This is not a review

Design Indaba 2012 has come and gone, leaving in its wake thousands of inspired, energised and happy people. As a veteran of these annual creative showcases, I can tell you that this was the finest one ever. Not one talk out of place, nary a flat moment and an overwhelmingly glorious ­experience.

This is not to say that the conference isn’t subject to the usual ebb-and-flow contingent, with three days packed full of varying subjects and heterogeneous presenters.
Although the heterogeneity didn’t extend to gender—there was a remarkable dearth of female presenters. But the overall impression was of ­unwavering quality.

Presenting the very best of SA creativity, Design Indaba Expo is a showcase of exceptional, quintessentially South African design across all disciplines: No derivatives, no imports.

This year, Design Indaba’s organisation riffed on René Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe artwork, presenting delegates as being more than their simple descriptors. Designer Porky Hefer, for example, has developed a fire-retardant paint for informal settlements, which transcends the common idea of the role of the designer.

I am not Ravi Naidoo
Organiser Ravi Naidoo (and organiser is such an inadequate word for what this man does) ascribes the perfecting of the selection process to three things: “All Design Indaba staff are inveterate travellers, global nomads. So we think global, not parochial. We also rely on sheer intuition and on getting as close to the zeitgeist as possible. And our network is our single biggest asset.”

Design Indaba started in 1995, with 200 people in a room. The 2012 iteration touched over 60?000 people through the conference, the expo and the film and music events. A lot of relationships have been built over those years and speakers love attending the Indaba because of the connections forged with audiences who appear to embrace the new and eschew cynicism.

In Naidoo’s words: “South Africans are not that cynical compared with [their] global [counterparts]; we’re still romantic and believe that the best is still before us. Speakers feel these waves of love coming from the audience.”

And the audience becomes part of the creativity.

There’s no theme at the Design Indaba, with Naidoo preferring to let strands of thought evolve. “We don’t choose a theme; that’s a leg iron. Themes are for people who want to do a paint-by-numbers conference. We want the audience to do half the work and it’s the most amazing thing that happens when a few things snap into place.”

This is not a coda
The big year for South African design will be 2014, when Cape Town assumes its mantle as World Design Capital. Does Design Indaba have anything planned? “We’ve been chatting to the mayor and the frame-breaker will be education. All too often we talk about [what is] exceptional in South Africa. But what we need is to get a critical mass of designers. We need a proper creative army: an army of the ponytailed, the tattooed and the pierced. We don’t need the policy wonks,” said Naidoo.

In that spirit, here are some choice soundbites from the 2012 Design Indaba, one of the great design ­conferences of the world.

These are not quotes

- “A chef creates something that turns to shit in 24 hours. Or a memory that lasts forever.”—René Redzepi, chef at Noma, the world’s ­number one restaurant.

- “Japan always asks you to look again.”—Dan Pearson, landscape designer.

- “As a graphic designer, I try to create identities for people.”—Eddie Opara, graphic designer.

- “A city is a complex thing, but in the end it is all about people”—Alfredo Brillembourg, architect and urban planner, Urban-Think Tank.

- [Showing a slide of a road packed with cars]: “This is Caracas, Venezuela. A city where petrol is cheaper than water.”—Alfredo ­Brillembourg.

- “The internet is a two-way canvas.”—Chris Milk, director, and Aaron Koblin, visual artist.

- “We like to make systems, not narratives.”—Hellicar & Lewis, ­interactive designers.

- “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.”—Hellicar & Lewis.

- “Never stop evolving.”—Porky Hefer, designer.

- “Why shrink your world when you can expand it?”—Akshat Verma, screenwriter.

- “We’re now asking: How do you cross the experiential line between audience member and performance?”—United Visual Artists, interactive design studio.

- “My drug is to think of something nice when things go bad.”—Piet Hein Eek, furniture designer.

- “We assemble groups of people to collaborate in new ways. Artists and engineers get on very well together—unlike architects and engineers.”—Clive van Heerden, researcher and creative director of design-led innovation at Philips Design.

- “This is the least fashionable time to design books in the last 3?000 years, which also means it’s the most exciting time to be doing so.”—Paul Sahre, graphic designer.

- “Even when we sleep, we smell [things].”—Sissel Tolaas, perfumer.

- “The curator is becoming a producer of meaning, rather than just filling a space with objects.”—Hans-Ulrich Obrist, art curator and co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London.

- “When objects [can] talk back to us, they tell us unexpected stories.”—Carlo Ratti and Assaf Biderman, researchers, SENSEable City Laboratory, MIT (just before showing a video of a laptop thief, taken using the stolen laptop).

Chris Roper

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