member news: stellenbosch academy of design and photography (south africa) announces BA (honours) in visual communication within an african context

11.11.2019 Member news

"Detritus Heroes" by a current photography student in the new Honours BA at Stellenbosch Academy

Our Educational Members are known for being adaptive, finding new ways to shape their programmes and thinking to meet the changing needs of design students. A recent design education initiative by Member (South Africa) is a great example of the kind of innovations sweeping through design schools: their design faculty having recently created a new BA Honours in Visual Communication with an emphasis on an African Context.

The new BA programme at the Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography incorporates debates around decolonising the curriculum and African modes of knowledge, worldviews and how these shape design, art production and visual communication more broadly. To find out more, we asked Anabelle Wienand Honours Coordinator and Visual Studies Lecturer in the design faculty to tell us more about the programme:


01 What prompted this initiative to create a new BA in design at Stellenbosch, and who led it?

The Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography has offered a BA in Visual Communication since 2003, and grew its initial subject offering of majoring in Photography and Design to include Art Direction, Multimedia and Applied Illustration Design. The Honours was developed in 2017-2018 in response to a growing demand for an Honours degree so that students who wished to pursue an additional specialist year could do so. It also meant that students who wished to study further abroad were able to do so since many international degrees are four years. 

The Academic Head Dr. Ian Marley was instrumental in initiating the creation of the Honours degree and led the initial curriculum development and structure of the degree as a whole. As the Visual Studies head I was responsible for developing the Visual Studies component of the degree.

The Honours curriculum builds on the undergraduate degree and the Visual Studies and Contextual Studies subjects draw from a range of disciplines (History, Politics and Philosophy, Cultural Studies etc.)

02 Can you tell us more about the programme itself?

The BA Honours in Visual Communication at Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography, with an emphasis on the African Context, aims to provide students with access to knowledges that they may not have encountered in their undergraduate degree. The BA Honours in Visual Communication offers students the rare opportunity to produce a self-directed body of creative work that develops skill levels matched with theoretical and contextual understanding. The subjects are comprised of Creative Practice, Contextual Studies and Visual Studies.

An exciting and enriching component that students participate in is a Creative Exchange in a neighbouring African country. Students are placed within a creative agency or organisation to work on a short-term collaborative creative project.  The value of the Creative Exchange is evident in the altered perspectives and insights that inform their future creative production. The culmination of this exchange is presented at a collaborative feedback session in the host country and later in the year at the Creative Dialogues forum at the Stellenbosch Academy.


"Detritus Heroes" was in collaborating with a local fashion designer to make superhero characters who are tackling plastic pollution. The project as a whole tells the story of these super hero figures raising awareness of, and tackling the issue.

A key aim is to enable students to develop the ability to critically engage with diverse examples of visual culture and reply with both verbal and written responses. In addition to engaging in independent research and writing a thesis, the seminar series forms a core component of the class-based learning where students present ideas in response to readings. By linking theory and practice Visual Studies aims to enrich and enlarge student thinking with the intention of producing critically engaged visual communicators. 

An important part of the Honours degree is the reiterative creative cycle that students engage in as part of their practice-led research project. This creative process aims to equip students with the skills to work independently where they are able to critically reflect on and improve upon their work. A process book, blog or film that documents the whole year’s creative process is also a degree requirement.

The outcomes of the two theoretical subjects comprise a range of written responses and a Visual Studies thesis. The aim of the theoretical subjects is to inform the creative work that the student produces. We firmly believe that students who have had to grapple with ideas and contemporary thinking develop stronger work because they are critically engaged. 

With these skills we intend that our Honours graduates will enter industry with a strong portfolio that reflects their thinking as well as their creative capabilities.

03 There is a strong emphasis on linking theory to practice, with a focus on critical writing and response.  Can you give some example of thinkers and/or key readings the students will be working from? How is the African context approached, and why now?

The two theory subjects are Contextual Studies and Visual Studies

Contextual Studies draws on a range of theory including design theory with an emphasis on the ways in which design has shaped our world (urbanism and cities, technology and design, design and culture etc.).  Some examples of readings are:

  • "Design activism. Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world" by Alistair Fuad-Luke (2009) 
  • "An introduction to design and culture: 1900 to the present" by Penny Sparke (2004). 
  • "The rise of the creative class. And how it’s transforming work, leisure, community, and everyday life" by Richard Florida (2002)
  • "Globalization – the dangers and the answers. Open Democracy" by David Held (Undated) 
  • "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking" by Richard Buchanan (1992) 

Visual Studies explores three broad themes over three terms in order to develop critical engagement with our position as creatives and designers in the Southern African context.  We see a lot of global interest in African creativity and use this subject to critically engage with this and interrogate self-authorship, identity and subjectivity. The subject also looks at debates on decolonising the curriculum and also looking to African modes of knowledge and worldviews and how this shapes design, art production and visual communication more broadly. Some of the courses are:

  • African and Western Subjectivity in Conversation
  • Challenges and Celebrations: Globalisation, Hybridity and Visual Culture
  • African Futures and Visual Culture

Students study authors such as Selby Mvusi, El Annatsui, Menkiti Homi Bhabha, bell hooks, Nederveen Pietersen, Binyavanga Wainaina, Achille Mbembe, Kodwo Eshun ome and read

The African Philosophy Reader. 2013. Edited by Coetzee and Roux.  


04  How will BA thesis be presented and shared, and what impact will this have?

The blog and films produced by students are not part of the thesis. The thesis is written for Visual StudiesCreative Practice has a practice-led Research report which reflects on the creative cycles throughout the year and is assessed together with the final creative work and exhibition and portfolio. Students share their work via a range of platforms depending on their subject (websites, printed portfolios, framed work etc.) 


ico-D wishes to thank the design faculty at Stellenbosch, particularly Director Barbara Frassler, Academic Head Ian Marley, and Visual Studies Head Annabelle Wienand for providing the content for this Member story.


ico-D Member profile: Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography
Official website: Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography