• Interview Excerpt: Mugendi M’Rithaa, Industrial Designer, Educator & Researcher, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa

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    I’m curious what has inspired you to pursue industrial design and where your interest in industrial design came about?

    I was in the United States at some point in my early childhood for four years, and during that time design in America was arguably the most technologically advanced anywhere and a stimulating environment to be in. My dad was doing his doctorate in pharmacy there at the time—so that was my first real exposure to technology and the world of manufactured products. I remember as a child wondering how someone, somewhere sat down and actually conceived the equipment, and the products that actually made the lunar mission possible—that is really where my fascination with design really began. Consequently, when we returned to Kenya, I eventually ended up opting to undertake an undergraduate degree program in design at the University of Nairobi.

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    My lifelong fascination with products comes from a rather different background. Over time, I developed a knack of somehow reassembling and repairing various household mechanical and electronic items. Seven out of 10 times, I would get it right and I think that’s where I developed confidence and expertise in actually disassembling and reassembling products. I was able to extend the lifecycle of a number of consumer items in our home. So after my first degree, I realized that the sub-discipline that most reflected my interests was industrial design, which brought together the synthesis of manufactured products and people whilst being cognizant of how the context of where the product fits in influences such diverse issues. Whilst working at the Kenya Building Research Centre, I was fortunate to be awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship that enabled me to study industrial design at the Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Upon completion of the two-year master’s program, I went back to Kenya and re-joined my alma mater where I helped start the industrial design and interior design programs there.

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    Obviously it sounds like the industrial design community might be a little bit different in South Africa than in the rest of the world. Would you say that’s a true statement?

    The developments are very similar. In fact I’m associated with a design consultancy called …XYZ Design ( and you can see from their portfolio of products that they are a world-class design firm. …XYZ Design is run by three very competent and respected partners who happen to also be really good friends. Within the “expanded field” of design thinking, we offer consultancy in industrial design, universal design, interaction design, service design, and sustainable design, among others. Yet at the same time I think our unique context offers challenges to our role as designers in the developing countries, or more precisely, majority world contexts.

    I argue that designers in our part of the world risk becoming irrelevant to the aspirations of our people, if we fail to demonstrate the value of our profession in a tangible manner. You could say that we need to almost justify the existence of our profession in a sense. There have been engagements with socially conscious design projects. I’d say almost by default industrial designers in Africa must be socially conscious in their design endeavors. If they are conscious or sensitive to the environments they operate within, then they will most likely end up with the significant portion of their work being towards social design.

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    Where would you see design making the most impact in resolving these unique problems that the continent has?

    I have a doctorate in universal design, which is synonymous with inclusive design or design for all. In a sense, universal design is motivated more or less by human rights. Further, I have an equal passion—maybe even more so—for design for sustainability. I see our ways of being and doing here in Africa really making a unique contribution to the global agenda of sustainable design. I feel Africans live sustainably by default, but not necessarily by design. I think design could help sustain that kind of a level of responsible consumption and production, provided that people on our continent appreciate these realities.

    The rather pressing challenge is to see to it that Africa willfully opts not to consume as wastefully as other parts of the world, whilst respecting the right for people to express themselves as consumers. I think that this challenge simultaneously represents an opportunity. We in Africa can contribute towards the global agenda on sustainability, and some of the practices that have been associated with a number of our customs and traditions, which offer really rich inspiration for the “wicked” problems we’re grappling with presently as a human family. This is particularly pertinent in view of the current global recession and socio-economic uncertainty that the world is experiencing as we speak.

    With that being said, what advice would you give to an industrial designer who wants to expand their knowledge of creating these sustainable design solutions without necessarily being in Africa or communicating with the locals? Is it even possible to design without experiencing the environment you’re designing for in the first place?

    I think any designer who does not allow themselves to be informed by the society, the community, is in a sense denying the reality that exists and in so doing is that much poorer from missing out on potentially enriching interactions. I don’t think the challenges and experiences in Africa are peculiar in any sense. The fact is that technology now allows people to achieve ideas across boundaries effortlessly. There’s growing evidence of social innovation where grassroots communities have created innovative social solutions for themselves, like urban vegetable gardens, carpooling or talent exchanges and so on, where money is not the only form of exchange. I’m not speaking of bartering, which is something we’ve moved away from historically, but a new way for people to connect to their fellow community members.

    Globally, people are starting to create their own solutions and I think a socially conscious designer just needs to be aware of and help co-develop appropriate solutions within their communities. There’s something exciting happening. Designers could facilitate the development of service design systems to enhance the ability to effectively communicate one’s activity with the rest of their community. For example, a large number of people do group vegetable purchases or manage urban gardens. Design can facilitate such transactions by helping to create a communication platform and tools that allow people to do those exchanges more efficiently whilst simultaneously promoting conviviality within the said community. I think what we’re saying is that if we participate in these kinds of projects as designers, we become “part of the solution,” in the sense that we start to promote social equity and cohesion through benign design intervention.

    I think as the world becomes increasingly aware of alternative models for consumption and production, we will need to re-engage with our local community. My challenge to young designers is that they become aware of the myriad exciting activities happening right in their neighborhood irrespective of whether one is in Boston, Curitiba, London, Chennai, Brisbane, or Cape Town. It would be wise for young designers to just open their eyes and engage in this kind of design intervention: do something with your local community and prepare to be enriched through the resulting interactions.

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    Mugendi M'Rithaa of Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

    Mugendi M’Rithaa of Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

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