08 November 2006
Jacques Lange
Jacques Lange

'Lekker' is a popular Afrikaans word favoured by most South Africans to describe enjoyable experiences and tasty food.

Africa is not generally perceived as a global centre of significant design activity. However, for those in the know, South Africa is a vibrant laboratory of experimentation and innovation. Graphic design in South Africa is not just alive and well - it is vibrant and increasingly becoming globally competitive and locally more representative. In September 2001, South African designers will share their experiences and knowledge with their international peers when they will host the first ever world congress of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda) on African soil.

The Kenyan academic Odoch Pido once described afrocentric creativity as a stew where all the ingredients are stirred into a big pot. Pido s description serves as an apt summation of South African graphic design. In a spacious country blessed with natural beauty, a population of almost 45 million composed of multiracial and diverse cultures who speak 11 official languages and consisting of dramatically disparate levels of socio-economic development, the stew being cooked by local designers can only be described as spicy, colourful and lekker .

In the pre-democratised South Africa the Modernist Bauhaus approach found a comfortable home where designers were trained according to the form follows function design philosophy. The country had more than 15 tertiary graphic design schools that produced competent graphic designers who compared favourably with international standards. Their work mostly conformed to the Western aesthetic and they drew upon Europe and North America for creative inspiration with little regard for uniquely local references. One of the few exceptions was a fascination with the natural beauty of the country and its fauna and flora were favourite subject matter, even though it was executed in the international style. The socio-political situation in the country favoured the wealthy White communities and disregarded the cultural needs and aspirations of the majority Black population. Blacks we often excluded from the design industry and until the early 1990s, only three design schools accepted non-White students.

Then 1994 arrived ... Nelson Mandela became president and introduced radical socio-political change that catapulted the country onto the international stage. Local designers grasped the opportunity to transform with the newly created society, aptly titled by Desmond Tutu as the rainbow nation . They embarked on a quest to reflect the country's diversity, challenged the Modernist conventions and produced graphic design that became uniquely local whilst also being internationally competitive. This became an ongoing process and graphic design in South Africa is playing an important role in building the nation by reflecting its past, present and future on behalf of all of its population.

South African graphic design is unique and often surprises international audiences. It is simultaneously bright and bold, sensitive and subtle, challenging, contradictory and compromising, reflective and receptive, representative of local cultures and internationally appropriate, crude and sophisticated. It often finds beauty and satisfaction not in perfection but rather imperfection.

Graphic designers in the post-Apartheid South Africa draw their inspiration from a vast body of uniquely local as well as international sources. The rock art of South Africa s oldest inhabitants, the Koi and San (Bushmen), is characterised by free-flowing calligraphic lines, stylised figurines and natural forms and have become favoured themes in contemporary graphic design. Traditional African tribal craftwork stands out as another important source of inspiration. The brightly coloured geometric patterns of the Ndebele tribe s beadwork, embroidery and homestead painting made internationally famous by artists such as Ester Mashlangu - the first African to design a BMW Art Car has become a favoured design reference. In addition, the Zulu tribe s basket weaving and pottery, the decorative textiles of the Swazi people, and the colourful eclecticism of the Indian community adds a spicy multicultural dimension to the local design stew and set the tone for exploring alternatives to Modernist design sensibilities.

The dynamic local music industry is another important source of inspiration for designers. The retro influences of 1950s township life, symbolised by the suave costumes, good life iconography and the rhythmic music performed by Miriam Makeba and Thandi Klaasen from Sophiatown, and Dollar Brand from the Cape Flats, is often the focus of design concepts. This is juxtaposed by contemporary Pantsula and Kwaito music styles, with its subtle references to American rap, as well as the international influences of techno and trance music.

On the opposite side of the spectrum inspiration is found in contemporary township and downtown city life with its vibrant pace, spontaneity and inhabitants innovative ways of earning a living. It is not uncommon to find hawkers displaying fruit and vegetables on brightly coloured plates packed out on sidewalks, caterers selling runners (chicken feet) and tripe from makeshift stands, self taught hairdressers advertising their services on naively painted signboards, or herbalists displaying their muti (medicines) wrapped in newspapers. It is also in these environments where designers find ample inspiration for developing new fonts. The hand drawn letters on makeshift advertising boards and signage is crude, bold and spontaneous, and is often appropriated by professional designers for use in radically different contexts such as annual reports for major corporates.

The buzz of South Africa s township and city life is radically different from another important source of inspiration, the indigenous Afrikaner culture. It is often jokingly described as Boere Baroque - an eclectic combination of colonial settler cultures, which is characterised by kitsch sentimentalism. The heritage of several European expatriate communities add additional interesting flavours to the local design stew and one often sees references to Portuguese ceramics and Italian art in South African graphic

Local designers continue to be inspired by the spectacular landscape, animals, plants, natural textures, vibrant colours and the ever-present sunlight. This is often applied in innovative ways - a leaf and a thorn becomes the logo of a wedding function venue or a swallow is used as an icon for a transformation programme of a multinational mining giant.

It is almost impossible to provide a representative reflection of what South Africa offers as design inspiration in a few pages of text. The land, its people, multiple languages and cultures offer an overwhelming array of stimulating experiences and South African designers are uniquely privileged to be working in such an inspiring environment.

To appreciate South African graphic design, one needs an open mind, flexibility to acknowledge that that rules are made to be broken, the ability to cross the barriers of divergent cultures and often a good a sense of humour. South African graphic design needs to be explored in person.
Woza! Come. Engage.

About the Author

Jacques Lange qualified with a BA(FA) Information Design degree from University of Pretoria (1988) and is currently enrolled in an MA programme at the same institution. His professional experience includes corporate and editorial design, strategic consulting, human resources communication, education and profession management. He is a partner at Bluprint Design, a corporate design consultancy based in South Africa. He is the President of Design South Africa, a founding member of the academic journal, Image & Text, and a member of the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa. Jacques was the second winner of the Design Achievers Awards and has been actively involved in the scheme's planning since 1997.

About the Image

The newly developed national Coat of Arms for South Africa, designed by Iaan Bekker from FCB Johannesburg draws inspiration from various cultural local sources including the primitive Koisan (Bushmen) art, nature and indigenous tribal cultures. The motto, `!ke e:/xarra//ke , meaning `diverse people unite , is written in the extinct language of the /Xam people, breaking from the convention of using Latin phrases for heraldic symbols.

Visit www.woza2001.co.za for more information on the Icograda Congress.