Design activism from Africa

As we enter the second half of 2019, taking stock of where we are going for 2020, 2021, and into 2022, I find myself going back to my notes from the Design Indaba Conference and the creative minds that drive design – and systemic change – within a number of key industries. This is design for the 99%, focused on improving quality of life in Africa and around the world.

Who inspired me the most? Everyone from fashion designers to poets, students to starchitects. Design Indaba is about design activism and activating creativity in the 21st century. These are some of the most compelling comments from the conference – with links to the video presentations here.


“We need to see ourselves as people of radical hope. We have the opportunity to see the black men and women in our world as people of joy, creativity, not of pain, suffering or anger. This is what we are and always have been: radiant, curious beings.”

— Wanuri Kahiu, of Afrobubblegum, whose goal is to unearth new African rituals around the feelings of joy. Her controversial, award-winning film, Rafiki, is an African, same-sex love story.

Wanuri Kahiu

“You can use fashion to talk about things that people are afraid of and not scare them off.”

Adebayo Oke-Lawal, designer of Orange Culture, a Nigerian men’s fashion brand that challenges racial and gender stereotypes. He creates his textile prints in Africa, “inspired by where I am from, not using somebody else’s version of our story”. He has been a finalist for the LVMH and Woolmark prizes.

Adebayo Oke-Lawal

“We were starting to feel as though we were becoming repairmen and women, where every time there was a project, all of a sudden there were all these opportunities for fixing something or for making a contribution towards making something better.”

– Mariam Kamara, architect, Atelier Masomi, currently creating The Artisan Valley in Niamey, Niger in collaboration with Design Indaba. The goal is to inject traditional building forms into the rapidly urbanising city, to integrate artisans and create common ground between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ on opposite sides of the valley.

Mariam Kamara

“When you start with nothing but a feeling of possibility, what are the principles and ideas that can govern your work?”

– Hannah Barry, curator of the groundbreaking Bold Tendencies space in Peckham, UK that creates systems of opportunities: for young artists to make work on a very large scale, for classical music to be performed outside of entitled spaces, for helping young adults from diverse backgrounds access careers in creative industries.


“I am an emotion decoder for an audience. I act as a connector of emotion in words, pace, visuals across the screen. I work from the inside out – the costumes I design have less to do with the external and more to do with the marrow of their bones.”

– Ane Crabtree, Emmy-nominated costume designer for film and television, including The Sopranos, Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale. As an industry outsider, her personal advice is “don’t let others put you into little boxes unless it is the ones you create yourself”.

Ane Crabtree

“I have been ‘listening’ to faces for 15 years. People who say they are white are actually light orange. People who say they are black are actually dark orange. We are all orange!”

– Neil Harbisson, colour-blind contemporary European artist and cyborg activist who has had an antenna implanted in his brain in order to perceive colour through sound. Harbisson says “I feel no difference between software and brain – they have merged. I am technology; it is part of my identity.”


“With machine learning and automated systems – what will our role be in the future? Machines might design better than us so our role might be curating and choosing the designs that machines generate.”

– Tin and Ed, graphic designers based in Australia, work on the intersection between physical and digital design: “We are all part of nature, our cities and technology included.”

Tin & Ed

“With social media, there are more words passing through more people since the beginning of time.”

– Lemn Sissay, poet, playwright, performer. Based in Manchester, he writes a morning poem every day when he wakes up, and tweets it @lemnsissay, explaining that “Doing something creative for yourself on a daily basis, taking a risk that no one understands what it means keeps you alive, creates a body of work.”


“Linear, logical people make the world go around. Creative people make the world worth living in.”

– David Droga, an award-winning advertising executive based in NYC, explains that “people want to get behind things that have belief systems”.

Design Indaba will be 25 next year, and the event will be even more creative and mind-blowing than previous ones. WGSN Insider will inform you later this year on what you can expect to experience if you attend in February 2020.

In the meantime, be sure to check out their website and subscribe to their newsletter to stay abreast of creative thought leadership in Africa and around the globe.

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