Paradigm shift: the challenge to graphic design education and professional practice in post-apartheid South Africa.

A partial literature review of: Ian Sutherland, 2004, from Design Issues, Vol 20, no 2. pp 51 – 60

Image from, copyright Xzibit

“within out borders the material and symbolic conditions for open exchange between black and white are effectively absent.  We still know little about each other beyond the narrow roles history has cast for us.” – C.Richards (Richards, 1991)

This paper addresses how South African visual design and designers have attempted to meet the challenges of a country in transformation. Post apartheid, we are still spatially segregated. Many years of separate education among races that created these “narrow roles” for learners.  “Culture was used as a tool to divide”, thus on both a “material and symbolic level, multiple realities meant that individual South Africans experienced the country and its culture in profoundly different ways.” (Sutherland, 2004, p. 51)  It is important to take these aspects under consideration when critically approaching design practice and education in South Africa. This is especially relevant when looking towards the discursive contexts of advertising and marketing, as these are necessarily engaged with a representation of society – whether this representation takes the form of a “mirror” (in as possible as this may be), or is playing on perceptions of aspiration.

In 2000 various stakeholders in design education (Design Education Forum of South  Africa), profession (Design South Africa) and the Design Institute held a meeting entitled “South Africa by design” with government to cultivate an encompassing stance on the future of design in South Africa.  It was concluded by the Department of Art, Culture, Science and Technology’s commitment to support a three year design awareness campaign.

Subsequently, these issues were addressed in 2001 on a national departmental level when the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communication held hearings in Cape Town exploring the state of the advertising and marketing industry.  The GCIS (Government Communications and Information Service) was tasked to explore the issues raised and report back to parliament before the end of 2002.  At the time, Sutherland contended that he felt this provided a “firm indication that the South African government has recognized the importance of design-related issues in national life”. The investigation was wide-ranging at the time: it included both industry and education/training related aspects.

Of concern to me is  the aftermath of this 10-year-old call for transformation. It appears, in asfar as official documents go, that this matter was never picked up again until recently.  With Cape Town being awarded “World Design Capital” for 2014, many of these unresolved aspects come into sharp relief.  The inequality in design industry is fundamentally structural: access to formal arts education still reflects divisions forged during Apartheid. Informally, digital tools (that might allow the informal cultivation of skills through exposure and experimentation, in line with today’s DIY and maker movements) are strongly tied to class and privilege.

Sutherland discusses this added dilemma of what he calls the “digital revolution” in graphic design that demands a specific flavour of visual communication which carries with it a range of visual and digital literacies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: