by Herman Manson (@marklives) In front and all around us, concrete reaches for more concrete in the charmless heart of the civic centre precint. It’s a reminder of the architects and planners of this place. Their fears built bunkers (in the US, they would be building walls) and that language presents clearly in our surroundings. Blue MyCiTi buses careen past. The perimeter is fenced off and everybody enters through a skew piece of fencing manned by two security guards.

Reinvention and integration GRID Design Indaba 2017 inspiration 02

Like the monstrous highways that cuts the city from the sea, the gaping hole of a bulldozed District Six once very much the heart of this city, this part of Cape Town’s CBD feels brutal. It begs for trees to break the harshness and the heat. If ever there were a place in need of reinvention and integration into the rest of the cityscape, this would be it. Welcome to the design event of the year in the heart of the design capital of Africa.

Outside, the sun beats down on a not-entirely successful attempt to replicate the sculptural cool of AfrikaBurn. Hundreds of people eat Woolies sandwiches, wraps and salads, staring over the grounds leading up to the main entrance of the Artscape Theatre complex. The asshole in front of me lights a cigarette. I eat my smoked-chicken sarmie.

Back inside the theatre’s air-conned belly, three days of sometimes mind-bending talks and performances aim to stimulate and inspire a fairly diverse audience of designers and agency folk. Design events always feature chair talks. It’s a thing — designing chairs, then talking about it endlessly on the design-talk circuit.

Design Indaba 2017 kind of kicked off with a chair talk. I know this because I saw chairs on the screen as designers Dokter and Misses offered a presentation on their work and their design ethos. “Kind of” because the film presentation’s sound wasn’t great at the back where I sat. So I got to skip the chatter about chairs and other stuff and instead marvel at the choreography of conceptual performers Dear Ribane. At the end, I wanted them to do it all over again. It was the most-brilliant chair talk ever.

Image supplied by Design Indaba.
Image supplied by Design Indaba

Global graduates

The global graduates always impress. They may not sell tickets and put bums in seats but often their innovative ideas and unconventional thinking is what many delegates take away at the end of the show. Kaja Solgaard Dahl drew a lot of attention for her Cape Town-inspired scent called “Tapputi and the sea. Cape Town edition” and her use of dyed, natural sea sponges to create a unique, exclusive mechanism to hold and apply the scents.

Arjun Harrison-Mann, meanwhile, told a profoundly human story where dialogue meets design and advocacy — in his case, to enable people with disabilities to protest and have their voices heard through the merger of offline and online protest action.

Chris Sheldrick, the founder of what3words, has figured out an innovative way of giving the 4bn people without a workable physical address by creating a map that chops the planet into 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares and giving each square a unique three-word address (flitter.alliance.competently).

Marina Willer amazed with her extracts from her upcoming feature film, “Red Trees,” which tells the story of her family, specifically her father, who were one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague, and their eventual escape to Brazil. She also danced during a presentation of her other work in case the audience found the slideshow boring. One of the most charming individuals to take the Design Indaba stage for sure.

Much has been made of the Design Indaba collaboration with IKEA. Essentially, a group of African designers will design a 40-piece “Africa” collection for the retail giant. Which is wonderful, until you realise this company pushes out 2000 new products every year. It’s a start at least!

Business angle

Olafur Eliasson was one of the few designers who offered a business angle during his presentation. The designer of the Little Sun project (which creates an affordable solar-light product shaped like a sunflower), he is rolling out a solar phone charger and a second lamp, the Little Sun Diamond, which has a more-masculine feel to it (a response to a design criticism by men who didn’t want to buy the original Little Sun lamp).

The project has sold 280 607 lamps via some 600 distributors on the African continent. The lamps sold here are subsidised by a premium charged for the lamps in Europe.

Eliasson acknowledges that he had hoped for a bigger impact, given the power shortages on the continent, and hopes the additional products will spur more local entrepreneurs to carry his products.

Ayse Birsel
Image credit:

Definite  highlights

Two definite highlights on day one included talks (which will be covered in more detail in the weeks to come) by:

  • Ayse Birsel, author of “Design the Life You Love”

Birsel discussed how design thinking may affect your life (as it did hers).

Ahtisaari discussed music as precision medicine; in other words, how it affects our health and wellness  both physically and emotionally. His projects take research beyond the intuitive to the scientific and, ultimately, he hopes to tackle our dependence on pharmaceuticals for our general well-being.

In the dark


[You try taking notes in a dark opera house/theatre complex. The guys next to me could have been necking and I would not have been the wiser. It. Was. That. Dark.]

Sometimes it was a bit much. One performance artist on day two either blew your mind or tortured you endlessly (clue: I wrote “endless” in my notes). Another designer droned on and on in the world’s most boring monotone: veteran journalist Louise Marsland over in the media simulcast chewed gum to stay awake; I took a power nap.

Standing ovation

The only presentation to receive a standing ovation this year was for two Dutch guys bitching about people in poorer countries stealing their marvellously original work.  They were funny — truly funny — but something still felt off about the whole thing; I’m guessing the whole global discussion on privilege passed by that bit of Europe.

Information designer, artist and the co-author of “Dear Data,” Giorgia Lupi, urged delegates to rethink their relationship with data and to rediscover unique points of view by removing software and automation from data analysis. Her handcrafted approach to data dissected her life and that of co-author, Stefanie Posavec, revealing the hidden patterns of their individual lives and helped build understanding between the two friends.

Global grad Thandiwe Msebenzi confronted the audience with images of the weapons her mother and grandmother sleep with at night so they can fight off attackers. These are brutal, incredible pictures that punch you in the gut, and would seem unbelievable if this weren’t South Africa. They show fear but also courage and determination, and confront this country with its own cruel reality — later in the day, SA’s rape statistics would appear, revealing that 110 people are raped in SA every day (the consensus is that only a fraction of cases are reported; the real picture is much more frightening).

Most intellectual

TL Uglow (‘Tea’) gave an insightful talk on how context changes content (also see note on IKEA) and how information really is a spectrum we can play with. I suspect her talk went over a few heads; it was, by far, the most intellectual of the three-day event but delivered with charm and grace. Check one of projects she is involved in: Editions at Play, an experiment in digital literature. The other, which is still a work in progress, investigates ownership (of literature, in this case ) in a digital world. It truly is ground-breaking stuff.

Brian Collins (the designer, not the country music singer) is chief creative officer of COLLINS, a design agency with offices in New York and San Francisco. His agency has a library. A library, folks, with real books. And his staff members have to go in there and read stuff before they get going on a project. AWESOME.

Nelly Ben Hayoun. Wonderful theatre. Still — WTF.

Gamifying language learning

For now, Luis von Ahn is best-known as the co-inventor of CAPTCHA (which we also found out is a brilliant way of digitising books) but that will soon change, thanks to his education disruptor, Duolingo, “a language-learning platform created to bring free language education to the world”.

Basically, he gamified language tutoring, and his site keeps on learning where people struggle and what may be done to make these parts of the language easier to learn. You may learn in 34 hours what you would have spent a semester learning in college. Learn English, French, Spanish and a host of other languages, including Swahili and, soon, isiZulu.

The final act of the final day usually veers off course at Design Indaba: it’s reserved for the amazing. Hugh Masekela-amazing. For South Africans, it’s the best part of the indaba because it reminds us that we are more and better than the corrupt politicians and their very wealthy friends (and proprietors of the Saxonworld shebeen) would have us believe.

Honouring the Arch

Design Indaba 2017 The Arch. Jonx Pillemer
Image credit: Jonx Pillemer, Design Indaba

This year, the event honoured Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He was frail, he was humble, he still laughed and clapped his hands together. Nobody would sit down after he entered the theatre. Nobody. Would. Sit. Down. They stood until it was time to leave. He had his chair moved so he could view the choir and so it didn’t block the view of the audience. He invited the other archbishops (current and retired) to share the stage at an event designed to honour the Arch (his argument seemed to be they are all Arches!).

We realise we are with a man who helped bring down apartheid. A friend of Mandela and the Dalai Lama and a generation of leaders who offered humanity and hope and peace, rather than shit and guns and drones. Leaders who were willing to design a different world. We walk away. Yet, when we enter their presence, still we pause and wonder at what could have been. Could be.

Outside, the crowd disperses and the concrete swallows us up. We disappear for another year.


Herman MansonHerman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of

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