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Nov 26, 2010

SA’s under-recognised industrial designers face new threats, opportunities

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The past decade has seen a global explosion in industrial design, as a result of technology and a growing consciousness of the possibilities that design creates, in what is described as the global age of creativity. However, South African industry is being significantly challenged by factors such as a lack of understanding of the impact of industrial designers, and a lack of government support, funding and exposure.

The South African Bureau of Standards Design Institute (SABS DI) defines the main attribute of industrial design as the element that combines science, technology and invention in a product. SABS DI manager Adrienne Viljoen says that, although a greater consciousness of design as a profession has developed through events like the yearly Design Indaba, design magazines and promotion by private players, there is still a lack of focus on the role of industrial design.

The local industry has a reputation for high-quality design in the global arena. Viljoen notes that South Africa has produced a number of outstanding individual designers, such as the well-known industrial designer Brian Steinhobel and motorcycle designer Pierre Terblanche. But designers of this calibre are few and underappreciated locally.

Design not only aims to improve the aesthetic quality of a product, but must also improve the quality of life of the person using it. Viljoen notes that a new era of universal design is dawning, introducing products that are functional for anyone, anywhere.

Local Roots
The outbreak of World War II, in 1939, was an important stimulus for local industrial develop- ment, as imported goods became unobtainable. Experiments and innovations became the order of the day, particularly in the iron and steel industry and in the production of heavy machinery.

Through this industrial development, the South African economy emerged from the war stronger and more diversified. By 1942, the country’s total industrial product had increased by 44,5%, from £200-million a year to £289-million a year. The greater diversity of industrial products and the emergence, directly after the war, of design organisations in countries such as the UK led to a realisation in South Africa that design was a necessary adjunct to the manufacturing industry.

Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) industrial design head of department Craig Duff says that the industrial design course has been presented in South Africa for a few decades but has always been in the shadows. The country also became dependent on the export of raw materials and commodities, without adding value.

“The South African market has relied so much on importing finished goods that it became a culture. Sanctions also played an earlier role, decreasing competitiveness,” he notes.

Industrial designer and MD of design company Snapp Design Jonathan Fundudis says that industrial design features in almost every aspect of day-to-day life, from the automotive sector to defence and consumer goods.


Because of its far reach, design can be a significant competitive tool in building the economy of a country, if it is used optimally. The products designed by Steinhobel’s company alone earned in excess of R100-billion over 30 years; such income can change the gross domestic product of a country. However, much of the production is offshore, as there is a lack of trusted production locally.


Industrial design consultancy KM Product Design MD Peter Dreyer adds that, while industrial design is about mass production, the human interface is what sets designers apart from engineers. He notes that the appearance of a product is important and that good products that are not visually attractive do not sell as well.


“Sound industrial design must be part of the manufacturing process – from the start. Product development has an extremely wide scope and the industrial designer’s role goes far beyond the look of the product, but the manufacturing industry does not always understand this,” he notes.


Steinhobel agrees, adding that a product that looks good and is well engineered will sell. “Behind the pretty bottle is massive engineering. To produce a bottle, there is a choice of material, production and technology. Industrial designers add art to engineering,” he points out.


He adds that designers humble themselves and embrace the virtues of engineering. However, engineers do not always reciprocate. “Engineering is taking a long time to embrace design. I appeal to engineers to step back, do some inspection and see the importance of design,” Steinhobel says.


Education and Career Paths
The SABS DI is involved in design training and presents the Design Achievers awards each year to tertiary design students that have proved themselves as leaders in their field. The institute also presents career information at schools to promote industrial design as a career.


However, Viljoen believes that there are far too few options for the education and training of industrial designers in South Africa, with only three tertiary institutions presenting the course, namely the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Cape Peninsula University of Technology and TUT. She adds that many students also believe that there is not enough work for industrial designers in South Africa.


Further, the preparation that applicants receive for the industrial design course from secondary school level is a significant concern to tertiary institutions. “There is not enough emphasis at school on design and technology. There is a general lack of understanding of design and its possible careers,” Duff points out.


UJ industrial design head of department Chris Bradnum says that the industry is so diverse that there are many career options for industrial design students. UJ produces 25 to 30 industrial design graduates each year, while there are about 60 job opportunities a year for industrial designers. Bradnum believes that the balance between jobs and available designers is correct.


However, Fundudis asserts that many local industrial design consultancies do not survive because of a lack of awareness and market- related factors, which means that students do not have that many opportunities to become industrial designers.


South Africa produces designers with a holistic approach to industrial design, from concept to final product. Bradnum believes that local students are sought after because of this broad foundation. “Specialists lose much of the basic knowledge, making them less of an asset,” he notes.


Duff also believes that graduate designers who are generalists, instead of specialists, have a wider range of opportunities, such as working at design consultancies as entrepreneurs or as in-house designers for large companies.


Dreyer adds that local designers can design diverse products and are well versed in different industries, such as cosmetics, explosives, sanitation, electronics and the consumer market. “This diverse exposure has led to designers revolutionising industries by borrowing inspiration from other industries. In this sense, industrial designers are middlemen between different industries,” he notes.


The International Design Alliance World Design Survey, a pilot project to determine the contribution of design in the country, conducted in 2008 and published in 2009, found that, in South Africa, the most significant stumbling blocks for the design industry are financial challenges and lack of awareness and recognition of the design industry.


Other challenges identified included the lack of support in terms of resources, competition in the industry and limited focus on promotion or marketing.


Duff believes that a lack of exposure is the most significant challenge to the industrial design industry and adds that the industry needs a vehicle, such as a design centre, to facilitate exposure. The second significant challenge he identifies is a lack of understanding of what industrial design encompasses.


Dreyer believes that the fact that designers have to sell their time as consultants is another downfall. “There are only so many hours in a day, which makes it extremely difficult to grow as consultant and a designer. It is also difficult to charge the rates that designers are worth, as the market does not want to pay much,” he notes.


Fundudis agrees, saying that the market dictates the perceived value of industrial design in South Africa. People do not want to spend money on optimising a product and often settle for less.


The business side of industrial design also lacks awareness that product development managers are needed in the process of creating a product. “A few middlemen are the missing links in the product design chain. Industrial designers cannot manage the finances and the business part of a project and a proactive development strategy should be created,” Duff notes.


Dreyer also believes that the lack of support from the manufacturing industry poses challenges for the industrial design industry, as industrial designers are there to serve manufacturing.


The Government Gap
The survey found that other significant hurdles for the design sector in South Africa are the lack of government support for the industry and the fact that design straddles numerous sectors of the economy.


Further, design is largely undefined in government structures. It is grouped partially under the Department of Trade and Industry, owing to its connection with the SABS, but also has connections with the departments of Science and Technology, Labour and Education.


South Africa’s industrial design industry lags behind its global counterparts in terms of support and funding. One of the reasons for the lack of government support and coherent industry involvement is the fact that there is no legislation in place for the promotion of design. Viljoen believes this is a significant stumbling block.


“The design industry has been challenged for years by the fact that there is little overhead support and continuity from top structures. It is difficult to secure national support with ever-changing Parliamentary positions,” she notes.


However, Bradnum believes that formalised business is becoming a thing of the past. “Government support is not the beginning and end of everything. Entrepreneurship is important,” he notes.


Own Identity
Dreyer points out that South African industrial designers do not have a clear identity. “Germans are known for their sound engineering, the Swiss for their watches and the Italians for their shoes. South Africa must also strive to create an image or identity for products,” Dreyer notes.


He suggests that South African designers should build their identity on niche markets using technology to build favourable global market recognition. He points out that there is also a significant market for fit-for-purpose products in Africa, in which South African designers have an opportunity to make profit, as well as a responsibility to fulfil.


“Local designers too often chase global markets and trends. We also lack a profes-sional image and a professional body, because industrial design is often not seen locally as a proper profession,” he adds.


There have been numerous attempts to create a professional body of industrial designers in the past, but the small industry with few practising industrial designers hinders such progress. Fundudis notes that it is difficult to run a business and survive in industry and manage a professional body at the same time. Dedicated personnel are also required.


The drive to create an industry association resulted in the launch of the Industrial Designers Association of South Africa in 2007. The association presented a paper to Parliament in 2008 concerning industrial design and the proposed Technology Innovation Agency Bill. However, the proposal was discarded and the association disintegrated soon afterwards.


The inability of industrial designers to form a professional body further complicates design promotion by the SABS DI and makes it difficult for designers to receive support from government. A professional body can significantly benefit the industry.


TUT industrial design lecturer Mike Wythe says that the current need for job creation creates the ideal climate for industrial design promotion. Industrial designers create products that must be manufactured and this can create jobs. It is an economic cycle because, when people have jobs and make money, they also buy the products that are designed and manufactured.


“Government aims to create five-million jobs in the next ten years. Design and manu-facturing can make a significant contribution to this aim, but education and exposure are needed,” says Wythe.


Duff also believes that there is currently significant growth potential for local industrial design, especially at small, medium-sized and microenterprise (SMME) level. “SMMEs must be educated about the benefits of design. The market can only be secured if SMMEs can access design resources,” he notes.


While South Africa is in the first league, globally, in the mining and refining of raw materials, it lags other industrial nations in secondary industries and in the beneficiation of raw materials. Designers have a significant role to play to change this.


Dreyer further notes that local designers are ready for vehicle design in South Africa. “Electric vehicles, particularly, hold significant opportunity for us. They are not expensive to make, enabling developing countries to try their hand at designing and manufacturing to suit local road conditions,” he says.


Developing Design
The yearly SABS Design Excellence Awards form the main vehicle to promote industrial design and comprise six categories according to industry sectors. The winning designs are exhibited at South African international trade exhibitions, thereby promoting local innovation and design nationally and globally.


As part of its Prototype Initiative, the SABS DI hosts consultation sessions and ‘From Idea to Product’ seminars as a means to foster new product development in South Africa. Further, the SABS DI hosts a youth leadership initiative, called Design Achievers, to bring young people from a variety of design disciplines together to share their talent and learn more about the world of business.


The National Advisory Council on Innovation established the Innovation for Development initiative in 2009, tasked to provide advice to government on how to use innovation to tackle social challenges and the needs of all South Africans, in parti-cular those of neglected grassroots communities.


The SABS DI established the Design for Development initiative in 1997. Viljoen says that it is important not only to design for elite First World consumption, but also to focus particularly on developing functional designs for rural and informal settlement areas.


“Design has a bit of a stigma attached to it – that it is only reserved for the elite. That must change and design must also be used for the development of communities. We encourage designers to act local, but think global,” she points out.


Interdesign workshops have become an important part of the Design for Develop-ment initiative. The workshops focus on local challenges that are also of international significance and are aimed at providing innovative and appropriate solutions through cooperative problem solving.


The Design Indaba and the Afrimould Expo also provide some exposure to and recognition of industrial design, although they do not showcase the profession as a whole.


Duff believes that South Africa is not yet in the promotional phase for industrial design, but still in a process of educating the country about the role of industrial design. However, Bradnum is positive about the local industrial design industry. “In a developing country like ours, there will always be an opportunity to design something new or to improve something old,” he concludes.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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