Opinion

Opinion: Why designers must guard against the march of homogenous visual cuture

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Opinion: Why designers must guard against the march of homogenous visual cuture

This week Rob Alderson reflects on his trip to Design Indaba in Cape Town and the increasing importance of designers keeping it local. As ever you can add your thoughts using the thread below.

Amid the bars and boutiques of the international departures terminal at Johannesburg Airport sits a shop called Out of Africa. It’s the last chance saloon for tourists to pick up souvenirs, a comically condensed floor-to-ceiling offering of “all things African” with masks and statuettes, jewellery and fabrics, drums, plates, pipes, magnets and Mandela T-Shirts piled high everywhere you look; Africa as marketing man’s dream.

If that sounds sneering it’s really not meant to (I spent a good hour or so perusing the place in wonder). But it did resonate with one of the emergent themes of last month’s Design Indaba in Cape Town; how important is a sense of place in the design world?

This issue was tackled head-on by Pentagram partner DJ Stout. His talk focused on his Texan heritage and its constant, welcome effect on his graphic design practice. “If you don’t pay attention to where you’re from,” he said, "you kind of get lost trying to be global.” But while his presentation included cowboys and baseball and lovingly lingering film of the Texan landscape, he was accompanied on stage by an incredible musician on a grand piano; an attempt, he explained, to challenge these deep-seated perceptions of Texan culture.

“If you don’t pay attention to where you’re from, you kind of get lost trying to be global.”

DJ Stout

His talk raised two really interesting, interconnected points. One is the importance of authenticity in design. Cultural globalisation by way of websites like ours and many others can narrow the pool of inspiration, and several speakers talked of the importance of breaking this cycle. But DJ also warned against a reductive approach to defining a sense of place. His Texas confirmed some of our preconceived ideas, and undermined others. We should all guard against silo-ing our ideas about cities, countries and continents in some kind of Out Of Africa style parody.

Thinking back to the other speakers, this idea was raised again and again. Juliana Rotich rethought the modem in a specifically African context, frustrated by previous blindness to considering the very particular technological challenges it faces. Virtuoso architect Michel Rojkind spoke of embracing the chaos of Mexico City rather than trying to design round it. Thomas Heatherwick unveiled his plans for Cape Town’s dedicated modern art museum, repurposing a disused grain silo on the waterfront, thereby working with the city’s economic and architectural history.

On one of my last nights in Cape Town the city’s hipsters flocked to a screening of Wes Anderson’ The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s no great revelation that hipster culture is uniform wherever you go, and it’s reductive to suggest that designer = hipster. But this is one of several forces levelling out creative culture the world over, and I think we need to guard against that. Design Indaba reinforced the fact that “local” still has a big part to play. Otherwise it is not inconceivable that design drifts into a space where everyone mimics everyone else; from Bogotà to Brooklyn, Sheffield to Shanghai. Out of Apple, perhaps…