How design can make a genuine impact

Given that its stellar line-up reads like a who's who of global design players each year, being chosen to open the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town is quite an honour.

In 2015, that honour went to multi-award-winning South African agency Joe Public - specifically chief creative officer Pepe Marais and executive creative director Xolisa Dyeshana - whose slick dance routine to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Black Or White earned a much-deserved peal of applause.

Joe Public's Pepe Marais at Design Indaba 2015

Joe Public's Pepe Marais at Design Indaba 2015

Marais and Dyeshana went on to explore why growth is so crucial to their agency's ethos and working process. It's about adding "exponential value", whether in terms of a campaign growing awareness for a particular brand or issue; the people within the agency itself growing and developing; or on a broader scale, helping their native country to grow.

Here, they reveal how they used simple ideas with a smart twist to grow awareness of three issues affecting South Africa.

Nike: reclaiming the streets

Joe Public won a global Nike pitch to take on the campaign to promote its 10k run in Johannesburg, and the agency caught the brand's eye by making a bold political point with a distinctive local twist.

The core message was simple: "In a country that fought for freedom, we are not free to run where we want." Johannesburg is the crime capital of the world, and people are scared to drive its streets, let alone run them.

In a bold, defiant move, the run was scheduled in the black of night, straight through the middle of the city in an attempt to reclaim the streets. It certainly captured people's imagination, with #RunJozi trending on Twitter for a whole week, and a staggering 4,792% growth of the Facebook fanbase.

World AIDS Day: an alarming statistic

In a particularly inspired use of social media, Joe Public tackled a brief to raise awareness of an alarming statistic: 1,000 people die of AIDS each day in South Africa.

In a lo-fi but nonetheless inspired campaign, the agency created 1,000 Twitter accounts – manned by staff, friends, family and anyone they could get hold of – to form the #HIVarmy, each with a matching, numbered avatar.

Joe Public's #HIVarmy raised awareness of SA's AIDS problem

Joe Public's #HIVarmy raised awareness of SA's AIDS problem

From midnight to midnight on World AIDS Day, these 1,000 tweeters spread the experiences of real-life AIDS sufferers – and at the end of the 24-hour period, all were suddenly silenced with their avatars replaced with a 'deceased' graphic.

At first, #HIVarmy started trending in major South African cities, then it spread across the whole country, and by the end of the campaign was trending across the globe – testament to the power of a strong, simple idea, beautifully executed.

One School At A Time: improving education

Perhaps the most ambitious goal of all is Joe Public's pledge to improve South Africa's education system. Or as they posed in their Design Indaba talk: "Can an ad agency change a country?"

Marais and Dyeshana presented another alarming stat: of the 27,000 schools in South Africa, 22,000 are considered "dysfunctional". And part of the problem is that English is too often taught as a second language, even through core subjects such as maths and science are taught in English.

Working with local not-for-profit One School At A Time, Joe Public conducted an experiment to see if just one week of English language tuition could make a difference to a student. As it turns out, it could: the student's reading speed went from 108 to 152 words per minute, proving the service was a worthwhile investment.

The 200 'Fonts For The Future' are also showcased in book form

The 200 'Fonts For The Future' are also showcased in book form

Taking a different tack, the agency's Fonts For The Future project transformed "the one thing underprivileged students can donate" – their handwriting - into a collection of 200 fonts, all of which are currently on sale to raise money to help improve the education system "one letter at a time".

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.