Design Indaba: Oh the places you'll go!

I’d like to suggest to founder Ravi Naidoo that it might be time for a name change from Design Indaba to (and I’m still working on this) ... Most Awesome Assembly Of Creatives In One Place Like, Anywhere, Ever Indaba.

Because surely an event that consists of a final day that packs in talks by, among others, Mark Shuttleworth, United States digital designer and information graphics specialist Ben Fry, Mexican architect and artist Pedro Reyes, creative director of Google’s Creative Lab, Robert Wong, Danish bicycle designer Jens Martin Skibsted and—to wrap it up—Hugh Masekela in conversation with legendary American music producer Stewart Levine followed by a performance by Masekela, needs a jazzier moniker.

Due to previous commitments my Indaba morning started a bit late, allowing me to only catch the last 20 minutes or so of Mark Shuttleworth‘s unpacking of his open-source Ubuntu software project. Being someone whose brain freezes up and eyes glaze over the second that proper, grown-up, er, what’s the word, oh right, “technical” jargon of just about any sort is mentioned, I was surprised at how accessible I found both the man and the content of his presentation.

It was a treat being introduced to Israeli typography designer Oded Ezer whose work is both fun and mildly bonkers. Ezer’s is a brain inhabited by strange creatures that are so expertly rendered by him that they just could, in a slightly parallel universe, be real. So obsessed is he with typography that he refers to himself as a typoholic and typo shaman, dresses up in type, makes typographical hairpieces, directs movies about type and experiments—conceptually—with made-up fields that, for example, splice type with animal DNA and body modification (aka plastic surgery). He also showed what is, to my mind, the most magnificent and poetically symbolic tattoo in all of existence—the definitive antithesis of the tramp stamp.

Ezer’s presentation was regularly punctuated by the word “emotion”, a trend that continued throughout the course of the day and, on reflection, was the one thing that connected all the most inspiring talks at this year’s Indaba. Emotionally driven design—and creatives who truly love and live for what they do—was definitely this year’s biggest take-away lesson for me.

Up next was Ben Fry. Although his name sounds like it’s straight off the cast list of a Mike Newell film, Fry is in fact a brilliant (read brainiac) American digital designer who takes mind-boggling data and transforms it into visuals that are both comprehensible and approachable. I cannot exactly go into what his discussion entailed because, well, my brain was frozen, but you can read about and view his incredible projects on (be sure to check out the one on Darwin).

Into the home stretch of the day and Danish designer Jens Martin Skibsted spoke about his Biomega initiative, an offshoot of his ideas-driven industrial design firm. Never before has the case for ditching the car and going with the bicycle been made with such passion and conviction. And the bikes, well they’re just beyond-belief beautiful and covetable.

The final “official” design-focussed slot of the Indaba belonged to creative director at Google’s Creative Lab, Robert Wong. When we weren’t all laughing uproariously thanks to his perfect comedic timing and juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes of life at Google, he had us utterly enthralled by a cross-section of his division’s myriad projects including: the Google Art Project that uses Google’s Street View to scan the world’s art, allowing users to explore museums and galleries around the world and discover their art; Project 10 to the 100 (“a call for ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible”); an interactive collaboration with the band Arcade Fire; and the truly incredible Life in a Day project that invited thousands of people around the world to upload videos of their lives to YouTube in order to create a short film about a single day on earth. I absolutely loved his self-designed formula for creative happiness and success: S! = Em + Cr (Surprise equals Empathy and Creativity). I’ve already printed it up and stuck it on the notice board above my desk.

Cue much applause and segue into the surprise session that brought this year’s Design Indaba to a close: a conversation between two musical icons, Hugh Masekela and American record producer Stuart Levine, followed by a short performance. Listening to the two reminisce about their formative years was a delight and concluding out of the Design Indaba while grooving to Bra Hugh meant things ended, quite literally, on a high note.


  • Stewart Levine stretching out on a sofa like the cool cat that he is and Hugh Masekela performing Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela). *Shivers*


  • Not having Li Edelkoort as a speaker at this year’s Indaba. She was there as a delegate of course and gave a paid-for trend forecast on the Saturday morning following. But I always look forward to—and find a lot of value in—the gorgeous visuals and thought-provoking themes of her presentations (not to mention how strangely mesmerised I am by her presence in general), and was naïve enough to think she would be a recurring Indaba constant. I guess you’d call me a Gli-k!

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