Design and Design Thinking are some of the most interesting subjects to study out there. Now, we’re not just talking ‘web design’ here, but the all round subject of design and designing experiences and artifacts of all sorts. Why is this important? Well, many solutions have been proposed to many of the problems we face in Africa. Some have succeeded but a great many have failed. Why? – Well, more often than not the solutions are not designed to fit the full context of their implementation.


In our first interview, we had a chance to discuss this with Dave Tait (@taitdave) who is a Design Strategist in South Africa.

Afrinnovator: A bit about yourself/your passion?

I was born in Scotland and have lived in South Africa for most of my life. I have a background in art and design working for companies such as Readymade, I have worked for some multinational clients and lately I have been working on  a lot of mobile related projects.

Afrinnovator: What exactly does a ‘Design Strategist’ do?

Design strategy is the intersection where business strategy and design meet, making sure that the aspects of design, whether product, branding and other design disciplines align with business goals. Wikipedia has a good explanation:

Design strategy is a discipline which helps firms determine what to make and do, why do it and how to innovate contextually, both immediately and over the long term. This process involves the interplay between design and business strategy, forming a systematic approach integrating holistic-thinking, research methods used to inform business strategy and strategic planning which provides a context for design. While not always required, design strategy often uses social research methods to help ground the results and mitigate the risk of any course of action.” Wikipedia;

Design Thinking is much the same thing except that it uses the tools of design to tackle bigger challenges. Most of the work I do is design research to identify opportunities for new services and products.

Afrinnovator: Explain to us what exactly you mean by ‘design’. Many people may think it’s ‘just drawing‘ ? Is it multidisciplinary…?

I think most people think design is just graphic or web design, that is one part of design, but there are many more disciplines of design, such as service design, industrial design to name a few. Most designers reach a point where they work in many fields of design because the thinking behind the process is the same it’s just the tools and the output that is different.

Afrinnovator: Why design?

Design is a creative process that solves problems and hopefully improves the user experience creates something new and useful or fixes something that was not working properly. Design also works best when they is a collaboration of people approaching the challenge from different perspectives. Most designers I know like what they do because it uses both creative and analytical thinking.

Afrinnovator: Briefly explain to us the concept of ‘Design Thinking’

Design thinking is using the process that designers use, from identifying a challenge/problem, research, analyses and brainstorming to come up with ideas that can be tested using inexpensive prototypes. Design thinking uses broad exploration initially, then filters possible solution find the best solution. A variety of tools can be used in each part of the process depending on the nature of the problem. Design thinking is a toolbox with instruction manual that can be adapted accordingly.

Design Thinking is gaining momentum not only to help companies but also using it to tackle important social issues.

Tim Brown (IDEO) on Design Thinking

Afrinnovator: What in your opinion is the role of design/design thinking in solving problems in the African context?

I think there is a huge potential to use design thinking in Africa. Africa has its fair share of challenges and many of them have not been solved by conventional methods so far, design thinking can provide an alternative approach. Design thinking uses a human centered approach which means listening to people and finding solutions for their needs, I think because of this empathic approach a more democratic change for the better can occur.

Afrinnovator: Does this mean that solutions borne out of (the African) context, may not necessarily work (in an African context)? Any examples of such ‘failures’?

Yes and no, there are global solutions/products/services that are designed to work anywhere regardless of where they are used. But there are also examples of products or services being adapted or stripped down in the hope that they succeed, but they are not accepted by the end user and fail. I do think products that are designed for Africa should be designed using the constraints that Africa imposes, such as infrastructure, accessability and cultural differences.

There are several stories of failures, from unused machinery because of lack of parts or skilled people who can repair the item. Traditional banks in Africa have essentially failed but mobile banking is taking off because it is easier to use and provides people what they need.

Afrinnovator: There was a lot of talk about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC). The project was recently well, shelved. Is this a case of design out of context?

I think the basic OLPC idea is good; to give access to educational content for children, but the device and the ecosystem surrounding it was not considered enough. The OLPC is a great concept but there are too many additional challenges for it to be able to scale up and become a global platform.

The industrial design of the OLPC was designed out of context, because harsh environmental conditions, durability of materials and availability of parts should have been taken more seriously.

Afrinnovator: Would you care to comment on the efforts by the government of Singapore to redesign their education system? Do we need these kinds of initiative in Africa?

Education in Africa should be given the highest priority, education is important for the future of Africa; the majority of Africa’s population is young, and without opportunities to improve economically little will change for the future generations. Governments from Singapore, UK and Finland invest in well designed educational systems as opposed to South Africa for example which invests heavily in a badly designed education system.

Afrinnovator: What would be the barriers to getting governments or other authoritative bodies to take such an approach in Africa? Would they see the value?

Tough one, governments are bureaucracies that adapt slowly to change or new ideas, I think there is a better chance of business or organizations like the Shuttleworth Foundation making a positive impact. Education is desperately in need of innovation in Africa.

Afrinnovator: The future of design in Africa?

I am very optimistic about design in Africa, I think there are a lot of talented people with potential but the creative economy of Africa needs to grow and play a bigger role. Africa is getting the recognition and interest it deserves now, I hope it carries on.

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