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Opinion: Away from Design Indaba, South Africa's graphics tell a tense story

Posted by It's Nice That,

This week fresh from his trip to South Africa for Design Indaba, illustrator and LCC Dean of Design Lawrence Zeegen tells us where he found the country’s real graphic vernacular. As always, you can add your thoughts using the thread below…

I had imagined Cape Town in South Africa to be a pretty surreal place to be at the best of times. And this was the worst of times. With Oscar “Bladerunner” Pistorius on a murder charge and the cop on-the-case now off-the-case facing his own string of murder charges and another set of cops filmed dragging a helpless suspect to his death – I was in one unhappy place. But with head held high it was business as usual for Ravi, the man-with-one-name and man-on-a-mission, director of the biggest show in town – Design Indaba.

Ravi has built an empire from scratch, beginning in 1995 with a couple of hundred attendees in a back street venue arriving in 2013 as the biggest design event in the southern hemisphere. This is design event as rock ‘n’ roll, as rodeo and circus, riding into town to blaze a trail of glory. Design Indaba is international design conference, expo, education forum, live music event and much more – speakers are flown in from across the planet and delegates skip time zones and date lines to attend. This is the Oscars, excuse the pun, of the design world.

It’s three full-on days of the biggest names in design showbiz taking to the stage to delight and entertain the huge auditorium of expectant creatives. Day one was topped and tailed by Paula Scher and John Maeda, day two kicked off with Steven Heller and kicked out with Daan Roosegaarde and the final day saw Christoph Niemann and David Adjaye rock in before Sir John Hegarty rocked out. And somehow in between this glittering array of stars there was time to squeeze in Seymour Chwast, Marion Bantjes, Alexander Chen… the list goes on…

“This is design event as rock ‘n’ roll, as rodeo and circus, riding into town to blaze a trail of glory.”

Lawrence Zeegen

But beyond Design Indaba and its communication design overload, it was during the journeys back and forth between hotel and convention centre that I began a search for Cape Town’s own graphic visual signature. Would it be the hand-rendered lettering adorning African tourist gifts or the home-grown branding of independent coffee houses, restaurants and bars? Where would I find the city’s graphic heartbeat I wondered?

Seemingly unnoticed by the locals, but staring me right in the face, was a constant and significant reminder of just where I was in the world. All over town on walls and fences, doors and gates was the reminder of city in siege – WARNING! LIVE WIRE, UNTOUCHABLE, ARMED RESPONSE! DANGER! SPIKED ELECTRIC FENCE WARNING, MONITORED AND PATROLLED! Security signage; direct and to the point; promoting a life-style choice for the city’s gated communities. Here, away from the visual noise of Design Indaba, was the true graphic language of Cape Town – bold, uncomplicated, warnings of a city on the edge.

Lawrence Zeegen is Dean of the School of Design at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London and was in Cape Town to participate, as Vice President, in Icograda board meetings, attend Design Indaba and co-run a workshop with Neville Brody for the Indaba Education Forum.

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