Why the world’s top designers are converging on Cape Town

On the eve of South Africa’s annual design extravaganza, Design Indaba, Nick Carson chats to the event's founder, Ravi Naidoo.

Ravi Naidoo

Each February, sunny Cape Town plays host to one of the world’s best-established design events - the incredible Design Indaba. This year, it plays host to graphic design luminaries including Stefan Sagmeister, Experimental Jetset, Alt Group, Wolff Olins and AlmapBBDO.

They form part of a diverse and lively line-up that also spans art, architecture, product design and many other creative disciplines in a melting pot of world-class design from all around the world, and Computer Arts will be reporting from the conference with daily round-ups on Creative Bloq, as well as tweeting some of the best inspirational quotes from @ComputerArts throughout the three-day event.

We caught up with the Design Indaba's charismatic founder Ravi Naidoo the day before it kicks off to talk creative ambition, resilience and rolling with the punches…

How has Design Indaba evolved since it started in 1995?

I remember for the first event, we had 200 people pitched. We did it again in 1997, and it quadrupled. I remember people saying, "It’s getting a bit big now," like this notion that if you do creative things it must be this 'club'.

I think the reason why sport absolutely beats the creative industries to a pulp and dominates the last eight pages of every newspaper is because they understand how to reach out and embrace more people.

The annual Design Indaba conference is among the world's leading design events

I said to that detractor: "It's not about being too big: we’re not big enough!" We know we're making an impact if one of our gigs grows big enough to be happening in a stadium. Then you know you're making some kind of an impact.

What's your take on the smaller, more exclusive design events scene?

I think that the mindset we have all-too often in this industry is that this is some kind of elitist soiree where we have our pictures taken for the society pages wearing turtleneck tops, holding a glass of champers in our hands. That's bollocks.

More than 50,000 people will assemble for the next DI: now, all of a sudden, you're getting a cultural, creative platform, getting the volume and the eyeballs that hitherto in this country were only for political rallies and sporting events.

What have you learned from your experiences over the last 19 years?

Indaba has been our university: we've learned so much from it. One of the main things is the importance of fine-tuning - we only had coarse tuning when we started.

With experience and deep immersion, we've had finer tuning than ever before, and I really feel like our best years are ahead of us. We're building amazing momentum and we would feel a lot happier when our platform is Pan-African.

Stefan Sagmeister is among the creatives speaking at the event. Photo: John Madere

We've also learnt the importance of resilience. I don't think people understand enough what it takes to keep on keeping on, to keep coming back.

It's a big part of this organisation - when you do a live event like this with so many moving parts and over 200 events, it becomes a tremendously complex mechanism.

Any advice for designers looking to build something similarly incredible from scratch?

First of all, don't panic. Build yourself a durable vehicle, an all-terrain vehicle, a massive SUV so you can ride over the obstacles. There will be hang-ups, and you must just get comfortable with that. Not to mix my metaphors, but to do what we do, there will be blood - it's a full contact sport.

Amsterdam-based Experimental Jetset are among the studios taking part in the event

You must be resilient enough to roll with that, roll with the odd punch. Sometimes things just don't fall into place - and that's why to keep on keeping on is absolutely crucial. People throw that white hankerchief in too soon I think sometimes.

How do you see the South African creative scene developing, and what role will Indaba play in that?

Whatever we do in creative industries, we must be scalable. That's not to detract from the fabulous little boutique SSMEs, but some of us have to go that step further and become the outriders to really grow our industry and take it to a new space.

The jury is still out as to who's going to be the African version of Prada; who's going to be the homegrown African brand that becomes a global phenomenon. Just being a rock star at JHB Fashion Week will not justify us. Flagship store on Rodeo Drive: that’s the kind of ambition we need to have.

We all do some beautiful things, and they all burn brightly for a short while, but I don't think that in this country we give adequate attention to what we need to do for amplification, for scalability, to ratchet up the whole operation.

The Design Indaba Conference runs from 26-28 February 2014.

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