Peet Pienaar has shown that local design can compete with the best in the world on its own terms. Now it’s time to design the future of South Africa, beginning with design itself.
Words by Graham Wood (originally published in ELLE Decoration South Africa.)
‘Ninety-nine percent of designers work for less than 10% of the national population. Does that mean this 90% of people have no design needs? Is that not where 99% of the need for design is?’
That, in a nutshell, is the starting point for Pienaar’s vision for the future of design in Africa. The role of designers in South Africa and Africa needs to shift so that it serves the needs of the majority. ‘Design is not addressing the most pressing needs in South Africa: poverty, transport, schooling, and job creation,’ he says.
Pienaar is one of the country’s most distinctive, original (and awarded) graphic designers. At around the turn of the century, he shifted away from his career as an artist, practicing mainly in the realm of performance art, and became a designer, preferring the realm of pop culture to high culture.
He is perhaps best known as co-founder of The President, a design agency, and the Toffie Pop Culture Festival. He also launched Afro magazine, a kind of manifesto for graphic design itself, which raked in international awards (one grand Prix Clio design award, two gold One Show awards in New York, two gold Clios in Miami and one gold pencil at the D&AD in London).
He created proof of his own conviction that South African design could and should be part of a broader community of excellence. It should do so, however, on its own terms, not by aspiring to be ‘as good as’ other international design.
Peet developed his instantly recognisable design language, a kind of Afro-pop aesthetic, deliberately not copying or aspiring to the precedents set by Western, Northern or developed countries. Instead, he drew on the patterns, colours, fonts, and methods of urban commercial pop culture: hair salon signage, shop windows and political posters would be obvious examples. Peet’s style is identifiably South African, doing that remarkable thing that the best design does – it communicates to us across boundaries in a distinctive language we intuitively understand, share and feel comfortable with, without for a moment feeling regressive or laden with a nationalistic agenda.
In the way that Swedish chairs, German cars and Italian clothes are simultaneously of their place and global – in fact, the very fact of their being identifiably of a place is what fuels their international appeal for them – Pienaar’s designs became international. He found himself doing T-shirt designs for Comme des Garçons, graphics for the New York Times, MTV in Argentina and magazine covers in Hong Kong, as well as a host of lauded local designs, some of the most recognisable of which include Bos Iced Tea.
Pienaar opened an office in Buenos Aires in Argentina, opening up his field of influence and inspiration. Once again, rather than seeking ‘Northern’ validation, he saw much in common between South Africa and South America and thought that the two counties had more of value to learn from each other than the more developed nations of the north could teach them.
Thinking in design circles in recent years has turned towards ‘design thinking’, and the potential a design-led approach to systems, strategies and spaces, cities and societies, might have to bring about positive change.
In Pienaar’s graphic design we can already see evidence of the power of design to change the way we feel, see ourselves and each other. In his quest to serve the 90 percent, Pienaar’s thinking has turned towards this broader conception of design, but particularly certain types of public space: Factories, school rooms, public transport, hospitals, and urban design.
Good design humanises our world, and in doing that, humanises us. Design is a way of shaping the future or making the future we hope for actually come into being. Every classroom should feel like the best classroom in the world, every factory a vision of the future. He refers to the psychology of spaces. ‘If you really have the best, you feel you are worth the best,’ he says. ‘It makes people living around proud of their neighbourhood and start to have ripple effects in all sorts of good directions.’
On a more particular level, space changes behaviour. ‘Consider how differently you behave in a church than in a club,’ he explains. The quality of public spaces, from the interiors of the public transport that commuters use daily to the urban fabric of cities themselves, have the power to influence our behaviour. Taken to its logical conclusion, he says, ‘Space could eliminate violence.’
But how to design the social and economic conditions that would produce such designs in the first place? Pienaar imagines designers, psychologists, architects and engineers identifying our greatest needs. He sees cities creating profitable companies to fund design projects, international bursaries for top students who are sent to the best international schools. He sees panels of international business experts identifying start-ups, mentorships to support and develop the best ideas. The idea that will sustain it, he says, is profitability. ‘Through their profit, such companies will help solve serious problems,’ he says. By harnessing the power of design, investing in it and making it part of the solution to our most pressing needs, the future is shaped and the cycle sustains itself. Thus a society transforms itself.
But it needs to begin somewhere: with a vision. The basis of design, after all, is thought made visible. True to his roots as a graphic designer, and with the richness that has gone into his unique design language, Pienaar has expressed his vision for us in four remarkable illustrations and a diagram.