David Stairs Tshwane (Pretoria), Gauteng, South Africa

I recently attended a small, select event in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. There were only about 100 people at the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa annual conference…

…but in a country crazy for design, DEFSA looms large as one of South Africa’s oldest design organizations. When I say “crazy,” I’m thinking of how serious South Africans are about design. Not only do they count the Hippo Water Roller, the Playpump, and the Freeplay Windup Radio among their widely applied projects, but the president of ICOGRADA, Jacques Lange, is South African, and has been instrumental in recruiting the AIGA into that international body. Just the week before last the South African Design Institute sponsored a Design for Development “Lekgotla” or group consultation, a three-day gathering of African and international design experts convened to discuss design’s role in economic growth. Then there’s the Designation initiative, a collaboration of government and industry dedicated to promoting product design education in South Africa.

DEFSA was a national, not an international conference. The theme of the gathering was “Re:design Design Education.” I was the only foreign speaker on the program after Serena Selva from the Milan Polytechnic backed out. The trip wasn’t that much of a stretch for me. I’m currently based in Kampala, Uganda, just six hours up the road by jumbo jet. Due to the domestic nature of the conference, most of the presentations tended to dwell on the beauty of method and the evils of politics. As I understand the argument, South Africa’s rapid move toward the center since its first democratic elections in 1994 has resulted in a leveling of the playing field for students, and a perceived erosion of academic standards. The sudden massification of higher ed, accompanied by a series of institutional mergers, has left many academics concerned about the future quality of the university system. For example, Avryl Dahl of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) gave a talk in which she suggested that statistics indicate South African test results are the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

This seemed suspect to me for a couple reasons. Just the previous week a Kampala newspaper had reported instances of transcript fraud at Makerere University, Uganda’s premier tertiary institution. Having worked at this institution, the headline did not surprise me. On the other hand, South Africa is the continent’s most industrialized nation and largest economy. Such statistics as Ms. Dahl cited most likely indicate under-reporting by other nations, or over-reporting by South Africa, or both. And then there was DEFSA President Colin Daniels’ assertion that access was destroying the South African university system. As much as I’d like to believe in the benefits of meritocracy (my own program at Central Michigan has selective entry requirements), my personal experience has shown that purely merit-based systems are narrow in scope and overly preferential, surely not what the South African government has in mind these days. Despite its short-term limitations, democratic access expands the pool of potential in a way meritocracy almost never can.

The effects of rapid economic and cultural change are an internal debate among South Africans, bound to play itself out eventually. What was not internal, what this conference had in common with most every design conference was a series of well-developed myths. A few of the ones thick in the air at DEFSA were: —design conferences are progressive —development is a dirty, neocolonial word —corporations are benevolent —in an age of networks, individuals should not go it alone This last nostrum was reinforced by the repetition of a memorable quote from design entrepreneur Ravi Naidoo, founder of the wildly successful Design Indaba , South Africa’s premier design trade show, who once said that designers should “hunt in packs.” The more I thought about this the less sense it made to me, unless one agrees with the notion that great ideas are to be found at design conferences. What occurred to me instead is that designers often think in packs, in fact they are excessively proud of consensus creation, which pretty neatly explains the groupthink pervading design gatherings.

As a case in point, I can find no shred of evidence to support the truism, repeated at DEFSA, that designers are more logical than artists. As a matter of fact, the number of designers who are self-proclaimed aesthetes would seem to fly in the face of any such claim. Then again, an otherwise sober Piers Carey, whose Durban University of Technology students devote a fair amount of their communication design research to health issues, living as they do in South Africa’s AIDS epicenter, had to be reminded that the people who are currently involved in development do not practice Coca-Colonization, but instead purvey much needed assistance to anxious and largely appreciative partners. Perhaps South African pride is an issue here. In Uganda, even university curricula are designed to include concepts of development.

But nowhere was myth-making more pervasive at DEFSA than in designers’ ongoing infatuation with industry. Adobe’s Mohammed Jogie, a special guest at DEFSA, was on hand to announce the creation of an Adobe “Design Educator of the Year” award for South Africa, for which he received a warm ovation. When I impertinently questioned him about whether Adobe, in the face of widespread piracy and the looming threat from open source, had any plans to lower its prices he was evasive, until another participant pointed out that the cost for Photoshop had recently gone up from 2100 ($350) to 3400 rand ($580). Then Jogie had no response. More troubling still was the closing presentation by Suné Stassen of Interactive Africa and Seton Vermaak of Woolworths. As they described Wooly’s social interest investment in South Africa, citing liaisons ranging from Design Indaba to the AIGA, I began to feel woozy.

Woolworth’s “Making the Difference Through Design Daily” or MTDTD Program, part of its My School initiative, has developed a 600-page workbook/CD of design case studies for teachers to promote the profession to South African learners. Afterward, when I teased DEFSA past president Mel Hagen that it seemed Woolworths had co-opted every designer and design concept in the country to its ends her terse response was, “Somebody’s got to do it” (lead with design). The question still boiling in my brain is, “Are you certain?” Woolworths is getting incredible public relations value as well as a direct IV-drip into tomorrow’s consumers for the small amount it invests in these programs, but designers and design organizations, apparently desperate for expanded corporate sponsorship, are unwilling or unable to admit this. David Boonzaaier, who is not a designer at all, but a medical doctor who participates in South African design conferences and discussions, was the only other person present I observed willing to question the ethics of corporate pork.

One of the messages I got during my two days in Port Elizabeth was that individual designers should not go it alone. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything I know to be true about creative inspiration. Many of the people I can think of who made notable donations to human advancement worked alone, sometimes in isolation: Einstein, Thoreau, Mendel, Austen, Muir, Beethoven, Joyce, Darwin, Freud, Dickenson, Picasso, etc. I do not wish to offend my South African friends and hosts here. I love South Africa and its generous people, and I had a great time at DEFSA. I’m in no way intending to impugn South Africans solely for these views which seem to be fairly universal.

Which brings me to that ultimate favorite cliché of contemporary designers: the ubiquity, significance, and power of their beloved discipline. The more I hear it the more it strikes me as symptomatic of networked modern life, just another instance of pack-thinking. But I’ve said it before, I feel designers need to escape their inward-focused, self-congratulatory ways if they hope to ever influence the world in more than a cursory manner. Satisfying one’s clients is all well and good, so long as the process does not become a mutual navel-gazing contest. Unless, of course, pack-thinking doesn’t matter. But then designers shouldn’t be surprised if they are better remembered as the creators and compilers of scavenged ideas than historically significant ones. As they say in the media, borrowing a biological concept, “it goes with the territory”, an open, treacherous bushveld for pack-hunters and pack-thinkers alike.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design Altruism Project

One Response to “Running With the Pack in South Africa”

  1. Randy J. Hunt Says:

    Thank you, sincerely, for this. Your posts and DAP have provided engaging information since launch, but it wasn’t until I read this that feel like I understand and appreciate your perspective. Your concerned, critical = approach is exactly what we need more of, if design is to realize it’s inherent potential that extends beyond market interests.