South African Rainbow

"South Africa is a country that is literally designing its future through good and bad. And, as any good designer would agree, the process of transformation is the sum of many parts: strategy, ideas, ideals, opportunism, bravery and play."

Ironically, as I write this viewpoint, I am in the USA (and not in the host nation) but it's pleasing to see that even here—the most soccer resistant country in the world - the fact of the World Cup being held in South Africa has made mainstream conversation.  

OK, so I know soccer is not everyone’s cup of tea, but a live and global conversation about something so heartfelt, personal and unifying is undeniably a real symbol for how open and accessible the world has become. This also bears testament to just how far the host nation has been able to progress in 20 short years on an often troubled journey of transformation. South Africa is a country that is literally designing its future through good and bad. And, as any good designer would agree, the process of transformation is the sum of many parts: strategy, ideas, ideals, opportunism, bravery and play.  

Walking_freeTwenty years ago when I first worked in New York, I – probably like the majority of the world—watched the TV footage of Nelson Mandela being freed from Robben Island and walking the road to freedom. It is a journey that South Africa is still on although it is fast catching up with a world that, in the meantime, has also had to deal with transformational thinking on an epic scale. There is a wise quote that says 'the journey is the reward' and, quite often, the relationships I build with my clients and team are as valuable in the long run as the creative result we jointly produce.

However, when I visit my clients and friends in South Africa there is still a harsh reminder of how much further there is to go. The Townships on the road from the airport to central Cape Town, and the ongoing stories of unrest say it all. But, as I work on redesigning various brands for the people that run domestic and international South African brands, you understand that prosperity is quickly working its way through this incredibly diverse culture and that brands are reaching out to an increasingly wealthy and jubilant rainbow nation. I'm not saying that brands and consumerism are the solution to South Africa's problems but, regardless of whether we are inner or outer-directed in our choices, brand behavior and expression is an extension of our individual values and meet ever-advancing human needs.

So, like the vibrant buzz of the vuvuzela, creativity in South Africa is as naturally rich as its people, sport and natural resources; even where there are those that are bereft of opportunity. The South African arts world is producing some amazing talent, quite often depicting traditional social issues in their contemporary work.  Johannesburg is particularly of note as a hub of creativity across all media and home to globally influential designers like Nathan Reddy. But one of THE global creative events of the year is the Design Indaba (South African for ‘Tribal Gathering’)——held in Cape Town each February and founded by Ravi Naidoo 15 years ago. Being English (Come on England!), and having some pride in our own creative standards, I find it really pleasing that this seems to me to be the only event where a nation hosts a global gathering of forward-thinking design experts, creative thinkers, local stars and rising ‘enfants terribles’ - and it is in South Africa.

When I think of my own personal definition of design, it is 'making things better'. At the Design Indaba you can feed your mind, body and soul with some of the most influential and convention-challenging creative thinking that is shaping the world today. For a country like South Africa to initiate such a generous and ego-free creative event makes me reflect on how introspective some developed national design industries can sometimes be. Why are those of us in the UK, USA, Scandinavia or Japan not progressing such an event or approach? Will our design businesses ever be taken seriously if we fail to connect, share and demonstrate the enormous power that design creativity and thinking has in building the fortunes of people, businesses and, indeed, countries by changing the world for the better. Maybe it’s too much to ask—or even hope for—but as Ghandi once said: 'You must be the change you want to be'. Designers make change.

Article illustrationAnd so, if any of you are lucky enough to visit South Africa soon, I hope you'll see and enjoy what the country has to offer, and experience brands like Vida e Cafe and Woolworth's, both doing some lovely creative things with identity, packaging and product plus actively supporting communities as they develop. I don’t need to tell you that the wines the country produces are incomparable. One of my favorites is called The Chocolate Block from the Franschhoek Valley. Why do I like it? Well, not only does it have a depth and complexity like no other but it also has a beautifully simple label which boldly stands out with sans serif black typography on a white expansive background. It seems trite to make a metaphor out of a wine label and so all I will say as a parting shot is that it’s a delight to experience the hidden depths beyond a simply exquisite surface.

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