Sunday, 11 October 2015

Take Shelter

Upon skim-reading some article on design in SA, a friend asked whether I agreed with the statement that one designer made: that design is a Western concept, and design-thinking not really relevant to the non-white population.

What bullshit. 
Design is relevant to every one, all day, every day. 
Irrespective of where you live and what you do, design is relevant. Everything is design, in some way or another. Let me just list what I encounter daily: 
- Android/Apple system on my phones
- OS X Yosemite on the MacBook
- the electronic Passe Navigo to take the metro
- the Metro's Art Nouveau signage
- the city's grid, conceived by Haussmann at the request of Napoleon III between 1853 and 1870
- the design of my shoes, my jeans, my shirt, my bag, even my underwear or my bedding 
- my building's design, and all of the buildings that I encounter on the daily passage through the city
- packaging design for food items
- restaurant and other signage
- advertising all over the city
- graffiti on city walls

It might not all be good or efficient design, but irrespective of who you are, your world is surrounded by design. Even the uncontacted tribes of the Brazilian rainforest employ design in the way they construct their huts or make a bow and arrow. 

The assumption that design-thinking is not relevant is ludicrous, and insulting. Just looking at Instagram accounts such as @trevor_stuurman, @yetudada, @yoliswa_xo or @iseeadifferentyou prove that at least in the middle-class there is a definitive design and style consciousness and a willingness to play around with possibilities. Add to that websites like Superbalist, The Pretty Blog, She Said, Lucky Pony and Skinny Laminx's fabric design, and you'll see an interest in design permeating every social and digital medium. 

Sure, most of the population does not have the same awareness of design influences in their lives because they have not been educated on it or possess the vocabulary to express it, but I would argue that it is a design-consciousness that is missing, not the relevance of the concept itself. Whether you buy Iwisa maize meal or Pick 'n Pay's no name brand already involves a design choice (if one omits a price and taste difference, but if I recall correctly Iwisa may have even been cheaper than No Name?).
Housing outside Johannesburg
Housing on the Western outskirts of Pretoria. 
If you live in an RDP house, you are confronted with a failure in design and city planning that has far-reaching consequences. In Anton Harber's book Diepsloot, the author asks a worker in city planning why the RDP housing consist of single plots of land with tiny houses on them (think a very low-budget version of the opening sequence of Weeds) that stretch over kilometres when it would have been more effective in terms of electricity and water access, as well as use of space, to build high-rise housing? Her answer was that initially the RDP houses, as they are, are cheaper and quicker to build, and that apartment buildings would be more affordable over the long run, but would not keep in line with the promise made by the ANC in 1994 to provide 'housing for everyone' since culturally the expectation is of a piece of land of one's own.

Housing in the middle of nowhere, I think in the Western Cape. 
However, the way the RDP houses are constructed are a secondary form of Apartheid homelands: still far out of the cities, still stretching over vast spaces, still far from jobs, still somewhat of an upgraded township. If one drives along the N1 from Johannesburg to Cape Town, these settlements spring up in the middle of nowhere all over the country. If where you live is so far away from where you work and there is no efficient transportation system in place, how are you supposed to get there? I find them to be depressing places where what housing could be has been corrupted by the desire of the government to pad the statistics. But statistics are worthless when the design that went into the original concept is more harmful than efficient (e.g. this infographic on suburban development costing almost three times as much as urban development does). 

Again, housing on the Eastern outskirts of Johannesburg. 

I am no designer. I crop things in MS Paint. I download templates and adjust them because I wouldn't know which design programs to use or how to use them. But I have kind of being studying how to look at things and humans and culture for years, and sat through numerous classes on design alchemy, so I am not entirely ignorant on the topic. And as I said, design is relevant to every one, all day, every day. 

(Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh also offer a great Q&A on their website, or check out Sagmeister's TED Talk on designing happiness).

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