Design Indaba 2015: Lessons Learned

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Happy Monday, julle!


Nicework was kind enough to send us to this year’s Design Indaba Simulcast at UJ, on condition that we would bring back what we learned to share and inspire. We’ve shared our insights with each other, and now it’s time to share them with you, too.

01: Add exponential value


Pepe Marais and Xolisa Dyeshana

This first point is from the very talented and clever people of Joe Public. When they spoke about exponential value and growth, they were referring to the idea of allowing their people to space to grow far beyond expectation.

There’s another layer to this “exponential” thing, though, and it speaks to the idea of allowing your work to multiply upon itself without your guidance or direction.


Often, as designers (or “creatives” if you prefer – I do not, because that word is not a noun) we find it hard to let a job go out and live in the real world. We become helicopter parents to our projects, drafting elaborate rules and guidelines to dictate what our design is allowed to be, and stifling what it could become. The more rigid your brand is, the less of a chance people have to make meaning out of it themselves.

At last year’s Design Indaba Conference, we were treated to a great talk by Ije Nwokorie of Wolff Olins, who discussed their rebrand of cell network EE – a beautiful, modular brand built in a way that allows any idiot to generate visuals and send work out into the world. (You should watch that talk, it’s great.)

On a smaller scale, we have something like Cards Against Humanity – a project born on Kickstarter, which was released into the wild and allowed to evolve into, frankly, a monster. Great things happen when you stop getting precious about your work, and start letting other people poke around in it.


02: Start with the yarns

Hella Jongerius

Having this wonderful lady follow Joe Public in the roster was a bit of a culture shock – she’s a Dutch industrial designer, with a strong love for the slow and steady way of doing things.

Hella’s advice came from her work with textiles: start with the yarns. If you’re going to make a carpet, go right to the source. Meet the sheep. Meet the sheep’s family. Shake their hooves.


Alright, so she wasn’t that intense about it. But the point still stands – don’t take your materials for granted. Question your every decision, right from the beginning of the project. Designing a postcard? I bet it’s a rectangle made out of paper. Why? What else could you do? How do you plan to delight and surprise?


And yes, we have to be realistic. Sometimes, format, budget and practicality dictate that a paper rectangle is the right solution. But for every ten of those projects, there’s one project that will give you the chance to flex your muscles a bit… which is why you should keep asking “why?”


03: Always have an answer to: “What are you working on?”

Stanley Hainsworth

I love this one, because you can bet that the first thing everyone in the audience thought was, “how WOULD I answer that?” I do think, though, that this statement needs two little amendments:

1. Always have an answer to: “What are YOU working on?”

That’s right, YOU – not at your day job, not your business, not your team. What are YOU working on right now, just for yourself? What are you making that excites you and gives you room to breathe?


2. Always have an INTERESTING answer to: “What are you working on?”

Keep it weird. Have at least one project on the go that causes people to ask, “why would you do that”? Personal projects that toe the line too closely,to your day job have a way of feeling too much like business and not enough like adventure.

Wanna paint rocks that look like fruit?

Ad exec Jeff Goodby paints rocks for fun.

Make a weird zine?

SLOW_zine by Alexandra Bango

Do it. Even if it’s a dismal failure, you’ll be much more interesting to talk to at parties.

04: We don’t go on because we’re ready; we go on because it’s 11:30

Emily Oberman

This gem is from Emily Oberman, who has been a partner at Pentagram for many years. You’ve most likely seen her work; she’s the lead designer for Saturday Night Live. The above quote is a reference to SNL – being a show that deals with current affairs, the deadlines are tighter than tight. That’s why the show is never really “ready” to go on; every moment is a last-minute rush. They go on air at 11:30 because they don’t have a choice.


This is much like the creative industry. Crazy deadlines aside…


…our projects are never “finished” in the traditional sense.

You will always be growing as a designer, especially in the beginning. A project is done when the deadline arrives, or when it meets the limitations of your current level of skill – regardless of whether you feel it’s “done”. It’s so easy to look back at “finished” projects from a year or two back, and see with perfect clarity (in hindsight, of course) what more your could have done to improve it. Stop that. Keep moving forward.


05: Inspiration poisons innovation

Casey Neistat

Casey was by far the Nicework favourite, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s got a perfect balance of spontaneity and brilliance, with an irreverent approach that reminded us all to stop making excuses and start making STUFF.

This statement by Casey clashes pretty hard with my own design process, because I LOVE finding “references”. It gives me an excuse to browse on Behance.


Casey’s argument was that looking online and elsewhere for similar projects to “inspire” yours is the quickest way to murder a really great original idea. There may be someone out there who did an idea like yours really well,  but they’re not you. The moment you seek out others’ work for “inspiration”, you start unconsciously heading in the same direction. Resist the urge.

The internet is full of many strange and wonderful things…


…but if you’re looking for great ideas, try inside your head – not online.

P.S. “I did it anyway, because it was a fat paycheck.”


I was technically limited to five key points, but this one from Casey was so great I had to sneak it in. Sometimes, when you’re young and still hustling to fnd your voice, it can be demoralising to look up at your idols and think about how far you’ve got to go. It’s hard to imagine the greats plodding away a a 90-slide corporate presentation, but they were there. Nobody shows off the soul-killing jobs they did when the freelance work was a little dry and they needed to pay the bills, but it’s there. It helps to remember that everyone is human, just like you.

If you liked this blog post, you can take a look at the one from last year!


Published by Ross

Ross grew up on the wrong side of the Jukskei. He studied at Vega and was awarded the Top Student prize at his graduation. After working as a freelancer for four years, he founded Nicework with Ben Vorster. He has a penchant for Scandinavian wood furniture and really nice shirts. He is open to bribery- all iPads are welcome. He also likes chocolate cake and is happily married.

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