I was not inspired by the 2012 Design Indaba

I was not inspired by the 2012 Design Indaba

My brain was re-activated, my eyes reopened, my mind thoroughly shaken. Also, I now want to buy lots of shiny, pretty, expensive things.

I am no longer a Design Indaba virgin.

Last week Wednesday (8.29am) I got a call from my big sister Pride (I’ve been best friends with her sister for 12 years; eventually you just start sharing family), telling me she had a spare ticket to the Indaba; would I like to join?

Pride and I at Pride's gorgeous wedding.

I immediately called my boss (while changing from Practical Walking-to-Work Shoes to Fancy Indaba Wedges) and asked – begged – if I could drop my work to go to the Indaba for three days. “Sure,” she replied, “Go! Be inspired! And take notes for us.”

For those of you that couldn’t afford the R6000 ticket (yeah, I was surprised too) here are some of the things, thoughts and designs I considered to be the highlights of this collaboration of international and local designers, architects, engineers, artists, chefs and more.

But first, some key nuggets:

–          The whole world is becoming Web 3.0: interactive and conversational. Talking at, designing at, developing at is not the way forward. Now sculptures and artworks respond when you approach them (as Andrew Shoben demonstrated with his noise producing monuments, moving statues and ‘clockwork forests’), software needs interaction to be productive (as Hellicar and Lewis demonstrated with their new software for autistic children), brands are conversing online with their consumers, and even adverts are challenging the audience and eliciting reactions. As FNB is demonstrating, by joining the public sphere and conversing with consumers, these people become fiercely loyal and feel protected by the brand – like they have a friend. Anyone living in a tower, dictating to, like we (the media) did 50 years ago, is drawing themselves a very short life-line.

–          “Reality is always a surprise,” said Carlo Ratti from MIT (below). This for me was the theme of the Indaba. People rarely react the way we expect them to! If you leave space for projects and products to grow organically around the way people truly perceive and use them, they will inevitably be more successful and practical.

–          Humans can impose buildings and gardens on nature, but by working with the landscape and by understanding how humans move through and interact with a space, you can create a beautiful and thoroughly functional environment.

–          Design is about more than fetishising things. It is about managing the space between people: experiences. Design is the ‘experience economy’. I am distraught that I can’t remember who said that (it was hastily scribbled in my notebook) but it rings true.

–          “If changing the world isn’t fun, no one will do it,” said John Bielenburg, a creative facilitator in the USA. Yes, yes, yes.

–          The needs of corporations can lead to the development of technology that helps humanity. An example of this is the work Hellicar and Lewis did for autistic children (below).

Also briefly summarised here are some of my favourite and most inspiring talks. They’re listed in chronological order: as in, the order they appeared at the Design Indaba.

1. René Rudzepi; Danish chef. What I walked away with is you can eat beech leaves, and that they’re light and crispy. Rudzepi spoke about utilising local produce (such as beech leaves, duck, mushrooms and so on, all from a local area), and letting diner’s really experience the food’s environment (by, for example, serving the meal on pebbles collected from the field where the produce is grown). His chefs harvest the food themselves, cook it, and finally serve it to the patron (instead of a waiter). But yes, most significant moment? Edible beech leaves.

2. Renée Rossouw; South African architect (and totally my friend). Renée mapped her adventures in Europe with patterns and designs, which she transferred to hand-painted pottery. She has a lovely collection of jugs (ah, I slay me!) documenting her travels. There is something exquisitely simple, yet complex and detailed about that concept that really appeals to me. (Also, Renée and I totally are friends. We even had dinner last week! Yeah, that’s how I roll.)

renee rossouw

renee rossouw
I absolutely love these! WANT!
What a completely lovely travel journal.

3. Sputniko! Japanese pop star who explores scientific concepts and feminism in her music videos. Incredibly unique: for example, she invented a real Menstruation Machine for one of her videos about a transvestite boy (below). This contraption is for men who want to really experience the monthly madness (even PMS). The contraption pumps a vial of blood into their panties over five days and gives them a back ache.

She looks totally crazy.

4. Massoud Hassani; Afghanistan/ Dutch product designer. Based on simple childhood toys that were blown around by the wind (boys love to chase things I guess), Hassani designed a wind-propelled, bamboo-spiked ball that mimics the human footstep and explodes landmines (before children do). By letting these GPS tagged devices loose in landmine ridden areas, a zone can be cleared up much more safely and faster than by traditional methods. With the GPS, clear areas can be mapped and when the devices explode (which takes about three landmines), new ones can be let loose. Just… genius.


5. Heinrich Wolff; South African architect. His understanding of architecture, South Africa and how built space should be integrated into the environment, within society and around human functioning, is truly impressive. Wolff designed a school for the Western Cape township, Khayaletsia. Through truly looking at and understanding local culture, Wolff built an institute that is a part of the local environment and not a White, government imposition. Wolff noticed that the way public and private shacks are distinguished from one another is painting the outside with labels and pictures, and so he did the same to the school. Wolff mimicked the township’s winding streets and shapes in the building’s design and courtyards. He designed classrooms and playgrounds that made concentration easier and bunking and slacking off harder. Through this clever architecture the pass rate increased from 30% (in the old schoolhouse) to 70% in the one Wolff designed. The current pass rate sits at 82%; in comparison Wineberg Boy’s High is at 87%. It is really remarkable the difference a building makes: which sounds obvious, but wasn’t to me at all before this talk.

Khayaletsia school Wolff
See how the school mimics the windy patterns of the streets of the township?

6. Hellicar and Lewis; interactive designers from the UK. After developing interactive software for Coca Cola – material is projected onto a screen which you interact with by ‘grabbing’ – they created similar software for autistic children. Autistic children suffer from being either over- or under-stimulated, and to deal with this they stimulate themselves in a controlled fashion by i.e. scratching themselves painfully. This way they are either controlling the over-stimulation by forcing themselves to focus on one thing (the pain) or by creating stimulation for themselves if they are under-stimulated. The software developed for the children had to be simple and predictable. Hellicar and Lewis developed colours and shapes that can be controlled by simple gestures and clapping; this way the need for self-harm is removed. It encourages autistic children to actually interact with each other (they also developed software for self-expression; similarly genius and simple), which helps teach the autistic children colours and shapes: a side effect of the programme the two couldn’t predict and is extremely useful.

7. Tsai; South African architect. Tsai is a genius with compact space. He’s won the Red Dot Award and I feel quite proud to count him amongst our young geniuses. He invented a set of bunk beds that sit at different levels, and so can be pushed against a wall when not in use and leave the floor space free. He has also designed a classroom that fits into a shipping container with a jungle gym at the side.

 tsai nested bed

Tsai is also working on a way to turn the useless half-bridges that end quite dramatically mid-air in Cape Town into something useful.

cape town bridges
Quite cool I think! This idea got a very loud and enthusiastic round of applause.

8. Akshat Vermat; Indian screenwriter. He was by far my favourite speaker: partly because he was hilarious, partly because he spoke about my passion – writing, and partly because his opening line was raucously rude. I’m going to give his talk a little more room here because I enjoyed it so much. His rules of screenwriting (and good advice for feature articles too):

–          NO ADVERBS! The emotion of the scene should be evident from the tone of the scene. All adverbs do is dilute the action.

–          SQUAT DAILY: If you sit in front of your computer, eventually you will write something, even if it’s just a sentence. And to be a writer, you have to write (sounds obvious but is nonetheless true).

–          STOP MASTURBATING: OK this one doesn’t apply to me, but daaaymn I laughed loudly! As Vermat put it, “Don’t masturbate more than twice a day, otherwise you will go blind. And if you think writing is hard now – try doing it in Braille!” His real point was to remember who you are emulating – master masturbator (some Japanese guy) or Jane Austen?

–          CONFLICT IS CURRENCY: Why dilute the scene with pointless details like ordering food (i.e. a restaurant scene) and distance (a telephone conversation)?

–          We are the sum total of our influences; so read and experience as much of everything as possible! This makes your work so much richer and varied.

–          The scriptwriter is constantly trying to get his characters out of their comfort zone, and we should be doing the same things to ourselves.

–          The closer we get to death, the less we fear public humiliation: the very humiliation that prevents us from doing and trying new and different things. So why wait till we are almost over the horizon? Lose that fear NOW. “There is no deadline more urgent than our own demise,” says Vermat, “Whatever you have to do, do it today.”

9. Piet Hein Eek; furniture designer from the Netherlands. He had two sentences that I thought were worth writing down:

a) “Create a good environment and see what happens.” Your workplace is as important as the work you create. Without a good environment, creation is stilted and difficult.

b) “My drug is to think of something nice if things go bad.”

10. Mathieu Lehanneur; French industrial designer. He undoubtedly had the most tweeted sentence of the Design Indaba: “Do not ask a designer to design a bridge, ask him for a way to cross a river.” In essence; give him/ her a question to answer.

sissel tolaas
New York Times picture

11. Sissel Tolaas; Norwegian perfumer. I think ‘smell enthusiast’ is a more accurate description of her career than ‘perfumer’. She is fascinated by different smells and their chemistry. She asks, if the emotion is removed, can we use smells logically to transmit information? Must say, her enthusiasm over scents reminded me somewhat (OK, a LOT) about the killer in the book Perfume – though doubt she murders young women by the dozen and distils them. She has recreated the scents of cities into perfumes, and has even installed the scent of WW1 into a German museum exhibition. I can only imagine it smelling like death, burning flesh and destruction, but perhaps I’m wrong. It is nonetheless fascinating and completely unique.

12. MIT SENSEable City Laboratory. I adored these guys! They invented a bicycle wheel that reads and transmits available data gathered while cycling to create a more accurate map of the city – in terms of weather, pollution and more. It is called the Copenhagen Wheel, and was invented to encourage people to cycle more and therefore lower carbon emissions.



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