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Vumile Mavumengwana: Finding your design voice in the world of advertising

Vumile Mavumengwana’s resume is populated with experience at leading advertising agencies from Ogilvy & Mather to Joe Public and most recently includes M&C Saatchi Abel, where he currently works as a creative director for design. Though his work is varied, it contains a distinctly South African feel, accomplished through locally-inspired colours, patterns and subject matter. In this feature for #GraphicArtMonth, we spoke with Vumile to unpack how his style has developed, and to learn more about his creative background and work over the years.

iJusi Magazine – The South African Language Issue.
iJusi Magazine – The South African Language Issue.

Were you always aware that you wanted to pursue a career in the creative sphere, or was there quite a journey to discovering this?

From early on in high school I gravitated towards art, drawing and sketching in my spare time, and creativity became a big part of me. My art teachers were really passionate and encouraged me to focus my energy on art – I guess they saw something in me… It’s funny how the little things that you do thoughtlessly end up shaping your future.

I used to enter the school’s annual competition to design the cover of the yearbook, and I won it every year. I drew and designed my classmates’ charts for school projects and assignments (and got paid in process). I was also involved in stage design for our school’s yearly theatrical plays.

I came to discover design, art direction and advertising when I matriculated, leading me to what I do and enjoy today.

Design Indaba – Recycled Magazine, made from previous edition covers.
Design Indaba – Recycled magazine, made from previous edition covers.

Before we come to understand that virtually all things around us are ‘designed’, we take it for granted. Do you remember when this realisation occurred for you? 

I think my training at The Red & Yellow School opened me up to this – it was a thorough creative bootcamp that I never anticipated. A quote that comes to mind from one of the students is, “You arrive here as a wooden spoon and leave as multipurpose pocket knife”. A special shout out to my college lecturers Brian Searlle-Tripp and Allan Raaff, for infusing in me the passion they had for creativity.

Can you talk about some examples of design – be it graphic, product or otherwise – that have had a lasting and significant impact on the way you think about and work within the field?

My first Design Indaba attendance had a huge impact – seeing and hearing from the industry greats opened my eyes to what the world of design really looks like on a global scale. This pushed me to push myself and elevate my craft (which is of course an ongoing process).

Garth Walker’s iJusi Magazine was another great influence, waving the flag for local design and showcasing our rich visual vernacular. Being a South African designer I think it’s important to play a role and contribute to the development of a local signature style in some way. It’s how we make our mark on the world. We are here, bold and proudly South African.

Nando’s new Packaging Design. Inspired by local shweshwe patterning.
Nando’s new Packaging Design. Inspired by local shweshwe patterning.

There’s a distinctly South African feel to your style of design. Could you tell us more about this?

When you are a creative, you work from your context, so what’s around you inspires and feeds the work that you do. Naturally my design is a by-product of my surrounding environment – the people I know and meet, and the various spaces we occupy (from rural to urban). Creative people are sponges – they soak up everything around them, draw from it and give it meaning through visual communication.

What else are you informed, influenced or inspired by?

Everything around me. People. Nature. Music. Movies. And from that split-personality voice in my head – who really knows where creativity comes from?

Vumile Mavumengwana Design (5)
South African Post Office - Music Legends Postage Stamps.
South African Post Office – Music Legends Postage Stamps.

What is your take on trends in graphic design?

Trends are exactly that. They come and go – a flavour of the month. Some stay or last a little longer than others. My approach is to be authentic and true to the subject matter and your audience, rather than flowing with the wind. But yes, sometimes it’s cool and good to do something for the fun of it. Design is intelligence play after all.

In your opinion, what are the characteristics of ‘good’ design?

We all have different benchmarks of what makes design good. To me good design is simple, engaging and has an impact by evoking an action or feeling. Good design has the potential to make the world a better place, move society forward and enhance our way of life.

Bakers Choice Assorted Biscuits – Childhood Rhymes.
Bakers Choice Assorted Biscuits – Childhood Rhymes.

For many designers “the dream” is working independently or with a small studio. Yet, you seem to have found your happy place elsewhere and have been working with various agencies for over 10 years. Tell us about your current position with M&C Saatchi Abel -– what you enjoy about it and what it entails?

I’ve worked at big and small agencies – both have their pros and cons. Every setup has added layers of experience and has given me room to showcase my craft.

My current role at M&C Saatchi Abel as Creative Director for Design challenges me to continue to carve our way into the design arena. We have a good mix of clients that look to us to design their next chapters, to help them stand out and make an impact in the marketplace.

Vumile Mavumengwana Design (3)
Nike – Sportscene Store Livery.
Nike – Sportscene Store Livery.

What are the challenges to designing in an agency context? 

I would say that growing your pure design offering within a traditionally advertising-based environment is the biggest challenge.

Is it tricky to oversee design jobs as a creative director? Are you sometimes tempted to jump in and do it yourself? 

All the time – I think there’s almost always a control freak in designers. But you learn over time to collaborate and trust your team to develop and produce the work you envision. You learn to co-create, lead from a bird’s eye view and then, make sure the project lands.

Vumile Mavumengwana Design (8)
Castle 9644 Book – Local 'Passion Pushers’ Heroes in the making.
Castle 9644 Book – Local ‘Passion Pushers’ Heroes in the making.

Tell us about some of your career highlights or past projects you’ve most enjoyed working on…  

Audi Expo Postcard: This was a free reign project in my first year of working. I earned my freedom from the spraying booth, ending the mounting of presentation boards 🙂

Castle 9644: Here I was finding my visual voice, gaining confidence in my design and taking charge of my work. Designed at OgilvyOne, Cape Town.

Design Indaba Recycled Cover: One of the first pure design and conceptually exciting pieces of work I did at The Jupiter Drawing Room, Cape Town.

Brothers For Life: A great example of design for good. A campaign targeted at men to lead more responsible lives and general sexual health. Developed at Joe Public.

South African Postage Stamps: A personal project I was commissioned on from the South African Post Office, to design a set of stamps to commemorate and pay tribute to local music legends. I worked with a very talented illustrator, Hendrik Gericke, on this.

Nedbank Wonderland Project: An awesome project launched at this year’s Design Indaba, where we invited the delegates to come up with ideas of repurposing old decommissioned ATMs, to transform them into new products with purpose and social benefit for communities in South Africa. This was developed at my current agency, M&C Saatchi Abel.

Vumile Mavumengwana Design (20)
Nedbank Wonderland Project.
Nedbank Wonderland Project.

Do you think that personal projects are important in developing one’s design language? 

Yes definitely, it’s how you chisel your craft and discover new ways of designing.

Any final words?

Love what you do and do what you love. It’s the best way for successful living.

Follow Vumile’s work on Behance, or keep up with him on Twitter and Instagram.

See more Graphic Art Month on 10and5.

Graphic Art Month on 10and5

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