With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, meet HOICK, a creative agency and collective based in Cape Town, South Africa.
We were immediately drawn to Hoick and inspired by their work, a strange and delightful mix of experimental art and design. At the center of the studio is Dale Lawrence and Claire Johnson. They talked with us about why it's the perfect time to be a creative in South Africa despite the challenges that designers — especially young designers – currently face.
First, let’s talk about your studio. How did you meet and ultimately co-found HOICK? What made you decide to start your own creative agency together?
Claire: We met at design college twelve years ago. We both went on to study fine art and started freelancing together during our studies, going on to work together at a small studio after graduating. Dale set off to start Hoick and I joined him a while later.
Dale: We had a friend living in London who had approached us to start a studio whereby he would source and we would service clients. That worked well for a while, but we ended up parting ways and focusing more on the local client base we had built. Relying on a local client base was a scary prospect for us initially – South Africa’s design industry can be conservative at times and creative work is often undervalued. A lot has changed since then and many independent creative practices have flourished. We work with a range of very interesting (mostly) young businesses with great energy. It’s a good place to be.
Running our own studio allows us to make our own progress and our own mistakes. We’re able to test different modes of working to see what works for us and have the flexibility to act on new ideas. It’s hard work, but ultimately it makes a big difference to motivation to know you’re doing it on your own steam.
Cape Town was named World Design Capital in 2014 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Is there a strong graphic design community in South Africa beyond industrial design? Do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
Claire: The design community generally come together for cultural and social events (gallery openings, designers’ clothing launches) rather than specific design events. The design, art and fashion industry is all quite fluid in Cape Town, and there is strong support from the Cape Town creative community.
Design- and art-orientated events like First Thursdays and Ladies, Wine and Design and some larger forums such as the Design Indaba, Business of Design, Open Design Afrika and Investec Cape Town Art Fair, bring the creative community, and those interested in design and art, together.
What are the main job opportunities available for designers in South Africa right now? And are most opportunities in places like Cape Town?
Dale: Cape Town has traditionally been thought of as the creative capital of South Africa, but I would argue that Jo’burg is a strong contender for that title now.
Most job opportunities are with digital or advertising agencies servicing corporate clients. It’s difficult for independent agencies to achieve stability enough to grow in size without seriously compromising the standard of their work, so there aren’t many job opportunities provided by studios that are producing good, critical work. It’s a bit of a problem, because younger designers often aren’t able to receive proper mentoring to get off the ground.
That said, there are many opportunities for freelance creatives to collaborate. While the only consistent members of the studio are the two of us, we draw from a large network of independent creative people depending on the needs of the project.
South Africa has been called “the rainbow nation" due to the range of cultures, languages, and religions there. Does this diversity influence the design coming out of South Africa in any way? What specific influences or styles do you notice?
Dale: I think South Africa still has a long way to go to achieve the multiculturalism and the integration of diverse tastes and aesthetics we are striving for. Slow progress in economic transformation and the Western-centric status quo have lead to many (most) not embracing each other’s points of view as sources of inspiration, rather than points of difference.
It’s a great position to be in as an artist or designer in South Africa; our attempts to create work that speaks across cultural divides will hopefully contribute to a greater understanding of each other’s cultures in the greater scheme of things, and to the realization of South Africa’s founding vision of an overarching culture built on the celebration of diverse viewpoints.
The contemporary art industry stands out as the most progressive of our industries in this regard. Artists like Athi-Patra Ruga, Zanele Muholi, Billie Zangewa and Igshaan Adams are among the most accomplished of the new generation of South African artists. They are making massive strides in the creation of an African aesthetic that is representative of the vast multiplicity of the people of Africa. There are also those, like Manthe Ribane and Dear Ribane, who are breaking the barriers between music, performance and art.
Speaking of art, you both have post-graduate degrees in the field of art and design. Is it common for designers to seek a formal education like this in your community? What is the quality of design education like in South Africa?
Claire: It is fairly common for designers to have diplomas or degrees in design, communication, advertising or fine art. Also, the crossover between fine art and design has become quite fluid – the two practices inform each other and strengthen the depth and scope of work.
There are some very good design colleges where one can obtain degrees and postgraduate diplomas, but as yet there are not opportunities for masters degrees in design. This is something that will hopefully come with time, but people seeking master’s or doctorate degrees in design fields have to do them in Europe or America. There is a big gap for a master’s degree in design in South Africa.
"Countless fresh and important design voices are lost as people are unable to break through into the creative field."
What are the other unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Claire: Trust and bravery. Most South African companies are highly conservative and tend to look at what others are doing to guide decisions. Some local brands want to push the envelope (in theory) like they see some international brands doing, but are too afraid that their audiences won’t “get it” and commit. They don’t give the public enough credit. Design doesn’t need to be didactic to communicate effectively.
Another huge challenge is education. There is so much potential that is lost in the creative industry because of limited access to studies and training, and the high cost of higher education in South Africa. Countless fresh and important design voices, and their messages, are lost as people are unable to break through into the creative field.
Cost does seem to be a large barrier overall. I read that South Africa has the seventh-highest per capita income in Africa, yet poverty and inequality remain widespread. When talking with designers from countries in similar positions, they explained good design is considered a luxury for this reason. Is that the case in South Africa?
Dale: It is the same here. It is assumed that people with limited economic means simply require access to inexpensive goods and services. The sad result is that this becomes an excuse to offer poorly considered, cheap things that are unsatisfying and often cost more in the long run, while companies profit from their lack of concern. High levels of inequality contribute to those statistics.
With regards to communication, businesses are often scared that more unique concepts will “go over people’s heads,” which becomes another excuse to offer generic services and communicate them with generic designs that satisfy no one.
It is less that design is a luxury, but rather that many businesses in South Africa (particularly the large ones) are content not understanding their audience, because their audience often has no alternative but to use their product – so there’s no incentive for them to change.
You mentioned that when starting Hoick, you decided to work with local clients. Is that still the case?
Claire: We’ve worked with international clients on several projects, but currently most of our clients are local.
It makes a lot of sense for international clients to work with South African agencies: the cross-pollination of our different contexts and points of view makes for very exciting work, and the exchange rate is beneficial. But in our experience it only works out well if the client has made the decision to work with us based on merit and character, never when price is the main motivation.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Dale: We rely mostly on word-of-mouth and people finding us through projects we have done before. We find it works best when clients and collaborators are directly familiar with work we’ve done and are specifically looking for our approach.
Claire: We use our Instagram account as a behind-the-scenes, as projects often take a while to finish and we want people to know what we are up to. It’s less a tool for getting new business than it is for keeping in touch with peers.
What does good design mean to HOICK, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues it faces?
Dale: Good design is attentive, experimental, brave, honest and transparent, rooted in its context and of the moment; specific to its context but broad in its reach. It captures the essence of a subject and is flexible enough to evolve with it. It is simultaneously unique and universal.
Claire: Design has the power to communicate without words and across languages. Any tool that can help people understand each other better will be powerful and important for the future of South Africa. That is the main hurdle we as South Africans face right now, to understand and communicate better.
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from South Africa that everyone who might be not familiar with the South African design community should know?
And now to our final question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the South African design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Dale and Claire, thank you very much for your honest and eloquent answers. I'm inspired by your work and excited to learn more from South Africa's design community.
To see more of Hoick's work, check out their website right here. Be sure to also visit Claire's website and Dale's website to see their individual art, and explore the resources they shared here as well.
And until our next interview, catch up on the Design Around the World series featuring studios from Iran, Armenia, Brazil and more.