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How did you get started as a designer? I was drawing before I went to grade school and was fascinated by letterforms more than anything else. Around fifth grade, I was helping my father create teaching aids by drawing on large charts and labeling the drawings, and I enjoyed lettering them. I had not heard of printing presses and thought that all printed materials were done by hand. Therefore, I set myself a very high bar to letter like the newspapers and magazines I saw around my house.

How has the experience of living in Zimbabwe and New York affected your work? When I first arrived in the United States, I’d never heard of “graphic design.” It was only upon enrolling at Indiana University in Bloomington that I realized that what I had been doing all my life had a name. I was a willing student of the modernist canon, which was fed to me by my teachers. I learned from the giants of the Swiss movement: Alvin Eisenman, Armin Hofmann, Paul Rand and Bradbury Thompson. I took it all in, questioning nothing because it was being taught by the best in the world. But after graduation, my portfolio was critiqued by potential employers who saw nothing of “Saki” in my work. Just dry Swiss styling! Will the real Saki stand up, they admonished. At first, I was annoyed at the nerve of these people questioning my education and talking about the real Saki. But eventually I got it.

Since that point, I’ve been an evangelist for “looking within,” and I have attracted many followers around the world. I even “discovered” Afrikan alphabets while I was studying at Yale, and that has changed my life in a profound way. Now, I straddle both worlds and move between and within them fluidly. I am fiercely proud of my roots but also proficient at the Western ways, aware of the rules that I break at will.

Why is it important to offer training across both graphic design and new media at the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA)? I’ve been fortunate enough to live through the numerous changes in the field of visual communication in the United States and around the world. For starters, when I began my studies at Indiana University, everything was done by hand. There were no computers. Even when I went to graduate school at Yale, it was all cut and paste. When the Macintosh was released in 1984, the whole industry was going digital, and I had to learn how to use the Mac on the job. QuarkXpress became the standard for design and layout, even though PageMaker had been the original program for that. Software like Photoshop was also introduced, completing the transformation of the design field.

Desktop publishing was born soon after, and it took the world by storm, both in good and bad ways! Anyone who had a computer and the prerequisite software thought they were a designer. We saw some seriously bad design in those days! Designers could only stand by and look helplessly! Then, in the ’90s, the second revolution happened, transforming the field in a way never thought of before. All of a sudden, designers were not only working with type and still images, but also sound and motion! Type became kinetic, images were animated and sound was added. The multimedia artist was born.

Having been brought up on radio, I’ve always had a fascination with sound and video. We never had a TV growing up, but I was still quite captivated by moving images. My father gifted me with a still camera, and I became quite the photographer. So when video cameras like the Sony Handycam were introduced, I made the leap to that medium with all the zest of an excited kid! By the time the idea for ZIVA was fully formed, new media had become the thing, so it was only natural that ZIVA would offer training in both graphic design and new media. We were on the cutting edge of design and technology.

I am fiercely proud of my roots but also proficient at the Western ways, aware of the rules that I break at will.”

What advice do you have for a designer who’s struggling to keep up with new tools? Don’t struggle! Be like a duck to water—that’s how it is for young people, anyway! More importantly, they are just “tools,” and they’re not the point! The point is “design.” You can master all the tools in the world, but if you’re not a good designer, your work’s going to be crap. At ZIVA, we prioritize learning design. One has to go to school to learn the rules—so that you can break them later—and learn the basis of design, which is “problem-solving,” and the whys and the hows of design. It’s easy to catch someone without that foundation, the hacks of this world.

What are some changes you’ve seen in design education since you first founded ZIVA? In design education, the biggest change has been the advent of the “transdisciplinary,” also called the “interdisciplinary,” which is the breaking down of the walls dividing different disciplines. So, for instance, design is now just design, cutting across graphics, furniture, fashion, interior, architecture, textile, industrial and product. There are no more walls and no more boundaries! Today, the clarion call is decolonization of design education! The colonized are demanding a place at the table. We’re like, “You colonized our minds and fed us a staple of colonized design. No more.” We want inclusion, design that comes from the individual—our varied environments, our cultures and ourselves—and doesn’t force your sensibilities upon the rest of the world. This is a big thing that’s still playing out, and I think the end result is going to be incredibly exciting.

You are also a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary Shungu: The Resilience of a People. What lessons have you learned as a filmmaker that you find useful as a designer? It’s all design after all! I enjoy photography and so, as a director of photography, I use the same rules from the still world, whether it’s photography or design. I think they both inform each other.

How does the creative community in Zimbabwe inspire you? Zimbabwe is a very creative country. There’s art everywhere, including music, dance, theater, the whole lot. I love being here and get inspired at every turn.

In 2019, you gave the keynote address for the first-ever Pan Afrikan Design Institute Conference in Ghana. What was the experience like? Epic! I have graced some of the top stages in the world as far as design is concerned. But to do it in Africa is certainly the stuff dreams are made of. It was my proudest moment, and the most important address I’ve given to date.

Who are some designers you admire? Diego Giovanni Bermúdez Aguirre, Neville Brody, Simon Charwey, Sylvia Harris, Zelda Harrison, Steven Heller, Francis Kéré, Chaz Maviyane-Davies, GM Meave, Sindiso Nyoni, Eddie Opara, Ima-Abasi Okon, Robert L. Peters, Ahn Sang-Soo, Alessandro Segalini, Jennifer Sonderby, Arden Stern, Osmond Tshuma, Teal Triggs, Dori Tunstall and Sadie Red Wing. They’re all amazing designers, but most of all, they’re amazing human beings full of humility and love.

What words of wisdom do you have for a designer who is just starting out? You have chosen the most desirable profession in the whole world. Now go out there and work your ass off if you want to succeed.

Saki Mafundikwa is the founder and director of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA), a design and new media training college in Harare, Zimbabwe. He has an MFA in graphic design from Yale University. After working in New York City as a graphic designer, art director and design instructor, Mafundikwa returned home in 1998 to found ZIVA. His book Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika, was the first book on Afrikan typography. Currently out of print, it will be reprinted in 2021. His award-winning film Shungu: The Resilience of a People premiered at the 2009 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Mafundikwa currently lives, works and farms in Harare.


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