Day one: Design, it seems, is where the heart is

If the Design Indaba offers a glimpse into the zeitgeist, the most exciting themes on day one of the conference were about designs that will make a real difference in people’s lives, and learning to speak—and love—a local architectural language.

These ideas emerged around talks by several engaging speakers. Iconic London-based graphic designer and brand consultant Michael Wolff, with his gentle but commanding intelligence and a portfolio underpinned by wit, honesty and originality stands out for me, as does the smart visual-effects work of New York-based Karin Fong.

However, the “aha” moment of the day, if you will excuse the Oprah-ism (quite inexcusable, I know), came when David Kester, the chief executive of the British Design Council, began his slot. He shared insights into the methods, research and processes of this brilliant organisation’s efforts to use design to “nudge” social behaviour, and in doing so improve and enhance the lives of millions of Britons. And save the government billions of pounds by doing so.

He was followed by two designers affiliated to the council—product designer Luke Pearson of Pearson Lloyd, and Deborah Szebeko of Think Public. Pearson’s description of his firm’s project with the council to redesign the antiquated hospital commode in an attempt to stop the deadly (and costly) spread of so-called “superbugs” was fascinating and inspiring. Szebeko (try saying that fast three times in a row!) walked us through some of the work she does through her social design agency.

Her message that “we have a responsibility to use our creativity to tackle some of the world’s biggest issues” might have sounded utopian, but she backed it up with examples of several projects that have already shown impressive results in affecting tangible change for good.

The Design Indaba crowd is a notoriously tough one, but Burkina Faso-born, Germany-trained architect Francis Kéré had them on their feet after his utterly inspiring talk that was a call to embrace and utilise indigenous architectural practices and building materials. The structures he showed the audience were simple, beautiful and a lesson in humanism.

Design, it seems, is where the heart is.

Other Highs

  • Wolff being called out for wearing blue Crocs ... and not giving a shit.

  • Israeli-by-way-of-New York cross-disciplinary designer Dror Benshetrit used the Indaba as a platform to reveal his latest project, a structural support system called the QuaDror. In essence, the QuaDror comprises four identical L-shaped pieces that have myriad potential architectural and structural applications.

    It was inspiring stuff, as was his futuristic island hotel and private residential community located in Abu Dhabi. What began as a bit of creative fantasising by this self-confessed “non-architect” is now set for completion at the end of the year.

  • Kéré grinding on trend guru Li Edelkoort’s lap during his talk. Priceless.

And Lows

  • Insulting tweets by a few members of the audience being flashed, CNN breaking news-style, on a screen located outside the auditorium. Were these people raised in a barn? Making a statement using the medium of Twitter to opine that a speaker’s portfolio is crap or that they’re boring is just such a teenage cliché.

    By all means, have an opinion. Talk to your friends about it during post-Indaba drinks, debate it with your colleagues back at work or, if you have the balls, approach the designer over lunch and get it off your chest. But don’t use the medium of social networking as an excuse to be the bully on the school ground. It doesn’t make you interesting. It just makes you a twit. And a mean one at that.

  • Cellphones ringing during the talks. Really? After all these years you still don’t remember to turn the damn things to “silent”?

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