“It is never about money. You need passion, and money will take care of itself”: Ravi Naidoo

During What Design Can Do, I had a chance to sit down with Ravi Naidoo after he presented some of the great up and coming talents from Africa. He is the founder of Design Indaba, the biggest design conference in the world held annually in Cape Town, which attracts 45,000 visitors across the entire platform nowadays. Naidoo started the platform in 1995 to allow those in the creative community to share their stories and projects. In the years since, he has completed some remarkable projects, such as the Design Indaba 10x10 Low Cost Housing Project for which local architects worked with architects from other countries to develop affordable, sustainable housing made of sandbags.

Because Naidoo has been working on Design Indaba for over 20 years, I asked him what he would tell himself with all the experience and knowledge that he has gained if he was able to go back to 1995.

“To be fair, it is never about money. You need passion, and money will take care of itself.”

“That would be one of the first lessons. Sometimes we face daunting possibilities with our pants at half mast! How the fuck are we going to make this happen, and how are we going to pay for it? Actually, great ideas and wonderful energy, if you bring that, money follows, support follows, people follow. And so the one lesson I learned: invest in your idea, and the other things actually are a byproduct of that. Focus on that, and make it beautiful and amazing. Put a lot of love in it and energy, and the other bits will follow.

And the second thought would be don’t take yourself too seriously, ’cause it is such a fine line. Design is not a silver bullet; it does not have all the answers. It is a wonderful way of reframing the question; it is a wonderful way of delivering a process as how to do what you need to do. So no one should get too evangelical about this. And one should never ever become very Baptist and happy-clappy about this. We should always be aware, sentient, with our feet on the ground and be constantly open to get in other points of view as well. You may have come in from this design angle, but the answer may be in the economics. Some of the best design solutions I have seen, for example, were 80% economics and 20% design. The beauty is in hybridity; the beauty is in the intersection. And you need to seek more intersections in this world.”

He has a one-word strategic document that only says “Stretch.” But what does he do to stretch himself?

“The one thing you must do is put yourself in uncomfortable positions. That stretches you, ’cause all of a sudden you have to figure it out.”

“Go stand in front of people and make commitments. And make things you want to aspire to. That sharpens your mind. We all must have this capacity to be more. Every day, I find it terrible and absolutely crushing and depressing when I meet somebody who is over 50 who really thinks their best years are behind them.

Make sure that you are stretched and that you exercise your creative muscle as well as you do for your body. Last year’s formula is obsolete, and you need to fight it. You must have a ceremonial burning, and you burn the fucking shit. And you say “What do I have?” and you must start anew. It is seasonal.

Otherwise, we tend to run on the spot and we become these hamsters on a wheel, and we execute a formula and become a circus act. Every Design Indaba is an art installation; it is not a formula. You don’t know what you are going to see next, ’cause we don’t.”