Creative Hustles

Today I attended one of LiveMag’s “Creative Hustles” which are self-described as “a series of free events for young people, aged 18 to 30 years, to engage with established creative industry professionals and arts practitioners.”  We gathered at the Cape Town Creative Academy in Woodstock to hear 5 panelists discuss their work in relation to the question which seems to be increasingly central in relation to the World Design Capital: “Can Design Save the World?”

To jump start the activities, Francois Jonker started with a few slides on the topic of “what must I be to be a designer?” In Francois’ opinion a designer must be the following: – a creative thinker – a technician – a visual communicator – a lover of people and cultures – a passionate professional.

He adresses these aspects in relation to Cape Town as a world design capital – and mentions that there is numerous, and often opposing, schools of thought surrounding the subject: is it just a form of elite back-patting? Is it just for well trained designers, getting together and showing off their cool products that very few people can afford? Although Francois says that this is something the organizers of the Creative Hustles have also asked themselves (concluding that South Africa is different from the previous WDC – we have the privilege of changing what a “World Design Capital” will “mean in the future”) it is something that was never truly elaborated or justified in any of the talks.

Here follows descriptions of the talks and my general takeaways:

Greer Valley – creator and co-owner of Kushn, a pan-African leather goods and design studio Kushn produces leather goods, woodwork and textiles – with the aim creating an authentic local south african product. They discovered that textiles typically named “African” – aren’t really African, but have a long history related to colonialism, trade and cross-polinating multi-culturalism. By coming to terms with the complexity around the term “african fabrics”, they sought go out and find these textiles. They travelled to Ethiopia and Ghana to obtain woven textiles and went about setting up a Pan-African network of suppliers and creatives. Kushn places focus on spending time with the makers and merchants who produce their raw materials, and are intricately involved with translating lived experiences and stories from their travels to their customers. Greer dismisses the notion that what their sources make are considered “craft, and not design”.

She opposes the Western and especially colonial viewfinder that has reduced their value in the eyes of consumers, and seeks to elevate these materials to high brow design objects.

Mokena Makeka – creative & managing director of Makeka Design Lab c. Mokena sees the segregational of Cape Town’s lived spaced as structural and has extended a call for deisgners to re-imagine their cities. This challenge goes beyond architecture, he says, and involves engaging politicans, policy-makers and citizens. It is about who we are and how we occupy the city.  It is up to designers to imagine new forms of practice. Yes, this city is picturesque – but we don’t occupy it in a true sense. The way we imagine public spaces is all about control (who is allowed, who isn’t, what class of person is socially allowed where), which echoes the restraints of the past.

He suggests GUERILLA DESIGN  as a way in addressing the issue. “A way of encouraging people to inhabit the city in a creative way. It takes a long time to deconstruct the resilient physical forms in the city: Change is incremental. But if designers see themselves as part of a movement – as political activists – this change can be affected. If you want to conquer, or defeat, this apartheid legacy, it happens at different layers: insitutional, architectural, etc, but we should see the city as a canvass against which we can express ourselves. we shouldn’t wait for permits! Design democracy. We have to be entrepeneurs and create it in our own way. Really imagine the city as a site for our own kind of action. OCCUPY YOUR CITY.”

Daniel Charny – UK curator and founder of Fixperts

Daniel is an industrial designer, he was a medic before that. He contends that something happens when you study design – you usually start by “sanding a piece of cardboard, or using a bit of colour” – and then you move on and start actually thinking about what you’re learning – what is that skill for? Then eventually you start thinking of your own personal brief: what are you doing this for?

As an industrial designer you have to learn a bunch of different environments – “the biggest thing I’ve learned is asking the questions that open things up, and then choose what you want to do. where do projects begin? where a brief is set. The things you start with. What kind of results are you interested in? How do we change the relationship with clients – how do we communicate the value of design to people? I think the role of design is to create conversation. design is a process, not a product.”

Fixperts is a little process that they’ve come up with – “you take your creative skills and put them in a social context”. You discover through making, and you think through making. Fixperts is all about fixing real world problems with simple individual solutions or hacks, filming these, and putting them online for others to see. They started with about 4 films, and now have about 90 featured on their website from 12 different countries.

People always ask him: how do you make money, how do you scale this idea? And he answers: “we make smiles. This is part of a gift economy – based on the principle: instead of you scratch my back, I scratch yours; I scratch your back, and you go and scratch someone else’s back, and they scratch someone else’s back, and so forth. That’s the kind of society I want to be a part of”

Jana Scholze – curator of contemporary furniture and product design at the V&A Museum

Jana Scholze introduced us to the maker library network, which a project launching in conjunction with the British council, described as: “Maker Libraries is a British Council project commissioned as part of Connect ZA, a programme starting in 2014 which aims to create connections between young creatives and audiences in the UK and South Africa. The Maker Library Network at the Open Government Partnership Annual Summit (OGP) is a learning experiment that brings together ThingKing in Cape Town and Makerversity in London. These two creative organisations will run a two day programme including connecting via live stream during OGP, leading joint workshops and hosting discussions on the potential evolutions of Maker Library prototypes on 31st Oct and 1st Nov 2013.”

Zahira Asmal – founder and managing director of Designing South Africa

Zahira says that in order to understand how design can change the world – we need to understand democracy:

1994 was a big change, opening up a wide range of possibilities for people who were previously oppressed – she contends that we should be activating spaces in South Africa: “If you feel free, what are you doing with those liberties?”

She recalled a day where she was fishing with her dad during apartheid and they were asked to leave the beach. Her father is Indian, and her mom Burmese-Persian. During apartheid, spaces were designed for exclusion, with large signs dictating right of way: ALLEEN BLANKES, or GEEN NIE-BLANKES. powerful signs like these allowed people to rightfully de-humanise her and her family on the beach that day. In 2001 this happened again on a beach in Plettenberg Bay. “Where were the signs then, that should read ‘EVERYBODY WELCOME’ ”

She asks: How can we design for inclusion? How can we design for democracy? “We should all be social activists through design.”

As an example she mentions the 300 000 residents of Diepsloot. These residents share 300 taps, 300 toilets. When asked about their future, they said that they wanted to remain there, “because it was their home”. So she went back with architects, to go find out what could be done. “People are creating their own homes from scratch, but they need the basic services to make their homes more comfortable.” a simple request.

She asks that we “Don’t wait for the briefs. let us create the briefs. We can create our democracy through civic engagement.”

My general takeaway from these talks was just that: a lot of talk, without very many examples of successes. I was chatting to Fritz today about how scarce it is to actually see successful ICT4D projects, and I reckon design and especially design for “changing the world” suffer from the same ailments. There are such good intentions when it comes to designing solutions, but at some point these disconnect from people’s daily reality. I thought a lot about Gary Marsden and his notion of creating toolkits and not imposing solutions. If we take our queue from the maker movement, the answer lies in mindset.

This leads me to increasingly ponder the role of media and marketing in changing people’s perceptions of personal reality and driving their adoption practices. If we took a sort-of Verimark approach (constant reinforcement of a particular point of view, offering your tool as a “lifestyle” choice, making it look cool) how would our success rates look?

Do honest, problem-driven developers or designers really know how to hustle their ideas?

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