Ithateng Mokgoro, graphic designer and branding specialist, is a quiet man. You often catch him looking into the middle distance, as if he sees more and further along space and time than the rest of us. But that does not make him a dreamer. Ithateng has had a varied, cross- disciplinary background in the creative industries and is a force to be reckoned with in the design world.
Trained in architecture, he has started a business in experiential communications, and has co-founded a design and branding consultancy. Ithateng’s great passion lies with what he terms the interconnectedness of things; from there he gets his passion for TED, a non-profit organisation devoted to ideas worth spreading. Ithateng is curator of TEDxSoweto and TEDxJohannesburg – independently organised chapters of the global conference TED (www.ted.com).
With a wealth of experience under his belt, Ithateng has done work for a wide range of brands, from local start-ups to global giants. His clients have been based in Johannesburg, London and New York, and he has developed work for markets in South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. He has judged industry award shows, and is a former board member of the South African Graphic Design Council and current chairperson of the board of Melodi Music.
Another passion is the Mandela Poster Project which Ithateng and his wife Kelo drove with zeal, together with the MPP Collective, a group of volunteers who made the collection of 95 extraordinary posters happen in 2013. Read more about the SABS’s acquisition of these posters elsewhere in the newsletter.
But over to the man himself:
On a personal level:
Why and how did you become a designer?
Growing up as a little kid in Kimberley and in Postmasburg we didn’t have much; except for our imagination. We had to create our own toys – trains out of bricks, cars out of wire. From that I started developing a passion for craft-making and drawing. I was fortunate that both these skills were encouraged and reinforced at primary and in high school. Then I saw my hometown being built from scratch – the town formerly known as Mmabatho, then capital of Bophuthatswana. A fantastic guy from Mozambique called Zé came over to our school and gave us extra Maths and Science lessons on weekends. He made me understand 3D representation. Suddenly I could see things I shouldn’t have been able to see. I was blown away. And so I packed my bags and went to study architecture at the then University of Natal, now UKZN. I then got terribly frustrated with the restrictions that gravity can put on architecture’s ability to communicate. Because of that, I somehow found myself settling in graphic design. Since 2003, my wife and I have been running our design studio Gamatong Enterprise. And we’re having a lot fun doing that.Was there a defining point in your career, and if so, how did it shape you as a designer?
I discovered TED online back in 2006. I haven’t stopped talking about it since. I think TED made me understand the interconnectedness of everything — that it is in the space between things that magic happens. Now my view of design is totally different from what it used to be. If you are involved in arranging elements of any type with some sort of intent to optimise your resources and with a specific end-goal in mind, then you are probably a designer. This definition includes just about anybody involved in any meaningful endeavour – policymakers, hairdressers, football coaches, writers, engineers, marketers, and more. Design is a much bigger word than we make it out to be.
Who is/was your mentor?
Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Diego Maradonna.
What part of the design process excites you the most?
For me the act of making is a miracle. A simple thought becomes the operating system for a set of seemingly unrelated atoms and suddenly a useful item with a specific purpose comes into being. Profound stuff.
In your profile you describe yourself as an Activist, Architect, Brainstormer, Change Agent, Connector, Entrepreneur, Idea generator, Marketer, Parent, Philanthropist. Which one of these roles fits you best and how do you incorporate all these roles in your life?
For me these are all linked – they are different parts of a chain. Ultimately though, what lies at the very end is philanthropist, if philanthropist means a person who tries to make life better for all and is willing to give without reserve to make that happen. The poorest person in the world can be a philanthropist — if you’ve got an idea, a skill, a heart, then you can give. If you perform your duties for the benefit of humanity then you’re truly alive.
What do you regard as the greatest success in your career to date?
I think the work that we do at TEDxSoweto and TEDxJohannesburg is a blessing and a privilege. The range of people that we get to work with, the thinking, the ideas — all of them are shaping the future of this part of our world as we speak. And yet, TEDx is a global movement, with many people working independently around the world. Still, they’re all connected by this insatiable desire to drive meaningful change through the power of ideas. The platform gives all of us a role, albeit a small one, in curating the discussion about our collective future. These are early days still, but I’m expecting a lot to come out of TEDx.
About design in South Africa:
What are the unique qualities of the SA design industry?
I’m a firm believer in the arrow of provenance—the idea that things are shaped by their origins, affected by their experience, and driven by their aspirations. To be competitive around the world, South African design should embrace the rich diversity of its origins while keeping a close eye on where the world is going. While we’re at it, we should be alive to the
fact that technology has changed almost everything and most things no longer work like
they used to. We should be making things for this new, uncertain and ever-changing world. I
personally can’t remember the last time anyone asked me for a business card and yet for
some reason, we keep churning these things out of our studios. Also, the industry needs to
evolve into more of a thinking partner to our clients—we need to move up the value chain
and start influencing what goes on at the top of organisations, but we need to do this
without becoming less of a doing partner and while expanding the range of our service
offerings. My suspicion is that if we don’t fill this vacuum then the management
consultancies will. We’re already seeing signs of that happening.
What are the greatest challenges for the design industry in SA?
Hubris, parochialism and opacity. It will be a good thing if South African designers can be
more humble, more global in their outlook, and more open to connections within the
industry, between disciplines and across geographical borders. We are a small community
and yet there are lots of little groupings that want to have nothing to do with each other.
The result is that we’re not making the kind of leaps we should be making, and we’re
therefore not able to lead and to shift thinking in our clients and in society. We’re also very
stuck in our ways and in our own little corner of the world. We’re not making the impact
that design industries in the US, Europe, Asia and even South America are making. Where is
our Ideo or Fjord or frog design going to come from? Where’s the South African Yve Béhar or
Bruce Mau or John Maeda? A more unified view and approach to design will break down
barriers and expand markets.
What are the greatest opportunities for the design industry in SA?
If we put down our guard, open our minds and reach out to complimentary disciplines we’ll
expand public awareness of design, broaden potential for business and improve the general
quality of the stuff that gets put out (some of it in our name). Take this simple example -
compare two recent events: Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at FNB Stadium and his
funeral at Qunu a week later. While the memorial service was haphazard and messy, the
funeral was solemn and dignified. The memorial service embarrassed us all, and the funeral
made us proud (more or less). From where I’m standing, the difference was in the planning,
attention to detail, aesthetic sensibilities and propensity for empathy. These are all qualities
that flow from the process of design. If whoever was responsible for the memorial service
had anticipated the fact that Nelson Mandela would die at some point, and that South
Africans would need to coordinate a whole set of activities as a result, and do so with the
world watching, then they might have done things differently. They might have arranged for
professional directors, producers, scriptwriters, graphic designers and performers to
conceive and shape the event. That’s probably how they’d do it in Germany or even in
China, and it would have made all the difference. This kind of opportunity exists in many
other areas of South African life - in education, provision of healthcare, sanitation, managing
demands on the electricity grid... Name it, and design can do it. The point is that designers
know this but everyone else in South Africa doesn’t. That’s the gap we need to close.
And finally, what tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in design?
Do it to make a dent in the Universe, or go hom