indaba. In other words, Koto Bolofo’s “Madonna cannot tell me what to do” is more than a statement of defiance, but a reminder that creatives should stand their ground. It is fitting that Koto Bolofo’s words at Design Indaba should help us reimagine the role of the creative at a time when it is clients who call the shots. It also reinforces thae role that creativity is playing in changing the world.
There’s a reason why it’s worth celebrating Design Indaba’s philosophy of highlighting the significant socio-economic problems the world faces. Design does not occur in a vaccum, and Design Indaba alumni Alfredo Brillembourg reminds us that great design begins with solving social problems. “If you want to solve housing problems, don’t build housing, build services” says Brillembourg, the founder of Urban Think Tank.
In his book There’s A Tsotsi In The Board Room, Muzi Kuzwayo writes, “Obsession with success has led many organisations into trouble. This is because it encourages people to only talk about the good news. The bad news will not be known until it is too late” Design Indaba’s mission, “A better world through creativity” reflects a grasp of the problems our world faces, and the potential for creativity to fix what’s broken. Muzi has spoken at Design Indaba, and like Ravi, he trained as a scientist before finding his calling in the creative industry. In a world of catchy slogans, Design Indaba has been careful to use its tagline as a call to action. Throughout its literature and pages, both online and offline, Design Indaba insists on linking its mission to tangible action. “We can all use creativity to make the world a better place” sounds all the more credible because Design Indaba is involved in concrete action to improve housing, energy, the environment, recycling and other sustainable campaigns that go beyond the cliches of Corporate Social Responsibility.
If Design Indaba was simply about showcasing what’s pretty, sexy and even popular, it would long ago have lost its power to consistently pull in the hottest minds in design and creativity from across the globe. Global competition is fierce, what with events such as TED and others luring the best speakers to their platforms. Ravi and his core team have managed to keep Design Indaba fresh each year by knowing exactly what is pushing design and creative boundaries at any one moment. But perhaps the key success of Design Indaba lies in its ability to draw creative leaders from across the globe and use them to ignite deep conversations that influence the trajectory of global creative work.
It has been a real joy to watch Design Indaba grow from a small event in South Africa to become one of the key events on the global creative calender. It is thanks to Ravi’s vision that each year Cape Town receives thousands of visitors who know that they will connect with sharp thinkers in the world of design, film, music, architecture, and the other creative industries. The Design Indaba has contributed a staggering amount to the economy, and through projects like the Design Indaba Expo has created jobs and launched some of the hottest talent in global design. Both the film festival and the musical performances during Design Indaba add to the layers of authenticity associated with Design Indaba.
I have always marveled at Ravi’s insistence to travel across the world to invite personally each of the speakers that come to Cape Town to take part in Design Indaba. Now that the debacle of Cape Town’s designation as World Design Capital is behind us, it’s time to consider the parasite nature of so many bureaucrats. Cape Town’s stint as World Design Capital shows how carpetbaggers will always ride on the infrastructure that’s been built by the likes of Ravi through Design Indaba.
Design Indaba has clearly found the elusive formula for success. But it is its sense of itself as more than just a conference, but a multifaceted platform intent on using creativity to improve the world that lifts it above the event category. It is this broader mission that has turned Design indaba into a veritable institution within the global creative landscape. From the Africa is Now exhibition, to the Design Indaba Do Tank platform, as well as the online Designindaba.com the platforms available to the creative community remain fresh, relevant and compelling each year.
One of the noticeable trends is the number of designers that insist on having fun even as they solve the most serious social problems. As the designer John Bielenberg notes “If changing the world isn’t fun then nobody is going to do it”
Ours has become a world of deep orthodoxy and that is why it is worth repeating Canadian designer Rahim Bhimani’s quote of his professor “Question everything generally thought to be obvious.”
Ravi Naidoo says it best when he says ” Since 1995 Design Indaba has bet the farm on SA’s creative future. All of our projects since 1994 have been about re-imagining Africa, about giving Africa new stretch. We are optimists, we aren’t apologetic about our circumstances or South Africa. We’re not part of the crew that sits about having a whinge over a cappuccino. We have an outstanding opportunity here with the means and the ideas to make a difference.”
It’s time that South Africa took serious notice of this great ambassador of our country and his catalytic role in placing both design and the creative industries at the centre of making a better world. Ravi Naidoo would surely repeat with the great photographer Koto Bolofo in saying that “Madonna cannot tell me what to do” and with good reason