Living in San Francisco, I'm surrounded by design inspiration from architecture and museums to amazing natural scenery, not to mention the crazy costumes locals love to show off every chance they get. Last week, however I was delighted to be exposed to an even wider range of inspiration 10,000 miles away at Design Indaba 2011 in Cape Town. What makes this conference unique is the breadth of design that it celebrates - visual design, architecture, interaction design, jewelry design, fashion design, social design and more. The common thread of creative problem solving shared by all revealed a wide range of ideas about how design makes it better - whether "it" is the right shape and color to communicate the message or the best way to honor patient dignity or sustainable, affordable use of materials. Here's a few thoughts on design participants shared:

“Design is an interesting tool to study human behavior.” Luke Pearson “Where common sense is common practice” Kiran Bir Sethi, (also the tagline for the Riverside Learning Center) “It’s the art of mind tickling” Hat-Trick
Michael Bierut kicked off the event by challenging delegates to think about how creativity and design can impact the future and a number of speakers showed inspiring examples of how design can make the world a better place. I was forced to play close attention to them as there was no wifi available at the conference center, (I was told it was down, and they were working on it) reminding me I was no longer in the always-online Bay Area.

The first day's highlight was Francis Kéré, leaping into the audience and using his quirky humor to explain how he involved communities in his native Burkina Faso to help build “breathing” school buildings. Applying the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” he developed and adapted local traditions and techniques to construct robust, self-cooling school buildings. His message about understanding your audience and their needs, getting them involved in the process and sourcing local materials and expertise, was met with a standing ovation.

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Another architectural treat was Dror Benshetrit unveiling the versatile structural support system QuaDror. He came across the design while playing with forms in his Manhattan studio and began seeing great potential for providing relief housing among other things. It was wonderful seeing such a beautiful and simple solution that could be used to solve the huge housing needs across the world, but also within South Africa, even a few kilometers from the conference center.

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In contrast to Mike Kruzeniski's recent lament about minimal attention to visual design at IxDA '11 (although our own Nick Myers did represent the practice), the Cape Town conference showcased practicitioners such as Michael Wolff, Dana Arnett of VSA, Richard Hart, the British firm Hat Trick, the inimitable Alberto Alessi and his ovation-worthy overview of the Italian design tradition, and Oded Ezer engaging everyone in his off-the-wall obsession with typography.

In between presentations showcasing beautiful design were excellent examples of how design delivers more than profit. The British Design Council showcased “Design Bugs Out” which produced easy-to-clean hospital equipment and “Design for Patient Dignity” addressing privacy and dignity issues in hospital settings. For these and other examples, emphasis was on research and going out and looking through fresh “design eyes” as David Kester said.

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Fashion designer Carla Fernadez approached the creation of her label Taller Flora with fresh eyes and, like Francis Kéré, harnessed local traditions and expertise to create a business supporting fair trade and practicing environmental policies for sustainable practices in the fashion industry. She began by taking time to understand the rich history of Mexican clothing. “I told myself that if I want to teach, I first have to learn.”

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Laduma Ngxokolo provides similar opportunities to Eastern cape mohair farmers, who are benefiting from having a guaranteed outlet for their product via his Xhosa-inspired knitwear. His objective to preserve his culture and use local materials resulted in award winning designs. It was good to see a South African designer standing shoulder to shoulder with international icons, eliciting spontaneous applause with his work.

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Going from knitwear to software, Mark Shuttleworth encouraged the audience to think big as he walked us through the visual and interaction design update for the Ubuntu open source platform. He showed off what he called “the two harmonious, interconnected, rhyming, counterpoint, visual language systems” needed to give voice to the company and support individual freedom and creativity within the open source community. He also talked about the design work done on notification bubbles that cannot be acted on, to reduce the sense of added work for users and showed off other interface improvements to be released in the coming weeks.

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The program was rounded out with a good smattering of entrepreneurs (and a surprising number of ex-accountants) who had achieved success establishing design as a core role in companies. One of the ex-accountants was Robert Wong, Executive Creative Director at Google’s Creative Lab. He shared his personal formula for creative success: S! = Em + Cr (Surprise equals Empathy and Creativity), declared that “whoever wakes up with the most motivation wins” and, after showcasing some great work, ended by telling everyone to “Do epic sh*t!”

The wide range of projects and ideas presented, showing so many ways in which we can make a difference through design, was hugely inspiring. Michael Wolff said it best: “The enemy of all ideas is in fact the idea you are currently with.” He explained, saying sometimes if you have an idea, you become afraid you may never have another one, so you hang onto it like grim death. The best thing to do is to be free to throw ideas away to make sure there is space for new ones. I hope to be back next year to visit table mountain and participate in the growth of design in South Africa.

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