Stephen Hobbs and Design Curriculum

Design uses the following three (3) topics that are repeated every term in every grade in schools across South Africa:

  1. Design process and factors influencing the process.
  2.        Design in a business context.
  3.       Design theory
  •  History of Design
  •  Design Literacy
  • Design in a socio-cultural/environmental and sustainable context.

Stephen Hobbs is the perfect example of an artist/designer/creative whose work fits into the subsection of topic 3: Design in a socio-cultural/environmental and sustainable context.

Throughout Hobbs’ career he has remained faithful to the city. Much of his work centres on, explores, delves into and deconstructs urban space, using Johannesburg and cities of the global South as models for enquiry.

For many years, Hobbs’ projects as an individual artist and with Marcus Neustetter in the artist collaborative known as the Trinity Session investigate the urban realm. The urban spaces of cities, especially Johannesburg, encompass socio-cultural, environmental and sustainable themes. He unpacks these themes using design blueprints that often conclude as artworks or interventions. A driving principle is to maintain a dialogue with urban space as it undergoes radical changes.  

Through photography, prints, video art, installation, drawings and sculpture Hobbs enquires about his context and creates a dialogue with it. Much of his interest lies in architecture which is directly linked to urban space. Architecture is also directly related to design; it is a form of design. Hobbs’ recently explored architecture in the form of paper engineering by constructing a 3D pop-up book. Text, mind maps, networks, city grids, empty billboard structures, blocked patterns and optical illusions are some of the subjects that were featured in the pop-up book, a melting pot of urban explorations. The pop-up book was very concerned with 2D and 3D forms, which essentially underpins the design logic of architecture. This in turn underpins the socio-cultural context of a city/urban space.

Another example of Hobbs appropriating design concepts is “the Dazzle pattern” from the early 1900’s that was used to camouflage gunships during the First World War. Hobbs’ has used this design in many urban contexts, for instance in DAZZLE, a permanent installation at Outlet Project Room at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria. By painting the dazzle pattern onto a building, Hobbs completely disrupts the geometrical structures of the building. This disorientates viewers’ perceptions of the building, making them doubt their perceived notions of perspective and engaging the viewers’ imagination towards alternative ways of thinking. Isn’t this what really effective design is meant to create, a new and refreshed way of seeing something that you are familiar with?

Hobbs also investigates the actual working spaces in which he finds himself; a further unpacking of his context. He finds the workshop to be a “positive danger zone”, which echoes Johannesburg; a place beaming with productive energies but at the same time equally puzzling and bemusing. The title for his most recent solo show, “Be Careful in the Working Radius” is appropriated from a Chinese construction site sign found in Mozambique. This text was written in English, translating the Chinese characters positioned above it. It corresponds to Hobbs’ creative sensibilities and how some things are lost in translation and how some are gained. This title also echoes his enquiries into “danger zones” or metaphorical sites of construction whether it be in the workshop or the city context. It shows how Hobbs is exploring his environment even in the process of making designs and artworks.


For Hobbs, sustainability is intrinsically connected to training. For a context to be sustainable it must be equipped with the necessary expertise and if someone was to leave a gap in the network, through training that gap will be efficiently filled and the given organisation will remain sustainable. That expertise needs to be carried on and that is done through training. Sustainability requires professional planning. The passing on of expertise needs to be done in an accurate way. Skills need to be continuously developed and language will also play a vital role to keep the cog of sustainability turning.

A good example of a sustainable project can be Hobbs’ pop-up book created in 2013. In order for any project to be successful, one requires a sustainable environment. One needs a multitude of key skills to make the project successful: the artist at the helm, printers, bookmakers, digital designers, accountants, cleaners and administrative assistants. If one of these skills is missing a strain is placed on the system and it becomes less sustainable.

Ultimately Design is a social process. Many of Hobbs’ projects start as large scale workshops that interact with communities. Once needs and views of the communities and focus groups have been taken into account then he is able to refine and realign his design with the context in which it is to exist. One has to speak to the public and to test one’s design before it becomes a product. Design is about broadcasting a very specific, articulated message to a large-scale audience. That is why it is a social process.