19 Sep My Day Job: Gillian Benjamin | The Cape Craft and Design Institute
The Cape Craft and Design Institute is a sector development agency with a mission to develop capable people and build sustainable creative enterprises. Since their inception in 2001 the CCDI have focused on supporting local entrepreneurs making craft and handmade products. About two years ago the Western Cape Design Strategy was written and shortly thereafter Gillian Benjamin, who runs the CCDI Design Support Programme, joined the team.
They offer product support, business support and market support – teaching all the skills that are necessary to run a successful and sustainable business. They host workshops and classes, offering members hands-on assistance and expert advise and giving them access to tools, machinery and technology. Did we mention that all of this is open to anybody from business owners to students, and it’s free? “I think we’re the best kept secret in Cape Town,” says Gillian. Having just moved into a large new office/studio/campus in Barrack Street, we paid Gillian a visit to find out more about the work they do here and her role in all of this.”
What is your background?
I started out as a graphic designer. My grandfather was a graphic designer back in the day when everything was done by hand and I think this definitely influenced me. He would always draw for us as kids, and our birthday cards were always a treat because he’d spend hours creating custom typography for them. So I guess I’ve always been aware of design. After school I studied visual communication but didn’t enjoy it as much as thought I would – it was very practical and lacked the theoretical component that would have added depth. After finishing my degree I lasted 6 months in an agency. I went back to school and studied anthropology and earth and environmental sciences. It was a great experience studying as an older student and having a design as a base because I could think about what we were learning through a design lens.
Coming out of university I wanted to make documentaries, but quickly realised how tough it is to make a living from filmmaking. At the same time I started taking on design work to pay the bills and over time built up a great range of clients. I was really lucky to be doing design work in a social/educational field because it allowed me to set up my design business, called Make Content, around social design.
I’ve always believed that design has to have meaning beyond just being aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. It needs to serve a deeper purpose and deliver real impact in some way.
Tell us more about your design company, Make Content.
Make Content was born out of a desire to help organisations and NGOs communicate effectively. NGOs do a lot of important research that unfortunately ends up in bland word documents that are completely inaccessible to the average person. At Make Content would take these dense documents and break them down into digestible, manageable chunks of information and infographics. At the moment however I’m fully engaged with my work at the CCDI, so while we still have our own brand of stationery, the studio-side of Make Content is very much in hibernation.
What is your role as board member of World Design Capital 2014?
The board is there to give strategic guidance and advice to the implementing agency of World Design Capital. At the moment we’re thinking about the legacy that 2014 will leave and how we can continue what had been started in this year. It’s a difficult project because people have high expectations and want to see something very public going on all the time, but this is a little unrealistic given the size of our design community. I think it has been amazingly catalytic in getting people to implement projects that have been in the back of their minds for a while. It has also created a lot of international interest in local design. The year has encouraged collaboration and created awareness around the importance of design thinking, especially in government. We’re slowly but surely moving away from thinking about design as being purely product-based, to thinking about it as a process that can be used to better understand user’s needs and then shape products and services around these. Its great to see that most of the official WDC projects are social design projects perhaps wouldn’t have been considered ‘design’ five years ago. So our understanding of design is definitely changing. I also think World Design Capital has done a great deal to celebrate the design projects that are going on within organisations, business and government.
How, when and why did you become involved with the Cape Craft and Design Institute?
Through my work with World Design Capital 2014 I met a director of the CCDI. The CCDI had been working on a Design Strategy for the province and needed someone to head up the Design Programme. During their recruitment drive I was sent the job spec and asked to circulate it to my networks. I took a read through it and thought, ‘this sounds pretty cool..’ I applied, went through the interview process and the rest is history. Being in this role has allowed me to make the shift from being a design practitioner who creates stuff, to being more of a ‘facilitator’, working to get business and the public sector to better understand what design can do. For me design has always been something that has to have weight to it and be meaningful. So joining the CCDI has been a great opportunity in making that a reality.
Tell us about your work at the CCDI.
The CCDI has been around for 13 years. In 2012 the organisation collaborated with the provincial Department of Economic Development and Tourism to write a Design Strategy from the Western Cape. We have since been mandated to drive the implementation of the strategy, and in doing so have broadened our mandate to engage with designers of all disciplines, as well as with business and the public sector. Our core work is assisting people running creative business – giving them guidance and training in all the areas needed to run a sustainable business.
A big part of my programme will be engaging with business and getting them to understand what design thinking can do to improve their output – regardless of what the business offers. From day to day that means hosting workshops for businesses, entrepreneurs, students and creatives – bringing together different disciplines to facilitate and encourage collaborations across various industries.
We have also started working in the education space. We’ve just wrapped up a series of career talks at school assemblies called School Design Week (#WDC252). Creatives in different disciplines told students about their jobs. It was really well received and we will definitely be rolling out more of these talks in the future.
Then we are also exploring after-school lessons to help learners develop their design competencies. As designers we have such agency. If we have an idea, any idea, we can actually go out and make it a reality. If we can teach these kinds of design and problem solving skills to kids we are laying the foundations for a generation of budding entrepreneurs.
We’ve also been busy running The Better Living Challenge, an initiative that aims to gather, showcase and commercialise affordable and green home improvement solutions for low-income communities. We’ve selected the finalists and we’re busy planning an exhibition at the Cape Town station forecourt later this year. We’re building some of the structures that were entered into the challenge, and filling them with other entries so people can engage with them and give us feedback, which is pretty exciting. Each of the three winners will win R 500 000 worth of support to help them develop their products.
Who can come to the CCDI for support?
Anyone who runs a creative business can access our support. You just need to fill out a membership form (which is easy and free) and then you have access to our workshops, support teams and services. I think we’re the best kept secret in Cape Town.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about service design in government and the private sector, and how it can be used to improve processes and customer/client experience, making the services that are offered extremely user-friendly. Service design is a relatively new discipline but it’s burgeoning in the UK and Europe. At the moment we’re busy trying to set up the local chapter of The Service Design Network to promote service design locally and help establish the discipline here.
We’re also working on a series of short educational films about different designers and their work. These will show learners, teachers and parents how varied design is and how much value it creates in the economy.
In the next few months a big chunk of work lies in engaging with business and getting them to understand the power of design thinking. It’s really the key to creating a strong thriving design economy, so it’s crucial.