Presentations by Advertising and Marketing industry: Transformation and the Graphic Design Sector

19 October 2004

This document has been prepared by the South African Graphik Design Council (think) to apprise the Monitoring and Steering Committee: Transformation of the Advertising Industry regarding the transformation in our particular segment of the industry.

think was set up 3 years ago with the aim of uniting and representing the graphic designers of South Africa. Heretofore, there was no representative body solely for this sector.

Many of South Africa's most influential practitioners in this field are members of think, When the monitoring committee was established think did not have sufficient members to generate meaningful statistical information about the sector. At the beginning of this year we set out to establish a comprehensive database. By last month (September) we had accumulated names and addresses of 572 individuals and small businesses across the country engaged in the information design business. This is the first time such a database has been compiled in our field. We believe this may constitute about 75% of formal persons & firms engaged in the sector and in future think will be able to contact far more designers than before.

Meanwhile we can offer the following information about the sector as well as some educated opinion on the status of the transformation process.

The Industry

The graphic design profession underwent an evolution over the last quarter of the previous century. Previously graphic designers were almost exclusively to be found employed in the studios of advertising agencies, printers, and publishers. However in the past 2 decades the vast expansion in the area of technology and the subsequent rise in the level of sophistication of the general public has altered the requirements for communication in every area of society and has created visual information needs distinct from the traditional products of the advertising industry. The democratisation of technology has also had a profound effect on the population: anyone with access to a computer with the appropriate software and little training can call themselves a graphic artist!

As a consequence of the above there has been a proliferation of graphic design firms worldwide - no less so in South Africa. However the nature of the work is very personal and individualistic and does not lend itself to large groupings of practitioners.

There are of course graphic designers who are employed in other areas of the marketing industry e.g.: advertising agencies, marketing organisations, publishing and printing works and by some large corporations that maintain their own information design departments. These corporations whose core business might be almost anything, employ vastly more persons in other occupations - many of which do not require high skill and long educational preparation - and therefore have a broad and varied base to effect transformation.

However, purely graphic design firms are almost exclusively micro enterprises. The typical independent graphic design firm usually consists of a single designer/owner, or perhaps two. Quite a few are home office businesses and many have no employees. Only a very, very few comprise more than 8 - 10 persons. As a matter of fact, there are perhaps just 4 or 5 information design firms in the entire country that employ more than 50 persons. While those firms that are larger than micro aim to fill other positions with black personnel, it is still the aim of think to encourage the training and development of black designers.


Presently the training institutions are making good headway in attracting black students but have not yet managed to produce the number and quality of black graduates that would transform the graphic design sector. It is however important to point out as well that the number of these institutions is increasing - evidencing the fact that there is a growing number of young people coming into the field. The education ministry has also put pressure on non-accredited institutions that previously 'graduated' up to 2 500 students a year! Invariably these students were PDI's, who grew disillusioned with an industry that, though they had a dire need for new talent, could not absorb inadequately trained students.

This disillusionment led to the abandonment of design as a career choice in subsequent years. Whilst we have noted over the 3 years of our annual students award programme that the numbers of black students entering has increased from 5% to about 15% from accredited institutions, the number of pupils choosing design as a career path remains low.

Graphic Design makes high professional demands. It requires specific talents and artistic aptitude, high creativity, left-brained orientation, drive and enthusiasm. These raw materials then need intensive training both creative and technical, which, up to now in SA, has been a 3-year course but is in the process of being extended to 4 years. The technical training is in several specialised computer programmes that are only used in the field of graphic design. Compounded with this are the barriers of entry to an accredited institution, a portfolio of prior work, technical and drawing skills, and the private college fees!

There is a considerable attrition rate in first and second years as the training process is difficult and relatively costly. Moreover, as we have explained, only the larger firms are able to absorb new graduates and consequently, at the end of the training period only the most talented and qualified are likely to find employment in established organisations.


At the beginning of the nineties graphic designers embraced the concept of transformation. It was an idea and an ideal to which graphic designers (more artist than businessman) were drawn. There was a genuine wish and will to remake the status quo. Yet ten years on significant transformation is still some time away.

By joining together under the banner of the SA Graphik Design Council (think), graphic designers have been able to exert more influence than they might as individual small practitioners. Through think they support an annual student award programme and a bursary programme that aim to attract black youth to the profession, to promote excellence and to ready them for entrance into the professional world. think believes that through these efforts it is helping to move the sector towards a steady albeit gradual transformation.

think also believes that the preponderance of small and micro businesses will remain the norm for the sector and that transformation will occur not as much by the intake of black designers into extant firms (although this will increase) but rather in the same way in which the industry has always grown - by the addition of new micro business entities established by the entrepreneurial efforts of young black designers coming into the field.

In addition to the above comments, think would like to make proposals in respect of a way forward toward measuring transformation in our field.

  1. The BEE Monitor's questionnaire is meant to be applicable to any kind of organisation however it is quite frankly intimidating to very small firms. think believes that as far as 90% graphic/information design firms are concerned, the form is unnecessarily complex. First of all the principal is often owner/manager/technician/sales person and receptionist combined. Moreover he/she is a 'creative' first and a businessperson second. We would strongly recommend that a "short user-friendly version" be devised that would result in much higher rate of compliance.
  2. That we offer suggestions on how SME design firms can aid transformation using suppliers and supporting of BEE companies, training, etc.
  3. think's newly developed database is now available to us. In principal we can now sample a sufficient number of persons/firms to produce meaningful results to establish base line information in our field.
  4. Finally, such a research and census programme cannot be undertaken without some financial and/or human resource aid. We understand that the committee does not have any such resources to assist us in the task, but we believe that we cannot be successful without this help.

think (South African Graphik Design Council) can be contacted on:

Tel: (011) 781-4079
Fax: (011) 781-4093
Email: ail: