Looking inward

The post below is based on a presentation given at the DRS 2016 in Brighton UK around inclusive design within a communication design context in Australia.



It’s important to place myself within the research, firstly as a non-Indigenous Australian. As a nation we have a rich and complex history.

At the same time, I’m inherently ‘western’ – my way of knowing about the world is dominated by my western family, culture, and education.

Professionally, I’m a communication designer and my design training is based on & inspired by European design principals & practitioners.

I’m also interested in design research, looking into how communication design has the ability to represent culture, identity and value.

These overlaps in practice and research, identity and culture are the focus of this presentation. By acknowledging my own ‘western’ culture and working with others, I think my role as a designer can become more inclusive.

The motivation for this research came from my experiences in professional practice, where I would be asked to graphically represent Indigenous Australians in numerous campaigns and design materials.

When talking Indigenous friends and colleagues, common comments were that non-indigenous people (like myself) are continuously making decisions around how to represent indigenous culture in Australia. It was acknowledged that this misrepresents the diversity and complexity of indigenous groups and is often tokenistic.

The presentation sought to raise a few questions:

1. How can we increase indigenous narratives in Australian communication design?

2. How do we go about this? – from the unique position of Australian, yet Western communication design practitioners and researchers.


The strength and beauty of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander artwork is recognised the world over and it inspires a great respect for some 50,000 years of continuous culture & creativity. Yet when art merges with design, this success has often sparked exploitation.

I’ve been given permission to share a story about Indigenous artist and elder Wanjuk Marika, (some of his publicly available works are displayed below)


In the 1970’s Wanjuk saw a tea-towel for sale with one of his sacred bark paintings on it – produced without his consent.

He said: ‘This is very wrong. This mustn’t be seen. If they are, my people will die’

Now, we shouldn’t take this statement lightly. Who are we, as outsiders to question his belief that a reproduced design will result in people dying? We’re interacting with an ancient profound culture – full of spirits and dreamtime stories.

On the other hand the non-indigenous designer wouldn’t realise that this is more than unethically copying someone’s work. He may not understand that this mass reproduced tea-towel could result in some form of cultural or spiritual death.

It’s no surprise then, that communication designers are worried about ethical use issues around indigenous content. And that Aboriginal visual culture seems to remain largely absent from design.

Problem context

I see two main challenges around this issue.

The first around a lack of understanding – that most Australians and people working in communication design have little understanding of the issues involved in working with Aboriginal people In fact, six out of ten Australians have no contact with Indigenous people at all.

This is best illustrated by Indigenous artist and designer Vernon Ah Kee, who describes: “most Australians and most folk in graphic design have little or no understanding of the issues involved in working with Aboriginal people, design and artwork”

As designers, I think we’re happily influenced by other’s work, and often appropriate styles – it’s inherent in communication design practice.

But this lack of understanding around cultural reproduction and mis-representation, is possibly based on white designers’ fear of simply talking and asking.

The Second central issue I see, is around proper consultation – best summed up again by Wandjuk Marika: “Whilst wanting to protect ourselves, our art and culture for future generations, at the same time we are eager for the world to witness it’s beauty and strength … To retain a jealous hold is not our desire, but we must realise our responsibility to safeguard this heritage”

Shouldn’t we then, as designers, have some form of responsibility to showcase the beauty and strength of Indigenous Australian culture with the international design community?

My project seeks to open the door to question how things ‘should’ be done – in order to create a truly inclusive way of working between Aboriginal people and communication designers. That this fear can be dismantled to promote the incredible culture and creativity of Indigenous people in Australia and contribute to a uniquely Australian communication design community.

Looking to the literature around Indigenous creativity in Australia, we see contemporary forms, such as video art, radio and new media create new ways of creatively engaging with traditional culture.

Results continuously show that when given control over their own representations, Indigenous culture shines – no matter what the medium.

So the question remains. Why is there a lack of Indigenous visibility in communication design when all other mediums have successfully created unique contemporary indigenous forms?

How can we get past the cultural fear? How do we make this incredible culture a visible and viable part of our own design practice?

Case studies

Looking internationally at different ways of working with Indigenous groups, similar issues emerge. Although these projects aren’t focused on specific communication design outcomes, they do explore different frameworks on inclusive practices with indigenous people.

I’ve highlighted a couple of examples, that broadly reflect common occurrences in the literature.

Firstly through looking at a participatory design project in Namibia around creating a digital knowledge system, the research identified that concepts of participation aren’t actually universal – or equal. ‘Participation’ has its own meaning within different cultures. That while striving for ‘participation’ designers still maintain control over the creative outcomes.

This sense of inequality, was reflected in numerous studies. That designers have the technical skills, and thus hold the power. The challenge in Namibia was translating indigenous knowledge into digital creative forms – while trying not to fit them into pre-conceived Western project outcomes.

Looking at co-design approaches, and in this instance, using an example from Argentina, we see designer’s miss-appropriate Indigenous artisans work. Much like Wanjuk’s tea towel, it might seem like a simple use of cultural material to make a cool tribal design, but the designer, who sits outside the sacred cultural knowledge – can’t know the true implications and it’s potential repercussions.

Designers are usually not experts on indigenous communities, but they hold the power to represent them. Often the indigenous meaning is suspended, and in this case from Argentina the designers became the owners of the designs, and are paid significantly more for the outcomes.

These examples highlight the power that designers have (and the fact they might not be aware they have it), and how often it’s justified as culturally inspired, or co-design. These projects make more visible the challenges in working with Indigenous groups.

Yet these challenges can also lead to new opportunities. Although complex, I think this places communication designers in a unique position – being able to learn about indigenous knowledge while facilitating some incredibly unique design work embedded with thousands of years of history and meaning.

All authors, have pointed to the importance of relationships and trust and that creative outcomes are directly impacted on by these understandings.

Research Approach

Figuring these complex relationship challenges out, leads to the key question- HOW do we achieve true participation and inclusive ways of working? To answer this, I explore a combination of approaches which I think could lead to both parties being able to work together without fear or distrust.

A decolonizing perspective is significant to this research, as it’s a way of redressing the power imbalance between indigenous participants and western researchers. It allows us to question why indigenous voices are marginalized in Australia.

When we then look into applying principals of Transformation Participatory Action Research, or TPAR, we again see these relationships shift.

This approach presents us with a strategic way forward – being able to educate designers (about their potential lack of understanding) while empowering communities.

Drawing on a practice-based approach, Donald Schon’s ‘reflection-in-action’, allows the designer to enter the process without fear of getting it wrong – or causing potential cultural death or destruction.

Schon’s reflective practice helps us frame creative processes as situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and conflict.

When we combine these frameworks – we get something that could potentially transform communication design projects. I’ve combined these approaches into my suggested model for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture.

Inclusive design model


This is my suggested model for inclusive design practice, which applies principals of TPAR and reflection-in-action within a specific communication design context.

It seeks to present a way forward to create more indigenous visability in Australian design. The creative project is turned into a more circular process of learning and sharing.

It lets designers enter without knowing all the answers – that the best way to learn is to do, and to get involved.

The outer circle is the ‘doing’ – or the actual creative process. The inner circle is focused on communicating – understanding, learning and consulting.

I’m hoping the adoption of this suggested model could lead to more inclusive practices, by not presenting the creative solution as the only outcome. Relationship building, skills transfer, and knowledge sharing are key components. They work to reduce misappropriation and miscommunication.

The limitations of this approach are based around navigating equal authorship and payment.

This process would also considerably extend a typical design brief and this would need to be navigated with clients.

Further research is required to test this proposed model in the field – to examine how it would operate at the local cultural level.

Additionally, more research is needed on the unique role of the communication designer when working with marginalized or indigenous groups – as their role merges researcher, co-creator and facilitator.

Communication designers bring their ability to combine all these different elements into a visual dialogue. This merging of intellectual, technical and creative activity happens throughout the model, with designers being adept at overseeing the full design process.


The proposed approach discussed today encourages more involvement, ownership and participation.

Communication design is a reflection of culture. I believe that having more Indigenous visibility in design could reduce racism and create more empathy. It would be interesting to see designers embracing the unique culture of Australia, rather than automatically turning to the West for inspiration.

But what if we look inwards.

Imagine what Indigenous Australian Graphic Design could bring to the international design scene?

Just a point I’d like to end in is that I believe working with Indigenous groups expands the scope of the communication designer – as their role becomes more than to just visually articulate and sell ideas to clients. It confronts design in relation to culture and hopefully works to challenge how design can define itself as a discipline.