Interview: Ravi Naidoo, Founder of Design Indaba

As the 25th edition approaches, its key creative figure shares his thoughts on design as a tool

When you share a room with Ravi Naidoo you cannot help but notice his presence. The Design Indaba founder emanates and attracts positive energy; it’s an off-shoot of the power of believing in what you produce. Both a thinker and a doer, Naidoo is also the founder and managing director of Interactive Africa. He’s worked on business and social projects that range from the 2010 FIFA World Cup to Design Commons. But 25 years ago, he gave South Africa something that was missing: an event that set Cape Town on the map of upper-echelon design conferences around the globe. Design Indaba has become a platform that gathers people around ideas and kickstarts new projects to everyone’s benefit.

A couple of weeks before the 25th edition (which will take place from 26 to 28 February), we spoke with Naidoo about the past, present and future—as well as expectations for his forthcoming edition. “The first thing is it’s actually a momentous time,” he shares with us. “And it’s quite emotional [since] it’s really been way more than we ever expected. It’s been such a joy and a privilege to be part of it because it has been our university, it has taught us so much. Right now for me the fundamental thing is gratitude. It’s very rare to have an initiative like this taking place in Africa, in such a long haul destination and to be around for 25 years, we have just immense gratitude.”

Naidoo remains very aware of the risk of celebrating in advance, and a desire to look at what’s next is his guiding principle. “We will honor the past, but for a short amount of time. We’ll spend most of our time asking deeper questions about our next steps,” he says. “What we’re doing is doubling our projects and our impact, expanding on the component of design endeavor, which is really an obsession we have. We will be more prolific than we ever have and we’re taking some of the projects into the public square.”

Any successful and long-lasting project mixes founding spirit and constant innovation. Naidoo says it all began when “we just tried to see how we could gather the creative community together and inspire them and 200 people came to the first event. The only thing that still happens—but nothing like how it was then—is the conference. But radiating from the conference have been so many other things.” Naidoo and his team initially thought the conference was the end unto itself. It grew beyond a podium. They questioned how you put design to work for the more profound important things in society.

The first edition of Design Indaba was held in 1995, right after the end of apartheid, the introduction of universal adult suffrage and the election of Nelson Mandela as President. Naidoo remembers those years very well. “We were completely smitten by this concept of new democracy and were taken up for this whole idea of nation building. And somehow we thought of design as a tool that we can actually use in this journey,” he says.

“We had never been to a design conference and we had no frame of reference,” he continues. “If I look back at it now, I think it was the biggest advantage we had because we didn’t do a derivative thing; it’s something that we thought of and made anew. Design for social impact has been a huge part of the motif ever since we started. We started by saying ‘a better future by design,’ but it’s evolved into something even wider. We now say ‘a better world through creativity.’ Design is this wonderful kind of vehicle with which we can express ourselves and then make these things possible.”

Today, Design Indaba is one of the reference points for the global design community because of its ability to go beyond the ordinary. Expectations are defied; eyes opened. According to Naidoo, that’s because of their broad scope. “The nice part about the freedom of doing it here in South Africa and the way we did it,” he says, “was that we went across every area of creative enterprise and creative expression, so we could put an artist next to a chef, an architect next to a fashion designer, next to a graphic designer, next to a coder, next to a social scientist and really mash it all up.”

Naidoo also integrates activism and social impact. “We are not impresarios, we are not promoters, we are not event organizers,” he explains. “We come at it with a very wholesome activist idea. We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.” Design Indaba aims to convert ideas into outcomes, into reality. “You will see an action as opposed to a report on a past,” Naidoo continues. “So I think that the present and that future component of it is what makes people completely taken aback.”

The role of design and creativity has increased in making the world a better place. “You know, the world’s a messy place right now. Design Indaba has got dollops of optimism and goodwill. We say that creativity is a muscle and you come here to exercise it,” Naidoo concludes. In fact, people from all over the world go to Design Indaba for exactly that reason.

The 25th edition of Design Indaba is on 26-28 February in Cape Town, and tickets are available online. For the full program and regular updates go to the official Design Indaba site or follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Hero image courtesy of Design Indaba, all other images by Paolo Ferrarini