Design at a Global Level

International designers and critics take on the issues of globalization and social responsibility.

At this year’s International Council of Graphic Design Associations(Icograda) conference, the core event of Seattle’s Design Week, there was a lot of upbeat talk about opportunities for designers in a global marketplace. But some voices offered more measured views, focusing on the complex politics and the dynamics between design, social responsibility, and profit.

From South Africa, Ravi Naidoo, founder of Design Indaba, envisioned designers helping to secure his country’s position in the economic and cultural world order. After ten years of democratic rule, he explained, South Africa has become a hotbed of creative activity: “The story is this: when cultures and people that were forcibly separated under apartheid come together, it’s like a tectonic shift. Sparks are flying.”

Inspired by nation-branding guru Simon Anholt, Naidoo was instrumental in launching a campaign to radically update South Africa’s global image. Under the slogan, “Brand the Beloved Country” (an audacious twist on Alan Paton’s well-known novel), Design Indaba commissioned designers to pitch branding campaigns to celebrate South Africa as a dynamic and diverse country, while distancing it from the “Afro-pessimism” that plagues the rest of the continent.

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Though some say Design Indaba is elitist, benefiting a privileged class of creative professionals, Naidoo claims that design is the real “sleeper” of the country’s economy, capable of adding more to job growth than other industries. “It’s a delicious concept to take high art/design or technology as a solution to the problems of a developing economy, as opposed to the normal patronizing stuff meted out by the IMF or World Bank,” he said recently.

Another African designer, Zimbabwean Saki Mafundikwa showed a film that demonstrated why designers have good reason to be cautious about the current synergy of design and development. In a well-paced montage of interviews with designers, academics, and civic leaders from around the world, Mafundikwa posed challenging questions about the role of globalization in “emerging economies.”

The film revealed that advocates for the working class and poor are not embracing globalization, but see it as a neo-colonialist enterprise–a form of exploitation of weaker nations by more powerful and economically advantaged ones seeking new markets and cheap labor and materials. These are not easily resolved issues. As Chris Landsburg of the Johannesburg Center for Policy Studies notes in the film, it’s impossible to avoid the predatory grasp of globalization, so the question is whether one can use it to one’s advantage and “democratize it.”

The collaborative work of design initiatives in South America, including the transnational Circuit of Latin Identities and Piracema Design Laboratory in Brazil, exemplify how the economic windfall of the global marketplace can create a larger net of beneficiaries. Adelia Borges, director of the Museu da Casa Brasileira in Sao Paolo, said that design groups there have helped indigenous craftspeople make their work economically sustainable by upgrading the technical quality and marketing of their products without “threatening their cultural identity.” Their goal is to “imbibe tradition and transpire contemporaneity,” not with a view to exoticizing their culture, but to celebrate the “diversity and hybridity so characteristic of contemporary society.” Design Indaba, inspired by such work in South America, is launching a similar initiative through which “established homegrown designers” will work with disadvantaged crafters to create products suitable for both local and international markets.

As Canberra-based designer Linda Fu pointed out at this past year’s Icograda, the currents of globalization offer designers enormous opportunities and power, but with these come profound ethical quandaries: “We are in effect shaping the way people perceive the world by promoting a certain ideology at the expense of another…. As the circulation of our designs has become wider, our stage is getting bigger, and our responsibility is getting greater.”

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