With less than a week to go before the Design Indaba conference kicks off, we spoke to the festival founder and conference curator Ravi Naidoo for our Meet The Curators series. Under his watch, the Design Indaba team has been changing, growing and constantly adjusting their approach to become the globally acclaimed creative platform they are today. In the conversation below Ravi shares the ins and outs of curating a design conference of this scale, the surprising criteria for the speakers, the importance of the process behind design and his thoughts on the local creative landscape’s past, present and future.
What inspired and encouraged you to start Design Indaba all those years ago?
It was a particular need to contribute. At the time we were all so enamoured and inspired by project ‘democratic South Africa’ and we were all looking for projects that would ensure our sustainability and success as a nation. We knew that we had to look towards our own disciplines and to find a way in which they can put us onto a trajectory to being world-class. Because we were so estranged from the rest of the world for so long, we wanted to create a platform that would really put South Africa and Africa up on the global creativity grid.
These things aren’t just instant, it takes a long time and here we are twenty years on and I think we can see signs of that happening – we’ve created the world’s biggest design conference, which is lovely. If you look at the economic impact figures as measured by the UCT Graduate School of Business, we’ve added R1.7 billion to the economy which says that Design Indaba has become meaningful in economic terms as well.
I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do, but the most important lesson thus far is that if you make big, hairy, audacious goals you need to match it with time, perspiration and effort because it takes a while to get going. It takes a while to shift consciousness and to change behaviour. I think that if you want to make something substantial, you need to be able to invest the time. In this short-termism world, a world where it’s all about 140 characters and quarterly results, we tend to forget sometimes that really good things need to be a bun in the oven for a long time.
What objectives did you set out when you first started, and have you reached them?
I think our work with Design Indaba is never over. To use a mathematical analogy, the graph is asymptotic – it never quite touches it. We’re shifting the goal post each time and adding more complexity and doing different things. One year we’re building houses and the next we’re producing a chamber opera, so it’s not about going down a defined path. We are not on that capitalistic trajectory. We measure impact, sometimes we look at things that are small and beautiful. Our measure has never been corporate or commercial, it’s always been about the arts, the impact and having a lot of fun while doing it.
What goes into putting together a creative showcase of this scale?
We’re expecting over 70,000 visitors this year across five platforms, so it’s challenging. Even booking flights is challenging, that weekend has become quite congested and there are a few other projects who are slipstreaming behind Design Indaba’s popularity. Most events keep short term or temporary staff who aggregate around the event for a few days and then disperse. We’re not an event, we’re a platform and we are here 365 days a year. So the festival is one aspect of what we do, but we keep going all year round to make it happen.
How far ahead is the annual conference line-up planned?
We plan 2 – 3 years in advance in most cases. For example, we already have 10 speakers booked for 2016.
What are the biggest challenges and the biggest rewards?
The biggest challenge is always funding because we are still very much a nation that’s all about politics and sports. So we need a little bit more support for creativity and innovation. I’m not convinced that it has been improved by the World Design Capital 2014, in fact I think it has become harder. Another challenge is that we’re a long haul destination, we’re at the bottom of Africa. So trying to do this and break even is a challenge because our input costs are immense.
We’re having to juggle all of that with trying make the conference as accessible as possible. Right now we’re the most inexpensive design conference in the world. There’s nothing in South Africa to compare Design Indaba with, you can probably compare it with some global events but not in terms of scale or number of speakers, which makes it very difficult to explain and understand exactly what goes into putting Design Indaba together. If you look at any sector in South Africa, there’s no conference with 40 international speakers. So it’s difficult to place a value on what we’re doing. It’s something that we’re always conscious of and I think the huge stars in making Design Indaba affordable are the corporate companies who have been supporting us for years.
How has the creative landscape changed and evolved since you first started?
It’s unbelievable really. We had 200 people at the first Design Indaba and 70,000 people attend now. We had 40 exhibitors at the first expo in 2004 and now we have over 500. So the industry sector is more buoyant and has a lot more happening within it and I’ve definitely seen the growth and the trajectory. Because we have these hard stats measured by the UCT Graduate School of Business, we can actually see how the economy around design has grown.
It’s absolutely chalk and cheese. This is also because of the content, because of a new generation of designers coming through who are technically trained. At the first event it was mostly hobbyists and makers of things, whereas now we have industrial designers and people with formal studies behind them and it has really made the quality of our output so much higher.
So there has been immense change, but there is a lot more work to do. I don’t think South Africa is a global power yet in terms of design. What we need to see is breakthrough design businesses that become a global phenomenon. While the design landscape has changed a lot, I still think we need to see a duet between commercial and creative in order for us to establish these creative businesses of the 21st century. Many of these already exist and they have great potential, but now they need to create scale.
What is the selection criteria for Design Indaba conference speakers?
They need to be good people, there has to be generosity of spirit, the kinds of people who want to share ideas. It’s not just about great work, you have to be a mensch. So I meet everybody personally to measure their mensch-ness, which is important to us. They need to have impact and be able to punch above their body weight. Most of the people we get are not people in academic towers, they are doers. People who are actively testing their ideas, constantly. They are testing the marketplace and they’ve got cuts and bruises from the experience. There’s really nothing too academic about the conference, rather it’s a conference of practice. We’re about seeing people at the top of their game. The conference is about reading postcards from the edge to get a sense of how they’ve done it.
Don’t just put yourself in a corner and say ‘well I’m an architect, so I do architecture’. A big part of the creative process in the 21st century, given the digital platforms that empower us to such a degree, is that we can practice in multi-media and multi-formats. We can be agnostic about media really, and I like this hybrid creative person. We go out looking for those kinds of people who can segue between spaces.
When you sit at Design Indaba you’ll see that we haven’t joined all the dots, I like for the audience to do some of the work too because we’re not a how-to conference. We’re an inspirational conference. So whether you’re an architect or a fashion designer or a filmmaker, you’ll note that we all go through a similar process and we’re sparked by similar ideas but it just finds expression in different ways. For me, the most important thing, that I really want people to grasp, is that beyond the object we need to understand the process. So I find speakers that can share the process. There’s no point in looking at beautiful portfolios or images of the finished product, I want to get speakers that share the journey.
Over the year the industries represented on stage have broadened and segmented to incorporate amongst others food, fashion and a focus on up-and-coming designers. What has prompted these changes?
Design Indaba is an evolving platform and here change is good. We’re always aware of new trends. When the economy was somewhat wanting and we had a global financial slow-down, Michelin star chefs suddenly found themselves on the streets and the advent of food trucks. So we invite the pope of the streets, Roy Choi to be a speaker. We are always conscious of trends and the line-up of speakers reflects that. We don’t have some romantic notion of what design is, we just report what design is right now, what it’s doing right now and what it means right now.
Is there a specific theme for this year’s conference?
We try not to have one. When you have a theme and a certain level of eclecticism, everybody pays lip service to the theme. To try and box all of this creativity into one narrow theme is really not doing justice to the work. So if there’s any theme at Design Indaba whatsoever, it’s the theme of the process. Rather than giving the audience a pre-packaged theme, they must be able to intuit and work it out. This is the kind of conference where you come to do some leg work and some thinking. There’s a cloud of consciousness that appears over Design Indaba and people somehow make the most amazing connections. So for me the nicest part of the Design Indaba conference is the emergence of a theme or themes.
There is a constant struggle between creative work and the business of creativity. What advice do you have for creative people?
Find yourself a business muse, that’s most important. It’s so difficult to balance commercial and creative. Just looking at some creative businesses that have really succeeded in the past, it works where you find these duets at play. So my advice would be to find people you can work with. Collaboration has a scaleability and I would like to see more of this happen locally. I think one of the problems we have here is that we ghettoise arts and culture onto one campus and put business on another campus. I want to see more cross-disciplinary platforms at schools because the way we are siloed during our studies does not reflect what we need to do in the real world.
Read more about Design Indaba 2015, including all the ticket options, who to follow on social media, the Emerging Creatives to watch out for and more.
Find out more about this year’s conference at designindaba.com/events/design-indaba-conference-2015.
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