Supporting a community through design: Melville Johannesburg



Media & Communications Design


  • visual communication, collaborative research, cultural influence, good citizenship

In 2012 the Melville Community Development Organisation (MCDO) approached the Department of Strategic Communications at the University of Johannesburg for a collaboration between the University and the Melville community, with the support of the Melville Residence Association (MRA). These Melville institutions requested groups of Honours students to research and propose a solution for the urban degeneration within the area, as perceived by its businesses, tourists and residents. After extensive research the majority of the Honours students in Strategic Communications recommended that Melville should follow in the footsteps of the Madibeng area and Braamfontein, both in Johannesburg’s central business district, as well as other international examples like London’s Camden Town and Overhoeks, Amsterdam, to design a brand for the area.

The University of Johannesburg’s Department of Graphic Design BTech class of 2013 was consequently approached to apply the research in the form of a brand for Melville. From interviews with various stakeholders and interested parties within Melville, however, it became clear the community's more settled bohemian residents pride themselves on their individualism, and that they would not be open to one singular brand for their suburb. Their response correlated with a similar reaction in Hamburg, Germany, where residents openly rebelled against what they perceived as a brand that was enforced on their community without their approval (Beckman & Zenker 2012). The interviews also confirmed the theory of user experience design that socially responsible design should in practice not be about the designer, but rather about the experiences of the community utilising and viewing the designs.

The sixteen Graphic Design students were thus tasked with identifying an existing challenge or community initiative and its stakeholders, with the help of the MCDO and MRA. By supporting and strengthening, or creating new so‐called sub‐brands, the perceived 'umbrella' brand of Melville
could potentially be strengthened. The end‐goal of the project was implementable design solutions that could potentially boost tourism, bolster economic growth, encourage new residents to buy property and stimulate community participation. This paper reflects upon the challenges and complexities inherent in the task of urban regeneration through branding and presents several case studies of the Graphic Design students’ design solutions, including how problems were perceived and conceptualised and how the designs were received by the Melville community and individual stakeholders.

In this paper I argue that communication design can be positioned as a discipline that can help solve problems within communities in impactful and innovative ways, if the community is allowed to be involved in the shaping of the project. By framing design projects as a problem-­‐led praxis situated within and constrained by complex communities, students learn skills that allow them to enter the world as aware innovators who feel comfortable approaching communities to offer support through socially relevant and responsible design.

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