In all the conversations we’ve had during Design Indaba, people have mentioned how speakers closed loops for them. Things we knew and in many cases had forgotten was resurrected and given a new, shiny, better life. To a great extent, the final day closed some loops that were started on the first two days.
Alexandra Daisy Gingsberg is a designer by trade, but she’s morphed herself into a biologist. Without any formal training, she is manipulating bacteria to do all sorts of things. She works from the premise of making things better – making life better. In her version of a better world, nature is manipulated to give us all the things we need – even grow our products. One of her projects, E.Chromi, can be used to test the pollution level of water, but they have much greater plans for this little bit of science fiction, like why not turn our poop different colours to show if we have any diseases?
Their argument is essentially that truly disruptive technologies need to be new creations, they can’t be created from the same things we’ve always had. So in essence they’re building new tools, new bits and pieces to create and design with.
Very much like Alexander Chen and the Google Glass team who create ads for products that don’t exist yet, she believes that carving out this space and predicting or exploring the future is the first step to opening it up to becoming a reality.
If Daisy looks to the future for her inspiration, then type maestro Matthew Carter looks to the past. His all-consuming obsession with types and where they come from, who took part in changing them is the mark of a true craftsman. He taps into old draft books and gravestones for inspiration, meticulously researching fonts and how they were used. Matthew describes it as a “messy interaction”, but the results are quite beautiful:
Illustrator and NY Times columnist Christoph Niemann, is the man who drew/tweeted/ran the New York Marathon (see a video about it here). But that might be a too simplistic description of his work. He has created so many great images that seem to have wit and basic truths fed to them intravenously. Like this video he created for Google Chrome:
He told us his life story, saying that at 25 he was brave and careless – his “pain threshold” was so much higher than it is now. He argues that this is a great quality for creatives. “You take chances that you wouldn’t take when you’re older. Pursuing dead ends is your creative life insurance. You need to make mistakes and fail in order to go to the next step. Being careful and taking care can actually kill your creativity.” Which probably explains that zany idea of run/draw/tweet-ing the marathon.
Another great insight from Christoph was that we all need an inner Artist and Editor. “It can be liberating getting your hands dirty, but you always need to bring it back to its essence. I can’t live with people not understanding what I do. Simplicity doesn’t mean doing something without a lot of ornament or detail. It’s going very complex and then cutting it down to its pure essence.”
He’s also not precious about throwing ideas that just don’t work out. “Even if you’ve brought it down to the essence it still sometimes doesn’t work. Then you have to let it go. No matter how much you’ve fallen in love with that thing, just ignore it.” He says that the most exciting and relevant struggle we can engage in is an “open childlike love for what you do vs a grungy little evil accountant going ‘No it doesn’t work’”.
Spoek Mathambo had to cancel his talk because of a death in the family, but he was quickly replaced by the gutsy (who goes on in front of 3000 people without months of planning!) Daniel Charny. He’s made it his life mission to link skills with imagination, a journey that started with the Power of Making exhibition. The greatest thing he learned from that experience is that we are still learning new skills from people. We’ve essentially come full circle from the stone masons who were taught by masters to online forums where we’re still taught by people.
His newest project, Fixpert, is his answer to the question of whether design is going through a renaissance or requiem. It’s an appeal to normal folk to use their brains to help others, pairing a Fixpert with a Fixpartner, and that’s when the magic happens:
Renowned architect David Adjaye showed us many of his brilliantly designed buildings, really exploring his thinking and references in each of them. One of the most impressive is the Francis George Library in Washington D.C. “Libraries are no longer necessary everyone is going to be online for information, they are no longer the only depository of knowledge.” But, he thinks that “technology is missing something that is engrained in us, this emotional thing of going somewhere to be with people and feel things”. So he’s transformed this library into a space for “doing things together”, whether it be yoga, acupuncture, or doing your home work. These emotive spaces are most important in neighbourhoods that have the least amount of shared public space.
Matthew Carter spoke about how something you do, see or hear lies dormant in your brain and then it jumps on you much later, prompted by a new thing you learn. It helps to close the loop and understand or do a new project. In this sense, Adjaye completed Jeanne van Heeswijks thought on collectively creating neighbourhoods; Daniel Charny continued Ben Terrett’s idea of open discourse and joint ventures of improvement.
The day ended off with Sir John Hegarty, who believes that you cannot be a successful creator if you do not have some fundamental beliefs and if you don’t put those beliefs into the work you do. “Creative people are syphons: they take in all sorts of information and they feed it back. Your fundamental beliefs are central to your creative output. What is it that drives you to do what you do? If you don’t know what the answer is you can’t be successful in your work.
“I was driven by irreverence. World of art didn’t always appreciate irreverence, in fact it was about revering.”
He doesn’t see irreverence as a negative trait though. ” The nihilism of punk made it fail as a philosophical premise. They were all about tearing down, but not putting something new up again. Unless you propose, you can’t just destroy.”
Ultimately, he says, humour is the enemy of authority and he believes that the quality of our work has gone down. “It’s not my opinion empirical evidence exists that proves that our audience thinks the work we do now is not as good as it used to be. It’s like we’re trying to find new ways of tripping people up, instead of making the product better.” He also attributes it to the fact that creatives aren’t leading the industry and taking charge.
The day ended with this massive call to action – to take charge, to take on the world and shape it into what we want it to be. But really, that was what the whole conference was about: educating yourself; moving beyond your boundaries; trying and failing; working collectively; and most importantly, doing all of this with a conscience, doing it for good and for better rather than “selling more”.