Yves Béhar originally introduced me to Design Indaba and Ravi Naidoo, its founder and curator extraordinaire. Yves simply labels Design Indaba as "the best design conference." Now, years later, I am here in person to confirm.
What does it take to be labeled "world's best?" What kind of creature is Design Indaba really, superlatives aside. Even now in its teenage years, it is definitively a new and different breed.
The scale of the venue is obviously nowhere near Milan's all-dominant Salone de Mobile, but you do get a vibrant buzz throughout the city and the feel that the Capetonians are massively behind the Design Indaba initiative—and let's be frank, Milan's weather does not compare to Cape Town's. The Cape is just one of those exquisite destinations. The format of the conference itself is that of TED—back in the Monterey days. I had actually met with Chee Pearlman, Tim Brown and Melanie Griffith last TED to discuss how to reintroduce the D (for Design) in TED. The Design Indaba approach of covering a vast spectrum of design visions is an answer to that. The whole conference could very well be merged with TED's program—with a little extra time policing.
Cape Town is an African city and the emphasis of how design can be for all us and not just a privileged clientele is certainly prevalent. The design-for-good perspective that the INDEX: Award is famed for reverberates throughout the Design Indaba program too. However, although African designers are presently affirming their presence on the world stage (especially the flamboyant West African fashion designers, but also architects such as Issa Diabate, David Adjaye and Francis Kéré) there is still a general lack of representaion by African designers and design manufacturers. This becomes even more apparent with a predominantly western speaker's cast at an African event. As a redeeming factor, Francis Kéré talked about principles of designing for climatic comfort with local and low-cost construction, delivering the best speech by far. The program of speakers is refreshing. The quality of discourse is very high and liberated from many of the usual self-congratulatory suspects. Naidoo's penchant for graphic design is obvious; with a slight overrepresentation, cherry-picked graphic artists like cult Bibliotèque and Oded Ezer, and an opening of the program with two graphic presentations topped off with celebrating the grand master, Massimo Vignelli's 80th birthday.
In general though the cast is well balanced, with equal representation from "design mystics" who believe creativity somehow transcends our mundane world (like Maarten Baas) to "design pragmatists" that happily reveal their bag of tricks (like Robert Wong). And anyway no one is that easily typecast. Dror Benshetrit, definitively a mystic by this definition, seemed surprisingly Buckminster Fuller'ish and launched a structural system: QuaDror, an octagonal beam structure capable of flat packing and carrying considerable loads.
Design Indaba is further differentiated by not having an overarching theme. So the speakers are free to self-express rather than lecture. Thus some of the presentations of their work could be boiled down to an autobiographical essential. E.g. the grand old man of branding, Michael Wolff's work, to poetic drawings of animals and /Dana Arnett's about classic Americana iconography.
The conference is fantastic and truly represents a new breed.
Founding partner of Skibsted Ideation, KiBiSi and Biomega, Danish designer Jens Martin Skibsted's work has been accredited worldwide. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a member of the Global Agenda Council on Design. In 2009 he co-founded the product design super group KiBiSi with Lars Holme Larsen and Bjarke Ingels. Foremost Skibsted is known for his bikes. With an emphasis on urban applications, the bikes compete with cars for city dominance and comfort. The bikes have won numerous awards, appeared in numerous magazines, and exhibitions worldwide. They've been collected by SFMoMA, MoMA and Le CNAP among others. His Copenhagen bike is regarded as a new icon of Danish Design.