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What is design?

Cape Town is one of three shortlisted cities for the title of World Design Capital 2014 – but what exactly is design and why is it important?

Many people still see design as something elite, an expensive product, or something to look at. But reducing design to mere visual appearance belies the fact that design is all around us – we find it not only in basic items that we use daily and take for granted, but also in the systems, processes and services with which we engage.

Design is all pervasive in our lives, so much so that we are only aware of it when things are designed differently (or, hopefully, better). Take for example the experience of a low-cost carrier using design to differentiate itself. When a well-known airline decided to use humour as a key feature in selling its product we may have seen it as clever advertising. But when it uses this humour to enliven the usually boring explanation of safety on an aircraft, then it’s using a broad set of design-thinking approaches that include graphic and communication design, and also what is called service design.

Service design is certainly an area that can be improved upon: imagine what would happen if the experience of getting a driver’s licence was better designed – or any other government service or retail experience for that matter. Product design is also important – all kinds of items, like kitchen utensils, chairs and clothes can be better designed so they function better.

The British Design Council recently started a programme called Design Bugs Out, where it looked at how state hospitals are designed, recognising the fact that many secondary infections are picked up in hospitals. Designers worked with healthcare practitioners to tackle this, including looking at ways in which standard hospital furniture can be better designed so that surfaces can be more easily and quickly cleaned.

Out of this project a number of new designs emerged. Not only will these help public hospitals in the United Kingdom, but such initiatives can be implemented in other countries. These kinds of solutions are cementing the UK’s position as a society that values design thinking in addressing its challenges, while at the same time helping its economy. 

At a recent gathering of design professionals, educators, activists and government officials looking at the state of design in Cape Town, it was noted that most South Africans do not have a basic appreciation that all objects and processes surrounding us are shaped by human interaction, and are therefore designed.

Our school curriculums need to incorporate design education in a better manner; our governments need to use it in procurement processes; and businesses need to make design central to its economic-generation activities.

It was recognised that awareness-raising in this respect is needed to make design thinking central in our society. And it is especially for this reason that the World Design Capital bid is so important for us. It is an opportunity to make people realise that design is important to everyone’s lives, and that engaging with it provides us with an opportunity to make our lives better.

Let’s take crime and neighbourhood design as an example.

Good neighbourhoods are those where good social interaction takes place; they are not just where people live. They are where people can move freely, trade, go to libraries, engage in outdoor activities and more. Houses should ideally be orientated so that there are always eyes on the street. This reduces the potential of crime. In such neighbourhoods, areas are well lit, with places of constant activity (but not antisocial), and they provide a place for people to stop safely.

These were the kinds of principles used in the recent redesigning of the Harare township section of Khayelitsha. The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrades (VPUU) project, which has a multidisciplinary team, has for the first time designed a better area to address crime issues, working in partnership with and drawing on the experiences of the community living there. It is a shining example of great design thinking and is a key World Design Capital project for Cape Town. Recently the City of Cape Town committed a further R5-million to the project in recognition of its work.

We are sadly surrounded by poor design – the reason we have poor areas, set far away from the city without services is, in fact, a product of bad design. Apartheid deliberately planned cities with low levels of interaction to keep people of colour passive, and wanted to keep black people far from economic opportunities. The impact of this design approach will be felt in people’s lives for decades – both rich and poor.

For these reasons it’s poignant that we plan to win the title of World Design Capital 20 years after democracy in South Africa. It provides an opportunity to think what our city and society really needs, and to find solutions using design thinking. As Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, says: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Design is about solving problems creatively and coming up with solutions that make a difference.

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