CAPE TOWN -- Once a month designer Lourina Botha and her Studio Shelf colleagues marcate an area on a Cape Town street with yellow tape, setting up a temporary outdoor office in the public eye. In this space, the designers operate their business, design on-the-spot logos, take resumes from design students and give out free advice to local businesses. Studio Shelf call this their "Public Office" project.
At first glance it would be easy to label this an exercise in PR or marketing but Botha explains that Public Office is a social design project that tests the immediacy of design to see what the collaboration between designers, communities and businesses have to offer.
"We don't foresee making any profit from it, but it is in our interest to build our industry and make people more aware of our profession. Instead of telling them, we believe in showing them. So we will only succeed if we manage positive change, however small," Lourina Botha says.
She explains that the aim of Public Office is to expose a wider section of the city to design. "We truly believe in the design as an agent for change but not when it is confined to boardrooms and offices. It is very important to us that design is not separated from the real world and we are passionate about the ability to solve social and business problems through design thinking," she says.
In the designer's view, working in public demonstrates that design is not a lofty idea, but rather something that is accessible to everyone. For the studio, Public Office is a reminder that they design for real people, not just other designers.
But the Capetonian admits that working in public can sometimes be challenging. "It is quite hard to be so exposed and we easily feel vulnerable. We also have to take the good comments with the bad and give each equal value," Botha says.
Botha says that businesses have been particularly enthusiastic about being involved and hosting the studio for a day. "The last day out was at the public square near the Cape Town Stadium and even there we weren't harassed by any officials. We are getting very positive feedback and requests for collaboration from the rest of the industry and from academic institutions," she says.
So far Botha and her colleagues, Rachal Watson, Benoit Ruscoe and Meghan Adams, have had held three open-air events, all in different locations around Cape Town. These regular events are part of Studio Shelf's field research into how design residencies can be of use to the local community.
The Public Office was inspired by another project that Botha was involved in while she was studying a Master of Arts in Creative Practice at the prestigious Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design. In 2011 Botha and spatial designer Lena Kramer operated a pop up design consultancy in the East End called 'Let's Talk Shop' to help local shops to improve their businesses.
Through the London experience Botha developed a toolkit for regenerating high streets which she has taken to Cape Town. "The toolkit is related to the work I have done in London exclusively", Botha says. "The toolkit is open source and we would love other designers/agencies to do the same thing. The methodology have been incorporated by some London councils."
Lourina's design residency concept places designers at the heart of the problem and applies design thinking as an overarching strategic process to define and workshop solutions. In this instance, Public Office is at the beginning stages of defining what these would be in the Cape Town context.
"Cape Town is still quite a broad space for us and I look forward to using our days out to refine and define our audience and space," Botha says.
"We are attempting to gather information about Cape Town communities and spaces and determine where design intervention will yield the most capital. Once we have defined a location and an audience, we will set to work on a design residency inside that space. It's a long process, but hopefully this will be as rewarding as Let's Talk Shop was," she says.
Recently Studio Shelf collaborated with Creative Cape Town to look at problems around waste management in Khyaletcha. The project was briefed by the Social Justice Commission and forms part of the overall Cape Town World Design Capital 2014 framework.
Photo: Rachal Watson, Studio Shelf.