Toppling Godsigner – Jenna Mervis talks to Cape Town’s Mugendi M’Rithaa about Transformative Design
Posted by Jenna Mervis on October 20, 2011
Let’s start off with some history. Where have you come from and how did you become interested in transformative design?
I was born in Kenya and spent most of my life there, but when I was five years old, my family moved to the US for four years. My dad was on a scholarship to do his postgraduate studies and we lived there for a formative period of my life. In hindsight, this was exactly the timing I needed as I was evolving into a conscious being as a young lad. When my family returned to Kenya, I completed school and continued on into an Undergraduate studies in design.
Was this when you specialised in Industrial Design?
The design we did was generic – the programme included graphic design, fashion design, product design, exhibition display, photography and more. It was a very rich, broad base in design. I worked for a short while and then was fortunate to be awarded a Commonwealth scholarship that allowed me to study industrial design at a master’s level at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. After graduating, I returned to Kenya and immediately started teaching. I started both the industrial design and interior design programmes at the university of Nairobi. I taught there for eight years, then went to the University of Botswana where again I helped launch the industrial design programme. At the beginning of 2005, after four years in Botswana, I finally came to Cape Town at the same time that the Cape Technikon and the Peninsula Technikon were merging to form Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Did you come to Cape Town to specifically join CPUT?
I was headhunted while I was still in Botswana by the then Dean of the faculty of built environment and design, Mel Hagen. Mel was a big champion of mine, and a mentor.
Have there been any other people who have influenced your career?
The other very key person in terms of mentorship has been Adrienne Viljoen, the manager of the SABS Design Institute. I first met her in 1994 in Nairobi. I’d just started teaching. Since then, I’ve been involved in a lot of Design Institute programmes like the Design for Development Awards. She, more than anyone else, has influenced my career in South Africa. She has been a key creative influence, particularly with respects to design in South Africa.
In what ways has Adrienne influenced your design approach?
When I graduated as an industrial designer, my initial reaction was that there was very little in terms of industrial development in Nairobi for me to practice the high level industrial design I’d been taught. I did something in between, on a more intermediate level. In Kenya, we have a significant informal sector called the jua kali. It literally means “hot sun”, taken from the fact that people do their work out in the hot sun. Whereas the formal sector in Kenya accounts for about 5% of all employment since 2006, the informal or jua kali sector accounts for 95% of all employment. This is a significant difference. If you’re trained as an industrial designer who can do advanced processes and this is the reality of the market you’re in – well I always felt that I could be doing more. Adrienne ushered in a more expansive and professional way of looking at design through the Design for Development schemes and Interdesigns.
“Too often, a designer designs for a client who provides the design brief. Their commitment and responsibility stops there.”
What are Interdesigns?
An Interdesign is a 2-week workshop which is done in a participatory manner with a community. International designers and local designers come together and work around a problem that has been identified by a community. After 2 weeks they present solutions. That was the first time I came into contact with what I call the participatory design process. I realized suddenly that it was what I actually wanted to do. As I evolved as a designer and a design thinker and educator, I realized that the challenges in developing countries are unique and designers cannot absolve themselves from the responsibility of the larger community. Too often, a designer designs for a client who provides the design brief. Their commitment and responsibility stops there. In the developing context, the level of design awareness and visual literacy from a design point of view is quite low and designers end up designing for a constituency that is much larger than they anticipated. So if they design a billboard, for example, the client may be paying them, but it’s the rest of the community that reads the billboard and responds to the message. The best demonstration of that for me is in the Interdesigns. The first one in 1999 was on water and the 2nd in 2005 was on sustainable rural transport. In a sense they are just an acknowledgement that we have a responsibility to that larger constituency.
What solutions came out of the 1999 water Interdesign?
We did evolve quite a number of solutions for collecting and harvesting water, as well as distributing it. What was unique about the 1999 Interdesign was that it was the first time we actually did simultaneous Interdesigns in 3 different countries. We had a videoconference at the end of the workshop where we exchanged ideas with Australia, also a water scarce country, and Mexico. For me, this opened up another level of understanding of how technology can be used to connect people around common problems and also about the resulting horizontal structure of these relationships . It’s really the only way that they can work, particularly in design. The designer, the co-producer and co-creator (the consumer) are all equals in a horizontal relationship. I often talk about the Godsigner Complex where a godsigner sits up on a pedestal and dictates design solutions without taking cognizance of the embedded knowledge that consumers have.
When you started out, did it ever strike you that designs didn’t speak to you or involve you on any level as a consumer?
What I found very interesting was that in the beginning of my career, designs were actually very simple and straightforward. They were easy to take apart, the components were simple. But as I grew up as a young designer, systems became a lot more complex and a lot of the processes were not made explicit to the user. So the year of maintaining your own product diminished with time. Things became more dispensable. The throwaway culture took over. You threw away huge parts of something, which in my mind could still be used for something else. But now the global crisis has forced us to think about sustainability afresh in terms of what we’ve done to the planet. The socio-economic models, and the capitalism model as we know it, are being challenged and questioned because they patently alienate most people from production processes. We have become mere consumers and not co-producers.
One gets this sense of the powerless consumer. Is this mindset filtering into our communities and our behaviour?
I definitely agree. It is powerless. It disenfranchises the end user, it alienates the consumer in the intellectual sense, and sanitizes some of the wastefulness. So instead of feeling guilty that we are wasting something because we don’t have any emotional attachment to it, we don’t think twice about throwing it away. We create these massive dumps, which need not be the case.
“It is actually in our interest as designers to co-create with the consumer, because then they start to appreciate our role and our work even better.”
What then is participation in design?
Participatory design is almost a reaction against taking the end-user for granted. We’re saying that there is an embedded or tacit knowledge which the consumer has that will enrich the design process. Designers too can learn something in this relationship. We learn more about the context and the consumer becomes more visually literate, more design conscious. It is actually in our interest as designers to co-create with the consumer, because then they start to appreciate our role and our work even better.
Is co-creation the vehicle of participatory design? Is it how you imagine design projects to work in the future?
I feel that there might be a hybrid of solutions. For me this is about the philosophy behind the relationship between end user and designer. The ethos is one of mutual respect and actively engaging the consumer as someone in whose intelligence we trust. Previously there was an assumption that the end user was not visually literate or savvy. They don’t know what design is, so they are irrelevant to our quest. This is very ably demonstrated in the RDP housing, where architects previously designed structures for people and, as soon as the occupants moved in, they would totally reject the house because they said it didn’t resonate with their aspirations. I think participating in design will increase the level of ownership of the end result. The consumer or end user will feel that it is something they contributed to and therefore feel certain affection or affinity for. We as designers can’t take the consumer for granted because they end up rejecting the design solution no matter how well meaning we might have been in our intention.
The late Steve Jobs has been quoted saying: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Would you agree?
I would say yes and no. If you do not educate the participants in a focus group and you don’t equip them with the tools that they can relate to, then by all means the focus group is just going to tell you what you already knew. On the other hand, if you give them the kind of tools that allow them to speak in a very sophisticated manner, focus groups can work. For example, in participatory design we develop tools like games. Sometimes we design cards with the actual design statement on the back, but an image on the front. This allows the consumer to talk to us in his or her language. What I’m suggesting is that we stop using jargon. We truly alienate the end user by using very technical language. It’s also been found that if a product appears to be almost complete and ready for market, focus groups are less likely to criticise it.
I think Malcolm Gladwell would agree with you on that.
He’s one of my favourite writers. In my doctoral thesis, I quoted something he says in Outliers, where he talks about community. I do believe that we are all products of history and community, opportunity and legacy. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell debunks the myth of the self-made man or woman. We all benefit from mentorship and good will and support from community. This is what informs my philosophy about the need to acknowledge that we have a debt of gratitude to the communities that produce us. Designers are not outside of the community, they are part and parcel of it. To grow out of this environment and create an elite clique of designers that looks down on the very community that built them, that validated their humanity, is fundamentally wrong.
How did we get here, to this place of design dictatorship?
Personally, I think that it emanated from the Industrial Revolution. Specialisation required people who were essentially human robots. You were reduced to the one who bolted up a certain section of a process, and in a sense were dehumanised. In the Renaissance era, you found people like Leonardo da Vinci. He was an artist, architect, engineer, anatomist – he never tried to define himself along one line. He was just human, a creative human being. I think we lost this because of hyper-specialisation and the need for efficiency and high levels of productivity. In the process, artificial constructs like retirement ages came in because people were seen in terms of how many years of labour could be physically extracted from them before they became a liability to the process. Because of the need for efficiency, people were reduced to designer’s robots who performed tasks and designers started then being driven more by the agenda of their clients, and in many instances, the client’s bottom line, which was really just profit. As the saying goes, “whoever pays the piper, calls the tune”, the designer’s loyalty was to the client and to industry.
What do you think is making people start to question the way things work, and seek out more give and take, more participation?
We’re now seeing the repercussions of unbridled consumption and wastefulness. Fortunately, the social consciousness of so-called consumers has grown simultaneously. Designers have done damage to their environment by producing more products simply because their clients say so, without any responsibility to the environment or to other people. We only focused on profit, we forgot about people and we forgot about planet. We are now being called to account just like all systems. The more informed people are, the more aware they are, the more militant, and the more accountable they hold designers for their actions. This is a good thing. It means we now have to justify firstly our existence as designers and secondly, try to right the wrongs that we have done as a profession by being more conscientious and socially responsible.
And this is what you mean by transformative design?
Transformative design means firstly that designers seek to genuinely improve the quality of life of all people, not just their clients. Secondly, it means relinquishing some of the power that we assume we have. Transformation is about changing from one state to another. We are moving from the Godsigner Complex to a place where a designer is immersed in his or her context and therefore starts to become more attuned to the actual aspirations and needs of the people. It doesn’t help us to create a small clique of very wealthy and privileged people with masses of unemployed people who are unhappy and living in houses with sick building syndrome. People are becoming more aware of their rights, more demanding of the need to participate in all levels of activity that involve them in some way. If I can participate in elections in terms of governance then I should have a say on the kind of product that I get. For me this is an extension of that social consciousness, it’s a natural progression. A progressive designer should embrace this, and not wait for it to force them to change, because change is going to happen either way.
How do you think designers in Cape Town can become part of the solution to Cape Town’s problems and South Africa and Africa as a whole?
I think we need to listen more. We need to spend more time with some of our community members. Some of these contexts are not particularly glamorous, but they are real, and this is the reality we deal with. We’ve argued in our bid that Cape Town’s bid [Cape Town’s bid to become ICSID World Design Capital in 2014] represents or resonates with at least 90% of the world’s population. If this is true, then we have a moral obligation to honour this by engaging genuinely and in an authentic manner with our communities. In doing so, we can unlock an energy that could fundamentally change the world as we know it. If 90% of the world subsists in the kind of environment we speak of, imagine what would happen if that 90% was suddenly empowered to make the right choices to live more sustainably and take more responsibility for the planet that we live on, and for co-creating more sustainable products in the future. I think it would be such a powerful and exciting time to live.
Are there any projects in Cape Town that are currently running or in development are starting to reflect notions of transformative design?
The manner in which technology, the architect and the community came together to work on the Design Indaba 10×10 Housing Project is a very good template of how housing should be done. You look at cost, but you also look at how people can be involved in co-creating their own housing. For me, the best example of what I call the expanded field of design is the new Bus Rapid Transit System. I feel it celebrates design to the greatest extent of any system that I’ve seen in the city so far because it brings together graphic designers, with signage and maps, interior designers, with bus interiors, industrial designers, with ramps and systems that allow for access, urban planners, architects – a one-stop-shop. If you want to see what design can do for a city, take a ride on the My Citi Bus. Preferably go with someone who has a wheelchair or needs to use a cane to navigate. Suddenly see through their eyes how empowering this new system can be and how transformative it can be.
What has been the response from communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, to BRT? Are people using it?
I’ve read of many interesting stories where people who were normally stuck in a particular part of the city are now able to travel safely and reliably on their own to other parts of the city, visit friends, relatives, and neighbourhoods they hadn’t seen for a while. What for me would be even more encouraging is to see that system deployed to every part of our city. Then it becomes a truly unifying process. One of the things I argue for is that transformative design unifies. BRT has that potential to reconnect physically, intellectually and culturally, different parts of the city in a way that nothing else can. Other designs could have local impact but this can potentially change the way we navigate, we visit each other, the way we interact with other communities, through a very unifying platform. This is how I see design that it becomes a platform that unifies an entire city, a community and our society.
So getting on a bus becomes more than just travelling – it’s about a whole lot of other things. To what extent do you teach young industrial designers about this holistic approach, about creating an experience through design?
This I do by default. In the beginning when I started teaching it was a hard sell. But time has vindicated this thinking. The biggest thing that has changed people’s mindsets is the global recession. Business as usual is not business as usual any more. Entire societies’ lives have been disrupted. It was an opportune time to start ushering in a different paradigm, a different way of thinking. I encourage my students through my interaction with them. Usually it is more of a dialogue. One has to be careful not to be too prescriptive because it can generate a reaction. We talk about it and I’ve been really encouraged to see that this has become increasingly the norm. Our students are now involved with projects in the Fringe [Cape Town’s new design and innovation district] and in their communities, looking at the broader application of design to spaces that were previously not dealt with. For example, we’ve had a master’s student who was engaged with inmates who helped make clothes for children with HIV/Aids. Connecting two communities that previously would not be connected unless a designer intervened is very gratifying. It’s what makes design such a powerful, humanising force.
“The key is to get more designers into places of leadership. Get more designers to become political leaders. Get more designers to influence the developmental agenda.”
You’ve said that ubuntu finds expression through participation. How can citizens participate in public and urban design processes?
In Botswana they have something called community courts where a certain level of jurisprudence is allowed to the chief. If someone steals someone else’s chicken, you don’t need to waste the court’s time by taking him to the city. The village can actually convene a meeting and find restitution for both chicken owner who was deprived of the chicken and offender. The entire community comes around and agrees on the decision. It is more sustainable and it reinforces the social equity and cohesiveness. Society becomes more connected. It can be replicated in our cities. The key is to get more designers into places of leadership. Get more designers to become political leaders. Get more designers to influence the developmental agenda. If designers are embedded in developmental teams that are involved in different projects throughout the city, they can bring participatory design to the process. If we involve some design process in what city officials are doing, it could actually improve the situation.
Could you give an example of this?
SARS [South African Revenue Service] tax returns is a good example. An Australian service designer by the name of Buchanan was asked to try to improve the experience of submitting one’s tax returns. The old forms were incredibly complex, cryptic forms and the return compliance rate was horrendous. The message then by SARS was: if you get caught out we’ll nail you. Through the intervention of this designer I think we are down to almost 2 pages of returns and the spirit is “keep your forms and we’ll ask you for them if we need them. We trust you – please help us make the society calm by paying your taxes so that we can support other people.” And what has happened? The compliance rates have gone through the roof. This is a design intervention that shows you the power of design. It’s an important example of how one designer, in a space that is not usually associated with design, could actually improve multiple domains of interaction in a very profound way.
What are the negative implications of placing your trust in people and inviting them into the participation process?
I have to admit that participatory processes by their very nature, because they rely on consensus, are often not as efficient as top-down approaches. Look at what happened to the taxi recapitalization. Because you want consensus, you cannot actually move until you get it. Sometimes events overtake the plans one has. It is a risk and threat to participatory processes. But with technology, like crowdsourcing, you can still have very participative processes much more efficiently on an even larger scale. In the Botswana example, which I gave, the pace of life is slow enough to accommodate the deliberation process. But you don’t need that. We have the technology to allow for electronic proxies, and to still do the same thing but much more efficiently and more generally by crowdsourcing.
Do you think design competitions will play a role in this and should communities be allowed to participate at every level?
Competitions by their very nature are public calls for participation. I think it is disingenuous to say the least for one to make a call for competition and yet not allow the general public, that firstly submits the entries and secondly perpetuates or campaigns for the success of the competition, to be involved in the actual selection. There are many ways for competitions to become more participatory where you can involve the public voting through a Facebook page or text messaging.
So it is almost the opposite way that most competitions have operated in the past?
Exactly. Then when someone wins, like on American or SA Idols, they have a massive following, because people feel that they actually do count. The public invests in this because it is open to them. It is the interest of anyone running a competition, particularly a public competition that seeks to improve the quality of life of people, to enlist the participation and contribution of all citizens.
In our country where there is limited access to Internet, how does one get the reach you’re talking about?
We can use electronic kiosks. They could be put in a public place where people can interact with them. With modern technology you can include biometric systems or card-reading systems, combining that in public space to open up a much larger possibility of interaction and participation. I think the future is going to be a lot more exciting if we allow for what the technologies are capable of doing. Of all the regions in the world, Africa has the fastest growing mobile telephony. We are now using it even for banking. In Kenya we have what we call M-Pesa. The ‘M’ is for mobile and Pesa is a Swahili word for money. It allows for people to send money across countries, across cities, without going through banks. In fact M-Pesa is now available in South Africa through Nedbank. This is very innovative and publicly accessible. So if we use the very clever people we have who can do programming and through participatory focus groups can come up with what people actually want and need, I think we can come up with ways of encouraging higher participation, even with basic technologies. We don’t always need to have computing. It is ideal, but that is also utopian. Almost everyone has a cell phone in South Africa, so why not use that technology?
Where would you position the future of design from Cape Town globally?
I mentioned earlier that I feel that Cape Town represents a very unique sense of diverse city that is rare to find in many other parts of the world. We have an industrially advanced economy context as well as a developing country context – or what I call majority world context realities. If Cape Town demonstrates the power of design to transform people’s lives, it would set the precedent for other cities in how they engage with their citizens. Cape Town’s contribution to the future is to do it right: to demonstrate the transformative power of design first to its own citizens and its visitors, and then to the rest of the world where others may use it as a benchmark.
Is there such a thing as authentic African design?
I can think of authentic African designers, but not authentic African design, because authenticity comes from a place of purity and honesty and being true to oneself, whatever that truth to oneself is. Africa by nature has always been eclectic. We have influences from all over the place. Look at our languages – they are incredible diverse. I don’t think there is any one place that can speak of authentic African design. We do have regional expressions of authenticity. The Ndebele have a unique style, as the French or Irish do. I see Africa as being a place where this eclectic-ness meets, with something very powerful then coming out of that mixture. I celebrate variety. I don’t believe in homogenized solutions. In fact I fight rather aggressively against the concept that there is one idea that would suit every one. Instead, if every community had enough confidence in what it does and then through a distributed network is able to share with other communities without necessarily having to be forced to adopt systems that are not necessarily their way of doing things. I would feel that that would be the best way forward. Everyone is African, and I speak from an anthropological point of view and an intellectual and philosophical point of view. Africa is far too complex and diverse to have a singular style or a design. We have elements that are found everywhere and elements of others find expression here as well. There are elements of what we think is African that are simultaneously universal and vice versa.
Is our local design in any way a response or reaction to western concepts of design?
I don’t see it as a reaction. I see it as a building of confidence. This is a problem we’ve had in developing countries where people assume that the imported or exotic is superior to the local. We’re getting to the point where there is a vote of confidence in local – local is lekker. This means that I can trust my own influences, which I’ve always had but I’ve ignored because I was looking out at some exotic solution to these creative problems. It is a vote of confidence, first in oneself as a designer and second in the community that supports the designer. It’s not so much a reaction as a coming of age.
What role does aesthetics have to play in designing for transformation?
I think aesthetics is embedded in people’s aspirations. The quest for universal beauty is a human quest. We want to beautify that which is around us, from traditional communities that used scarification to mark their bodies to the vibrant colours that we display in clothing and on buildings. So I believe aesthetics is critical but I also believe that it should not skin over something that is not fundamentally beautiful. Beauty is also structural. It’s in the way that the entire product is conceived and put together. What we call the aesthetics, the overall appearance, really skins over beautifully constructed and beautifully conceived ideas.
Do you think it has the potential to make or break the success of a design?
I believe that if something is beautifully constructed, then it will also be beautifully clothed. Sometimes people try to use aesthetics to cover up bad design. Authenticity needs to be one of the key elements then. If it is aesthetics with authenticity then I’ll be much more at ease.
By authenticity you mean?
What you see is what you get. If I have a beautiful finish on my Apple then everything within it must function as beautifully. I don’t want something that crashes every second minute but it looks really glamorous and beautiful.
Onto the bid. How are you feeling a week away from decision day?
In terms of what’s at stake, this is going to be my most exciting week of my life, in a professional sense.
In your bid, you mention something about the need for an iconic structure. What is this?
I have been a big admirer of communities that memorialize their histories. Public structures that capture the imagination and aspirations of people remind them of their greatness. Cape Town stadium is an example. Every time I see that stadium it reminds me that we hosted the best World Cup ever. If we come up with a building or a structure or a public space – whatever it is – it has to be of epic proportions. It has to be something that invites admiration and also includes as many people as possible in that space. I think it would help us to celebrate our collective creative aspirations. It would have to be a collaborative project between designers and residents.
Why is Cape Town’s World Design Capital bid for 2014 so important?
It is important for designers because it will demonstrate the efficacy of what I call design thinking. Importantly, it will usher in a new relationship between designers and consumers. This is big, this is a World Cup for an entire year. I want everyone to start thinking about it. What can we do? How can Cape Town break away from its segregated and spatially differentiated past and become unified. What are the projects that can bring us together? What else can we do to celebrate our oneness as a city while still respecting our diversity? I’d like to see much more interaction between communities. Maybe that’s another reason why we need these iconic spaces.
Do you think apathy is something that has come out of years of powerlessness?
Apathy is a response to attempts at participating and constantly being shunned or shut out. The younger generation, my students included, is going to change the way people fundamentally relate because they don’t have the baggage, they don’t have the history and prejudices that some of the older folk have. They think more about possibilities and less about limitations. I think that is a refreshing way of looking at life. We do have a lost generation of some of our elderly people who are not going to change no matter what you tell them. I believe we should invest in the younger people because they have the power and the will to change. We now need to be a bit more generous and switch into legacy mode. We need to ask what can we do now with what we have to mentor and help equip the next generation of leaders and future South Africans? If the future belongs to them, the most gracious thing for us to do is to facilitate it for them.