Setting up for one of the top design conferences in the world... Design Indaba.

Conference Deluxe Part 1: The Design Indaba Phenomena

From February 21st until 25th the 10th Design Indaba conference and expo was held in the most beautiful Cape Town, South Africa and could simply be described as a breathtaking, stunning phenomena! This event was a pure success in every aspect: an excellent selection of speakers, perfect weather, the most professional overall organization, environmental care, surprise treats for visitors and speakers… All this lead to a relaxed but highly exciting atmosphere connecting all parties attending the event in the true sense of “Indaba” – getting together.

Here is a detailed write up of the highlights from the Design Indaba conference with its related events, upcoming projects and also a little on how a positive country spirit can produce a world class conference in only 10 rounds!

Written by Uleshka

designers get-together at Clifton’s 4th Beach, picture from Simon Waterfall

Now one might ask Why South Africa?
Apart from the overwhelming beauty of Cape Town itself (mountains, beaches, penguins, whale watching, wine, sunshine…), the history of the country and the fact that they had just about 10 years of successful democracy evolve in a tremendous positive vibe of seemingly everyone looking forward into a bright future, ready to make a change. Take that for a start – what a creative energy!

And then Design Indaba would be nothing without its founder, Ravi Naidoo from Interactive Africa. Ravi is not only a clever business man with an impressive address book, but he simply has the biggest passion for design. His original vision to bring design to South Africa and nurture the talent in his country has been taken to another level – to make the world look at South Africa and its creations when one thinks of ‘design’!

Voted Best Conference in the World by EIBTM Barcelona – and getting countless positive design press from various countries every year, with their 10th Design Indaba anniversary they are surely where they wanted to be – at the very top!

Always networking rainmaker Ravi Naidoo at Design Indaba’s media lounge. When he booked the 4 Front designers for this year’s conference, he could not accept that one of them needed to stay in Sweden to celebrate her mom’s 60th birthday. Instead, he brought both parents and friends over to celebrate the birthday in Cape Town together…

The Conference Setting

Gathering some generous sponsors, Design Indaba presented itself as a very luxurious conference in Cape Towns shiny International Convention Centre CTICC. The speakers were treated heavenly and the visitors coming to the conference were certainly more than looked after.

Hosting over 2600 curious guests, excellent catering was offered daily plus freebees such as an Indaba T-Shirt designed by Laugh It Off or a messenger style bag sponsored by South Africa’s Woolworths. These bags came with over 30 exchangeable flaps designed by both students and established designers – plus – it contained a perfect filofax with all extra conference information, pens, speaker profiles… more than you could ask for!

Various bag flap designs for the press kit bag (freebee from the first day of the conference). This one is designed by Marteli Kleyn, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town.

The bag with a different flap. This one is from Janece Frick, Ruth Prowse.
Young Designers simulcast – lounge area inside the CTICC

Also a lower budget Indaba solution called young designers simulcast was offered for students or those younger than 25 to join a live broadcast in an auditorium inside the CTICC – with the chance to meet the speakers when they popped into the auditorium during their breaks.

inside the CTICC walking towards the entrance of the Design Indaba conference

outside on the little terrace for coffee and cigarette breaks

People gathering on their first day with their new freebee bags. In the background all the different designs for the exchangable flaps of those bags.

Meet the speakers face-to-face during their breaks: Wally Olins on the sunny terrace.

This year’s speakers ranged from graphic to product design, architecture, jewelry design, art, trends and world changing concepts. Just to name a few up front: Jasper Morrison (UK), Simon Waterfall and Daljit Singh (UK), Jaime Hayon (SPA), Front (SWE), Neil Gershenfeld (USA), Andy Stevens (UK), Zapiro (SA), Brian Eno (UK), Neville Brody (UK), Paul Davis (UK), Jurgen Bey (NL), Alex Steffen (USA)…

A truly great line up – but I did miss some speakers from Asia or slightly more unusual countries. The only Asian who showed up was Michael Young from Hong Kong who came to share the energy.

Looking up from the front row – sold out! On the far right in the very front sits Massimo Vignelli.

The speakers

Although I would love to write about everyone, I am forced to only pick a few and hope to pay respect to the other speakers in later interviews.

Andy Stevens

Andy Stevens from Graphic Thought Facility explains their campaign for the Shakespeare Globe Theatre where they basically started out with a blank title template, adding layer after layer of sprayed graphics relating to the current play.

Andy from Graphic Thought Facility presented various of their clever and skillful graphic designs (I particularly liked their exhibition related designs). Very refreshing was GTF’s literal, direct approach in dealing with clients’ briefs. If a project had to be low budget, they would use the cheapest material available (such as spine binding for their RCA book) and still come up with an amazing, fresh design. For one exhibition they even painted empty pizza boxes to be used as navigation panels – cheap to get and easy to recycle.

Identity and exhibition design for the Frieze Art Fair

These are the painted pizza boxes used as signage. Excellent idea!
Cast of a 3D rendering of all points of Matt Collings’ signature leading to Ron Arad’s – used for their Phaidon book cover.

Graphic Thought Facility convinced with a great variety of work. Remarkable was also the fact how they document their process of design very carefully – from the first scribble to playing with materials, visiting the printers all the way to the finish of the actual project. Here is where they often come up with an even better solution for the original design (e.g. improving the posters for the Peter Saville Show).

Simon Waterfall & Daljit Singh

Simon Waterfall starting Daljit Singh’s and his talk by showing that he stole the ‘END’ sign.

Already experienced speaking at a previous Indaba (for 3,5 hours), Simon stole the ‘END’ sign right before hopping onto the stage warning everyone that the two of them tend to talk too much anyway…

Although rivals back in the UK running their individual businesses Poke and Digit, Simon and Daljit showed true friendship on stage by constantly picking at each other while talking about what unites them – pixels! Daljit showed pictures from the biggest pixelated display in the world spotted at North Korea’s Mass Games where each “pixel” is actually a school boy flipping the colored pages in a book.

Daljit asked the audience to hold up their new bags and flip the flaps open and close to ‘switch colors’ just like the schoolboys at the Korean Mass games do. That is how they create a huge display. The Design Indaba audience failed badly… but had a good time!

Daljit Singh, founder of Digit London pointing at the ‘Pearly Queen’ jacket from Simon Waterfall, Creative Director of digital agency (and going-to-be Deputy President of the D&AD).

Simon’s best pixel example was of him visiting the Queen and daring to turn his back towards her, so that she could see her own portrait in the shape of 620 different sized buttons handsewn onto the back of one of Simon’s Social Suicide suits.

Paul Davis

Paul Davis starting his talk with a drawing of a man titled ‘I’m no good!’

Drawing for Japanese comedy group Yoshimoto Shinkigeki. Oddly enough they asked Paul to draw in a few drips, because otherwise “it looked too violent”.

Although Paul confessed that having to speak at a conference means having to overcome his greatest fear, he was most entertaining and the first to make the audience laugh that much on Day1 of the conference.

Some of his nice anecdotes gave insight into the life of an illustrator. For example the story of IBM buying the rights for Paul’s ‘handwriting’, but then Sony calling up asking Paul for some new drawings including some of his writing. Paul was desperate, but a quick call to his copyright lawyer sorted out the case right away: “Are you right or left handed?” the lawyer asked – and the audience laughed. Well, and then IBM probably didn’t own the rights for Paul writing in Japanese, either…

His crappy-genius style of drawing combined with perfect titles was simply… brilliant!


Front on stage

Considered the rock stars of the conference, Swedish female creators Front went through their very impressive portfolio of scribbled furniture, animals designing objects, morphing chairs or an awakening lamp (Front was previously featured here on PingMag). Great to experience the progressive energy of these 4 women, presenting themselves in a super strong and elegant way – with a great Swedish accent!

Jurgen Bey

furniture skin – Jurgen Bey’s design for Jean-Paul Gaultier

Jurgen Bey at the announcement of the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa
South Africa’s Most Beautiful Object: ProntoCondom’s quick condom applicator (which looks and acts like a real lifeguard). Also part of MoMA’s NY permanent collection.

Having an extraordinary sense for beauty, Jurgen Bey showed a big mix of images ranging from a peacock broom to clean the dust in the streets of India to Theo Jansen’s impressive Strandbeest, up to some of his own projects. Jurgen’s Dutch humour combined with his poetry made out for an inspiring talk stating: “You can have very small, little questions, as long as things are cleverly and beautifully done.”

Jurgen Bey also chose the Most beautiful object in South Africa – a condom applicator! Watch the demo here!

Jaime Hayon

Jaime Hayon talking and gesticulating wildly on stage
Jaime Hayon’s beautiful bathroom line

As a nice contrast to Jasper Morrison’s rather serious speech, Jaime’s talk was comparatively… crazy! He took the audience on a journey of how he started out with a first impossible proposal for a bathroom sink, which then eventually became an impressive line for bathroom interiors. Jaime Hayon is such a vibrant character, that one becomes slightly drowsy when trying to follow his quick and quirky idea process, which, however, always leads to something very fresh, edgy and fun – “with a lot of quality”.


Justice’s footprints by Zapiro

Zapiro speaking at the conference
Hugely popular drawing about the scandal of South African health minister Manto telling people to eat garlic and beetroot to prevent AIDS.

Political cartoonist and satirist Zapiro uses a very sharp pen to address South Africa’s current issues in his drawings. Listening to the background stories of his images, he did two things: a quick run-down of South Africa’s recent history as well as creating a deep awe on the side of the audience for his talent and wit. Having to react so quickly to what is on the news, coming up with the right idea and having the skill to deliver such a high quality drawing on a daily basis brought him standing ovations.

Tobias Frere-Jones

Hoefler&Frere-Jones’ beautifully set Gotham Condensed

Typography nerd Tobias (calling himself that) from Hoefler & Frere-Jones presented some of his experimental work at Design Indaba. For example, a font which got sliced in the middle, shifted slightly and connected to the next letter in the alphabet making a text completely unreadable the longer you look at it. Or an alphabet consisting of only 14 letters, that still enables you to read texts through guessing the words according to the context.

Tobias Frere-Jones introducing his font for the Wall Street Journal – Retina.

Impressive was also the font called Retina which they created for the Wall Street Journal. The challenge here was to design a font that works although they used a tiny text size and printed it rapidly on cheap paper. The way they achieved the best possible result was by focussing on the uniqueness of each letter, trying to make it look as distinctive as possible combined with cutting little chinks out of every corner of every letter in order to avoid the usual blurriness created by an overfill of too much ink in the corners.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno’s impressive Photoshop presentation about: What is art for?
Brian Eno is: modest, sharp, calm, friendly, intelligent, wise… but don’t trust this conservative facade! He makes the naughtiest jokes when you least expect it.

Although many were probably expecting Brian Eno to talk about his work, e.g. his exhibition of 77 Million Paintings which was shown in a contemporary South African art gallery, or about his involvement in the 10 000 year clock – but instead the very humble Brian Eno held a deep but funny speech about: “What art is for”. Peppered with his small cynical jokes, he came to the conclusion that “Art is everything we don’t need to do. Art is a way of commonly testing other realities and it is a way of staying in tune with each other.” Beautifully put!

Reggie Watts

Best to see him live! Reggie Watts rocked on stage as a stand-up comedian-vocalist. You can enjoy his performance on YouTube here.

Suggested by Brian Eno, Reggie was invited as the smashing closing act of the conference. Secretly referred to as the guy with the hair (since people were wondering what he was actually doing at the conference hall all week) it all became clear once he got up on the stage. Delivering one punch line after the other paired with his looped vocal treats created live on stage – this unique brand of improvised comedy was not to be missed.

World-changing projects

Apart from all these stunning works and concepts presented at the main conference, there were some speakers with a truly great vision in mind – suggestions of how to change the world, literally!

Alex Steffen –

Alex Steffen speaking at Design Indaba about climate changes – and what to do about it.

His book – Worldchanging – designed by Stefan Sagmeister will be the bible of our present and future generations. A great source for inspiration and awareness of how to live a more sustainable life – filled up with plenty of good ideas and world-changing concepts for everyday life. is now available in every proper book store and definitely worth owning and applying!

Neil Gershenfeld – FabLabs

Neil Gershenfeld in one of the FabLabs working with curious new inventors

Now it is not easy to sum up what such a clever man said on the stage… Basically Neil Gershenfeld introduced his FabLabs to the excited audience who could not quite believe that such an amazing thing exists. FabLabs use open source computer software written by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms to assist designers by providing them with access to a range of off-the-shelf, industrial grade fabrication and electronic tools that they can use to test their designs before taking them to the market.

There are FabLabs throughout the world (Neil is currently working on some better and sustainable business models to bring them to a wider audience in more countries), and to put it all into simple words: a FabLab is a centre which can be set up anywhere, that offers the latest technology and ability to conceptualize, design, develop, fabricate and test almost anything.

One of the several FabLabs in South Africa is used at the Cape Craft and Design Institute. It assists local crafters and designers to create concept product prototypes within the safety of the lab’s environment, which allows them to identify and address design problems and flaws before it is entered into a more costly manufacturing process. Excellent! For more information on FabLabs click here.

Design Indaba 10 x 10 Industrial and Design Indaba low cost housing

Design Indaba 10 x 10 Industrial and Design Indaba low cost housing: initiated by Design Indaba, these two very ambitious projects bring some of the world’s best architects and designers to South Africa and collaborate with local factories and producers to create products and projects that have a lasting impact.

Arup engineer Mike Edmonds together with Product designers Joost Alferink introduced the Design Indaba 10 x 10 low cost housing project where 10 international and well known local architects will develop 10 new housing designs to bring innovation to the housing delivery.

“Let’s build 10 houses for 10 families currently living in a squatter camp outside Cape Town,” decided Ravi Naidoo, founder of Design Indaba. “Lets give dignity and empathy to the poorest of the poor by designing a house that pushes the envelope in terms of ingenuity, creativity and sustainability.”

The idea is to have 10 new house concepts ready and built by the end of 2007, ready for 10 families to move in. From then on the designs and plans developed for these houses will be compiled into a manual to be donated to African governments, who will be able to use them royalty free under an initiative described as “architectural open source”.

International architects working on this project are Thomas Heatherwick, Christopher Egret (Studio Egret West), Will Alsop, Shigeru Ban, David Adjaye, Cameron Sinclair (who was also giving a great, energetic speach at this year’s Indaba about Architecture for Humanity), Lindy Roy, Eva Jiricna, Mark Dytham (Klein Dytham Architecture), and Sir Terence Conran. South African architects working on the project are: Luyanda Mpahlwa, Andrew Makin & Janina Masojada, Don Albert, Jo Noero, Silvio Rech & Lesley Carstens, Martin Kruger, Stefan Antoni, Ruben Reddy, Henning Rassmuss, and Vanessa September.

400 000 people are on the waiting list for houses in Cape Town alone. Hopefully this project will make a difference.

Fully Green Indaba

Design Indaba puts environmental sustainability on its agenda, meaning that: “A Carbon Standard is designed to offset the space, energy and paper used at the Convention Centre as well as the cost of carbon to fly the speakers and delegates to the event and to accommodate them at hotels in Cape Town,” as Ravi Naidoo put it.

Based on this Carbon Standard, its carbon footprint is calculated and a total of 2 000 trees are planted annually to balance things out. “This is a landmark programme that will allow everybody to play their part in taking responsibility for the environment and ensuring that individuals and companies, offices, schools, homes, meetings, events, conferences, and other actions can be carbon neutral and make a difference.”

Social Delights

Now apart from all the formal design only program, there are of course lots of parties and other side events that made Indaba especially memorable for everyone who joined in. As Simon Waterfall put it: “The special thing about Design Indaba is that you actually get to hang out with each other. It is not like other conferences where you go, make a speech and leave. You spend day and night with the other speakers…”.

Sofia Lagerqvist from Front at the Morgenhof Vinery Lunch, picture from Simon Waterfall.

Jurgen Bey and Rudolf Van Wetzel coping in the ice cold ocean

There are lots of images all over the web for example the official Design Indaba gallery or some on Dezeen… We uploaded our PingMag impressions in the PingMag Flickr Gallery – Design Indaba. Enjoy!

The following article will be about the actual products, fashion, furniture and other latest designs introduced at the big Indaba Expo featuring over 200 African designers and artisans. Look forward to that on Friday!