Design Indaba 2013: The wrap-up

A cocoon descending from the ceiling containing one of South Africa’s most exciting contemporary artists, a music video of dancing sperm, a venerated typographer on creating a font for Yale University, a Smart Highway that responds to the prevailing traffic conditions, the complex and fascinating redesign of the UK government’s digital services, a social project encouraging designers to better the lives of individuals through fixing stuff, explorations in synthetic biology, a chef who evokes the deforestation of the Amazon by infusing burnt flavours into his food …

The Design Indaba has never been the place for instant answers to divining the coming trends or copy-and-paste ideas to apply back at the office. It has established itself as one of the most outstanding of its kinds – set apart from other global design conferences by a signature that is defined by speakers (and subjects) that are as extensive as they are eclectic.

While there were myriad definitions of creativity presented this year and freeform threads that subsequently emerged – design to delight, design to evoke emotions, design to create beauty, design for the good of society, design to advance technology – the most important theme that emerged was that of "collaboration". The future of design, it would seem, will be about combining talents and experiences: disrupting the divide between the art/design/creative communities and those of science, engineering and technology. It’s a proposition that is as radical as it is thrilling, and provided the biggest aha! moment at this year’s gathering.   

Running parallel to the conference was the Design Indaba Expo – a carefully curated collection of South African design that is a magnet for consumers, international buyers as well as a good barometer by which to assess the current state of local design –  and a heavenly food court that consisted purely of food trucks and pop-ups, including ice-cream by The Creamery, dim sum by Beijing Opera and Italian food from Luca at the Limoncello food truck.

Greatly buzzed about was the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2013 project. The winner, chosen by the public, was fashion designer Gavin Rajah’s Pebble Dress from his Spring/Summer 2013 couture collection. Born out of research with the Klein Karoo Co-Op, the dress is created out of foiled ostrich skin leather pieces moulded into pebble shapes, then hand-embroidered onto a mesh base.

Architectural furniture design firm Wintec won an Innovation Award for their Stratflex range of furniture, manufactured locally from Finnish ply.

2014 is set to be a bumper year for design in Cape Town, with both the return of the Design Indaba as well as the city’s reign as the World Design Capital 2014. We can hardly wait.

Conference Highlights:
• Illustrator Christoph Niemann delighted delegates by talking about his work and showing a video of his live-sketch of the 2011 New York City Marathon. The crowd responded warmly to his most recent project, a Petting Zoo App created in collaboration with the Design Indaba. Twenty-one animals – rendered in his trademark humorous and charming style – react to finger swipes and taps with lots of witty surprises (like being able to play music on a crocodile’s teeth and making a sausage dog breakdance). Niemann alsoshowcased his diagram representing the often asked question: "What does it take to come up with a really great idea?" To which he responded: "87% effort, 7.5% luck, 0.5% talent and divine inspiration, and 5% staying off the internet for a consecutive 90 minutes!" The inventive sound design and music is by South Africa's Markus Wormstorm.

• After the talk by Dutch artist, designer and technological innovator Daan Roosegaarde, his work stayed with us both for its imaginative qualities as well as its exceptional real-life applications. Stand-out projects include the Sustainable Dance Floor that generates electricity through the motion of dancing, and the Smart Highway: the implementation of a road system using smart paint and other technologies to create sustainable and interactive roads and signs that automatically respond to the traffic situation and prevailing conditions. Awarded a Best Future Concept by the Dutch Design Awards in 2012, the first section of the Smart Highway will be realised in The Netherlands in the second half of this year.

• Interactive designer Alexander Chen, currently working at the Google Creative Lab, asked himself: "What is the sound of a scribble?", and then duly set out to answer it with two creative musical interfaces. Baroque.m.e visualises the first prelude from Bach’s Cello Suites, while Conductor:mta.m.e, transforms Massimo Vignelli’s iconic 1972 map of the New York City subway system into a playable string instrument. He finished by discussing R&D on the revolutionary Google Glass project.

Masashi Kawamura, creative director at multi-disciplinary Tokyo agency Party, demonstrated the power of the web to generate a cool piece of viral art – a crowd-sourced music video for Japanese band Sour’s single, Hibi no Niero. Created on virtually no budget, 80 of the band’s fans from across the world participated in this quirky and meticulously choreographed film that was shot using only webcams.  

• Britain's architect and designer Asif Khan’s whimsical bubble-making installation, Cloud, was as affecting as it was delightful. Most dazzling, however, was his Parhelia architectural installation for the Swarovski Crystal Palace project at Design Miami 2012, based on the natural optical phenomenon of light halos that appear in the sky due to atmospheric ice crystals and low sun.

• One of the most inspiring – and unexpectedly so – talks of the Indaba was by UK designer, educator and curator Daniel Charny. Charny, who was visiting the conference as a regular delegate, graciously stood in at the last minute for performer Spoek Mathambo, who was unable to attend the indaba. Charny took the opportunity to introduce his wonderful Fixperts social initiative, which started with designer James Carrigan. Described as an open-knowledge sharing platform, Fixperts celebrates the value of people with the skills and know-how to fix things, encouraging them to apply their imagination and skills to everyday design problems while helping to improve lives in the process. Designers, engineers and other skilled makers (the Fixperts) are paired through the website with Fixpartners (anybody with a problem, from a squeaking wheelchair to a broken boiler). Fix-Filmakers capture the process and create mini-documentaries that are uploaded onto the site, sharing the Fixpert-Fixpartner journey and inspiring others to become Fixperts in the process. The applications for the project are infinite, especially in helping to better the situations of seniors, people with disabilities and those lacking financial means.

Read the liveblog from the conference here.

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