For anyone familiar with the frustrations of getting their home tech in order, the image of a demolished digital printer in a so-called anger room might trigger a reaction from outright glee to existential gloom and foreboding. Trump mannequins are also a popular choice for pounding, but the common printer remains a favourite for those who want to vent their rage in a "safe" environment. So it is easy to understand why British design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn gave the printer pride of place in the "useless design" category during her lecture at Design Indaba in Cape Town last week.

Whip-chic in her customary tailored attire and sharp as a sniper in the delivery of her talk, Rawsthorn painted a bleak picture of what she considered the design failures of our times. "Very little design is good, the majority is mediocre or downright bad," she declared. "Bad design matters because of the terrible consequences that may result."

Rawsthorn’s list of design crimes included the "ominous" (Uber’s controversy-riddled business model); the "pointless" (Google Glass); the "offensive" (Gucci’s tone-deaf "blackface" sweater); and the "lazy". Earning the latter somewhat less scathing label were a multitude of tech products that, had they been designed with "a little more effort", might not land up in smouldering e-waste dumps such as that of the infamous Agbogbloshie slum in Accra, Ghana. "An especially worrying aspect of design is that the consequences are about to get worse," Rawsthorn said, referring to the slew of products that cannot be recycled.


Rawsthorn’s remarks contributed to the somewhat dark-night-of-the-soul tone of a considerable portion of this year’s Design Indaba programme, which was a finely calibrated juxtaposition of the grand themes of despair and hope. Over the course of the three-day conference, the designer emerged time and again as the hero of the narrative arc, armed with the sort of creative thinking, ingenuity, resourcefulness and tenacity required to save the world from itself.

If the mass-meat-farming industry and its carbon emissions, along with the spectre of the great Pacific garbage patch, don’t sufficiently fuel one’s nightmares, there’s always television to dish up a daily dose of dystopia, from the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 novel conjures up a modern nightmare landscape on a par with the jagged mountains of e-junk that the desperately poor in the real world trawl for scraps of copper wire to sell. Atwood’s imaginary world, Gilead, is one wrecked by environmental disaster and governed by a totalitarian patriarchy, where dissidents are condemned to life sentences of hard labour clearing toxic wastelands.

While the story itself is harrowing and compelling, and the performances by actors such as Elisabeth Moss in the leading role of Offred have garnered broad acclaim, it is the costumes that truly stay with one, from the red cloaks and white hoods of the handmaids to the demure Virgin Mary-esque blue robes of the "wives". And indeed, the series’ costume designer, Ane Crabtree, widely hailed for her work on high-profile shows such as Westworld and The Sopranos, presented her Design Indaba lecture as a semiperformance-art piece that referenced the disturbing imagery she drew on for her artistic vision of The Handmaid’s Tale.

For the Los Angeles-based Crabtree, who describes herself variously as an "accidental designer", "oddball" and a "conduit of emotion" for the audience, seeing the handmaids’ uniforms adopted as a symbol of opposition to Trumpian threats against women’s reproductive rights at marches across the US — and in similar protests around the world — is a powerful instance of life imitating art imitating life.

Fashion made other appearances on the Design Indaba programme, notably among the antidotes to despair presented by designers in the optimism-driven millennial and generation Z age groups.

Japanese-born US designer Kye Shimizu sought a more sustainable vision when faced with estimates that 85% of waste generated by the fashion industry finds its way to landfills. He looked to the design of the traditional kimono as a model for his Algorithmic Couture project: creating algorithm-generated patterns for bespoke garments that would produce zero waste.

For the young Nigerian designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal, fashion is a "tool for social change", and he uses his bright, lustrous, gender-fluid designs to kick against the deeply entrenched culture of "toxic masculinity" he’s encountered since childhood.

Future features

The fear of literally drowning in waste is a recurring trope. Dutch designer Dave Hakkens returned to the Design Indaba stage six years after first presenting his Phonebloks modular smartphone, a concept eagerly snapped up by Google but later dropped when the tech behemoth switched its focus to software development. The premise was genius: a phone with modular parts that could be replaced when broken, or customised to create a personalised device. Hakkens hasn’t given up, especially with Google having already pumped considerable resources into the project. And he continues to find new ways to keep the demon of plastic waste at bay. "Less than 10% of our plastic used gets recycled," he said.


His latest concept, already put into practice as an open-source blueprint that anyone can tap into, is a radically simplified, scaled-down system of machines to shred, melt and mould different grades of plastic. The Precious Plastic resource hub provides guidance not only on recycling but also on starting a workshop where products can be made and sold for profit.

Rodrigo Garcia González, co-founder of Skipping Rocks Lab in London, uses experimentation and play as the foundation of his design practice. As an alternative to plastic bottles and tubes for water and other food items, like the sauces at fast-food outlets, the designer — also an architect and engineer — invented Ooho!, a gel-like membrane that can be eaten, "making packaging disappear".

Mirjam de Bruijn, a recent graduate from the Design Academy Eindhoven, is similarly bothered by plastic packaging as well as the amount of water (up to 80%) used in packaged products such as detergents and cosmetics. Her slick-looking brand Twenty presents a waterless alternative in the form of capsules that can be reconstituted by the consumer.

SA architect Nicole Nomsa Moyo tackled head-on the truly nightmarish problem of rapidly growing informal settlements with their lack of proper toilets. Her award-winning master’s thesis "Ukubutha" from the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, proposes a township hub with an efficient waste-to-energy management system. Tapping into the architecture of traditional structures, toilets in these systems provide the fertiliser that would allow community gardens to flourish. The idea could be used on a global scale to improve the lives of the 1-billion people estimated to be living in slums.

Or look to the sheer optimism behind Zipline, the world’s first medical drone delivery system that is operating with tremendous success in Rwanda. Design-thinker and self-described tech geek Keenan Wyrobek presented this collaboration between a "passionate group of Californians and Rwandans" with a demonstration of how the drones can deliver life-saving blood to remote communities.

At the time of his lecture, Zipline had just completed its 10,000th delivery, and Wyrobek reported that the service had played a part in drastically diminishing maternal mortality. "Rwanda is teaching the world how to use this technology and to save lives," he said.

Cynics might suggest designers have a saviour complex, and Design Indaba MC Lucas de Man, Belgian playwright and artistic director of New Heroes, himself posed the question: "Why is the world so shitty if everyone is so busy making a better world?"

De Man’s answer to the question, at the end of his own presentation, was simply: "I don’t know. Nobody knows. Even when it comes to the purpose of things. We are animals. We are also predictable algorithms. We know that we don’t know and this is what sets us apart … The human drama — the fact that we know that we don’t know — drives us crazy … Design shows that there are so many possibilities because there is no one truth. In a time of growing inequality and growing fear, the world needs creatives more than ever."