Connections, impact and empathy: Design Indaba’s rules to live by

by Louise Burgers. Connections were a strong theme at Design Indaba this year: how to connect humanity; how brands should connect with consumers; how to build a more empathic society through deeper connections; and how technology should be engineered to amplify connections, not disconnection.

by Louise Burgers. Connections were a strong theme at Design Indaba this year: how to connect humanity; how brands should connect with consumers; how to build a more empathic society through deeper connections; and how technology should be engineered to amplify connections, not disconnection.

Design Indaba, the annual creative industries showcase, celebrated 25 years of inspiring and provocative discourse at the intersection of sustainable design, branding, creativity, technology and urban planning. While its home was at the CTICC in Cape Town for many years, alongside the Design Indaba Expo; its recent evolution over the past few years at the nearby Artscape Theatre, has seen a renewed focus on redesigning a brave new world that can support a more empathic, ecologically, sensitive creative class that can drive change.

A strong thread over the past decade at Design Indaba is that waste is a design flaw and we need to consume less. And this forum is where designers, brand specialists, advertising agencies, architects, urban planners, marketers, artists, filmmakers and musicians from around the world gather in South Africa to inspire, share ideas, mentor the young designers and creatives, showcase new ideas and award-winning work, and most importantly, unpack their work and innovation that has changed the world.


Connections were first raised by brand guru and host of the brand design podcast, Design Matters, Debbie Millman, who has worked with over 200 of the world’s biggest corporate brands, from Burger King to Gillette. She emphasised that branding can and should be a profound manifestation of the human spirit, and that consumers and brands had to design a culture that reflected and honoured the kind of world we all wanted to live in. Brands had the opportunity to connect at a human level  today, more than ever before (Read more).

Studio Drift.

Then, artist Lonneke Gordijn of Studio Drift, based in The Netherlands, spoke about how we respond to nature and movement in nature and how we are all connected. Their work is mesmerising, the kind of installations that flow and are fluid in their design to attract the eye and harmonise man and machine – creating connections – all the while paying homage to patterns found in nature.

“Connection is the basis of who we are. We are forced to move, put ourselves into difficult situations to build resilience. This mirrors nature, where the strongest plants, seeds and animals survive and evolve.” They believe that if you don’t feel something, you don’t connect emotionally – whether with art, design or technology.

Filmmaker and commercials director, Sunu Gonera had this message for brands on the continent: There is an awakening in Africa and Africans are telling their stories in their own voice. Owning their tribe, owning their stories and owning their culture. Brands need to talk to Africa with that authenticity, with that depth of understanding and cultural resonance in order to connect with consumers.

“We are no longer the forgotten, dark continent. We are part of the magic, part of the solution. Our story matters,” Gonera emphasised.

Measuring IMPACT

Impact was another concurrent thread, with many of the speakers referencing how important it was to visualise the impact of our actions – purpose driven or not. Apps, tracking, data, measurement, all are becoming even more important in getting consumers and users to intimately interact with products and services; as well as when using data to drive behaviour change.

Yosuke Ushigome from Takram, a global design innovation studio in Tokoyo, London and New York,  create transformative products with the goal of changing the world. From creating brands and communication with real impact; to packaging and installations and brand campaigns, they are determined to project and indeed, shape, ‘what’s next’. They started out as an engineering design firm, but realised that design, data and engineering intersected and they were constantly moving between and across all disciplines. When they were approached in 2015 by the Japanese government to visualise their data – an immense data set spanning the population, they realised that data needs to be designed to fit into people’s everyday lives.

“These experiments are an attempt to transform data into something more accessible and relatable and actionable. By doing so, it creates more room and more space for human capability to kick in and interact with the data. That is the true potential of data humanisations. Data has become an important human artefact, making it a subject of design. It can unlock copious capabilities in people and empower them.”

The trick for anyone using data and trying to demonstrate its impact, is to make it visual so that it can be more easily understood. Takram developed an app that shows the impact our day-to-day actions have on climate change, which they demonstrated for the Design Indaba audience in real time. In the on-screen visuals of the Design Indaba auditorium, the stage was flooded and everyone was effectively “drowned” when it was determined that what the audience had eaten for dinner the evening before (more meat than veg) and how they had travelled to Design Indaba (more cabs than foot traffic, as well as airplane travel), meant that we had all already contributed to global warming and the melting of the seas, as demonstrated by the “rising water levels” in the auditorium – as witnessed on screen via the app, not in reality – yet.

Building EMPATHY

Finnish designer Enni-Kukka Tuomala, based in London, calls herself the first empathy designer in the world. She has created processes and tools to measure empathy, create empathy and design empathy in urban systems, in marginalised communities, as well as the hardest group of all: politicians.

“Empathy is the most radical of emotions. It is the foundation of all collaboration: together we can create a better world,” she entreats.

Enni-Kukka Tuomala.

She channels empathy as a radical force for change. She tells us to be radically empathic, to be catalysts for empathy. She asks, “What if our citizenships and communities were designed for empathy?” She believes it is possible to reprogramme ourselves to feel more empathy in situations we would not usually.

“Today we are experiencing the biggest movement of people in modern history, but our societies are struggling to find deeper, more emotional ways to connect. Our systems are not designed to embrace that. This has caused real challenges around how we make decisions.”

Shockingly, Tuomala reports that the global empathy deficit is growing, resulting in the globalisation of indifference. She has had success in working with politicians in Finland; and launched a Campaign for Empathy in a London borough during Brexit uncertainty, working with residents for seven months to try bring about a greater understanding among the various cultures living there.


Minimising our destruction of the planet through over-consumption by consuming less, buying less and creating quality and longer-lasting products is being raised more and more in various brand forums, and by brands themselves in some instances (slow-fashion brand Trenery, is one such example as Retailing Africa reported).

Sunny Dolat.

Kenyan-based Sunny Dolat, a creative director and cultural producer, who also calls himself a fashion curator, created The Nest Collective to explore a more inclusive representation of African fashion; and uses his work across fashion, film and print to showcase the beauty in Africa. “As Africans we are not used to being portrayed beautifully. As black we are not used to being portrayed beautifully. As queer we are not being used to being portrayed beautifully.” With his stylist hat on, he believes that clothing is a social construct through which an individual interacts with society; and that it is not necessary to keep up with trends and promote over-consumption.

The reason Berlin-based food designer Alexandra Genis began researching artificial flavours as an alternative to natural flavours, was to minimise over consumption of certain natural ingredients, like fruit, used in natural flavouring; as well as to prepare for a future where natural ingredients will be in short supply or not available at all. Genis is one of the global design graduates that are curated, guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development (SDGs) goals and global design institutions, to present their ideas at Design Indaba each year.

She invented Atoma, a product to try offset food shortages and the carbon footprint of shipping large quantities of fruit to flavour foods, by inventing alternative food flavours in a chemistry lab. She calls her science “gastrointestinal science fiction” or “food for after the apocalypse”: “As humans we are not used to single molecules. But we are looking at space travel and ecological crises and an aging population, so I do see Atoma being used more in the future. We need natural food but embracing the artificial can guide us to pleasurable taste experience too.”

Honey & Bunny on the Design Indaba 2020 stage.

The ultimate design and brand challenge came from Austrian performance artists, Honey & Bunny, real names Martin Hablesreiter and Sonja Stummerer. They focus on food design and the ethics and aesthetics of eating through their interdisciplinary design atelier, deconstructing the habits and tools of food consumption. The two protagonists took to the stage dressed in black and white formal wear, sitting at a table lavishly laid out for dinner. They then proceeded to deliver monologues challenging designers to subvert the status quo of how people should behave, how design is constructed:

“Design today is a construct of the elite, propping up a system that does not care where things come from. Designers decide how people behave, with the design of the chair, how they sit and how their posture exists.
We make culture. We have the power.
Designers are prostitutes. We market the main symbols of culture.
Designers produce trash. Design is irresponsible. Design destroys the future.
We could change everything. Simplify everything.
As designers, it is all in our hands.
We design objects.
We write culture’s history.
We could change everything.
That would be design.”

They then told the audience to repeat after them (which the audience responded to with somewhat robotic obedience):

“We create new values.
We change behavior.
We change the world.
We create new narratives.
We revolutionise design.”

And when the Design Indaba audience was asked if they wanted to move away from hegemonic, capitalistic ideas; create systems based on economic sustainability; promote sustainable design, they all shouted back, “YES!”

Honey & Bunny then ended with the following motivational speechlet:

“We make culture.
We create the future.
We are superheroes!”

It was all a bit Orwellian in its delivery with undertones of control and manipulation, as intended no doubt, and they did get their message across with their disruptive performance art.



Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


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