Oxfam Design Framework

A framework for graphic designers working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and content within Oxfam Australia

This framework was developed in June 2014 (while I was working in the Design Studio at Oxfam Australia) in conjunction with Oxfam Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Image Protocols developed by Terri Janke and Oxfam Australia’s Strategic Plan.

“Designers are obliged to consider how graphic design might be assigned to support strategic and operational business objectives, to confront social issues in an organization’s macro and micro environments, and to identify conceptual frameworks that could guide desirable roles for design” (Sauthoff, 2004, p.43).


This project highlights the need to foster both organizational approaches, and the development of an Australia design culture that combines global trends with the essential and differentiating qualities of Australia. This is particularly poignant for an international organisation such as Oxfam who is committed to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, reducing the Indigenous health gap in Australia, and leading partner for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition in Australia.

There are a number of frameworks that advocate and facilitate the integration of cultural protocols, when working with or researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (Bostock, 1997; DHS, 2006; Janke, 2002; Scott, 2002). However, there are a lack of guidelines and codes of conduct when working with Indigenous people, their culture, beliefs and motifs within the field of contemporary graphic design in Australia (Australia Council, 2007; Janke, 1998; Kee, 2013).

It is important to recognise the diversity and complexity of the many different Indigenous cultures in Australia. Ways of dealing with issues and cultural material may differ from community to community. There are also many different protocols across the diversity of urban, rural and remote communities.

The establishment of a framework for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and designers within the Oxfam Australia organization encourages culturally appropriate working practices, supports the recognition of Indigenous heritage rights, and promotes communication between all Australians with an interest in visual communication. As Terry Janke, Indigenous cultural expert advocates, “there is potential for a range of professional associations to develop and adopt codes of ethics in association with Indigenous people (1998, p.37).”


This research had four overarching and interrelated aims.

1. To acknowledge the lack of ethical indigenous representation in contemporary graphic design in Australia through literature review and analysis

2. To examine current processes surrounding the creation of indigenous graphic design in Australia and internationally

3. To describe my own professional experiences as a graphic designer working with Indigenous artists within Oxfam Australia

4. To present a case for the development of a series of recommendations for non-indigenous graphic designers when working with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team in Oxfam Australia


Examining graphic design’s capacity to become ‘a visible part of the ongoing living narrative of culture’ raises questions to the makeup of the graphic design community in Australia, and is this comparable to Australian history and society as a whole (Woodward, 2008). The representation of Indigenous narratives within this society are often marginalized, especially in relation to who represents and leads the industry (Akama & Barnes, 2009, p.28).

The Australian graphic design industry needs to develop a better understanding of the social dimensions of design if diversity and difference are to be valued. Australian graphic design’s failure to diversify its ranks and provide a sympathetic work environment for designers from underrepresented groups is illustrated by Akama and Barnes who detail in 2008, Icograda’s Indigenous Design Network INDIGO, produced not a single name of an indigenous graphic designer, and that from 2000–2008 no indigenous student has enrolled in the communication design program at RMIT University (Akama & Barnes, 2009, p. 34).

The current situation, as Vernon Kee 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’ (2013). Design is instrumental both as means to achieve internal coherence and political solidarity, and as a competitive strategy. An improved understanding, and the visible participation of more Indigenous designers would contribute important strengths to graphic design in Australia, extending its creative, cultural and social range.

Situated in the field of cross-cultural design, this project is a proposed inquiry into Indigenous representation in contemporary graphic design in Australia, locating the topic in context of critical review to highlight the need for further research on ethically working with Indigenous people in professional graphic design contexts.

This project presents a case for further research into specific protocols and organizational frameworks for ethical practices when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – its purpose “to justify what you plan to do in order to gain approval for it” (Thornquist, 1986, p.3).

Researcher Reflections

Within my role working in the design studio at Oxfam Australia I am often presented with briefs asking me to graphically represent our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs. We have global brand guidelines to adhere to as designers, but there are no frameworks in place for working with Indigenous Australians or consultation on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People want to be represented. Oxfam Australia currently has protocols for the use of images featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but nothing related to the use of Indigenous designs or iconography.

From an organizational and operational perspective, the use of Indigenous knowledge within Oxfam Australia’s communication materials, has been mainly viewed as tokenistic, and lacking in any defined ethical process.

Internal comments have included that there is no real commitment to representing Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander People in an authentic way that would visually speak to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities. People inside the organisation aren’t questioning the representation of beneficiaries and don’t consider what implication there are for the people we are representing.

Additionally there is an understanding that Oxfam’s communication materials are covered with people of colour, but the building is not filled with people of colour. That non-coloured people are making decisions around how to represent coloured people, and this is seen as being tokenistic and promoting unethical representations of culture and communities, especially amongst programs representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

As a member of Oxfam Australia’s Reconciliation working group, I proposed that the design of our Reconciliation Action Plan, which details our organizational commitment to reconciliation should be designed in conjunction with an Indigenous member of staff – supporting strategic objectives to ‘support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to achieve self-determination by participating in and having leading roles in decision-making that affects their lives’ (Oxfam Australia Strategic Plan 2013-2019).

Artwork created by a local Indigenous artist, and Oxfam employee was used throughout the report. This collaboration was an ongoing process, based on verbal communication around the meaning of the work and the nature of creating indigenous artwork with Australia. My role as an ‘outsider’ of this research, acted as a positive driver during my collaborations in facilitating the use of Indigenous artwork within Oxfam Australia’s communication materials – being able to learn about culture, country and Indigenous knowledge through this process. Additionally, as an ‘outsider’ being able to promote more integrated working relationships within the organisation I felt was beneficial in creating organizational commitments outside the ATSIP program unit.

Researching existing protocols, around working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the visual art and film realms further cemented the need for developing protocols around the specific outputs of graphic design. Existing protocols, such as the work of Terri Janke, provide a great overarching framework when working with Indigenous knowledge, culture and history. However these protocols often include overarching principals and recommendations and do not address specific, nuances instances, that would be necessary within professional graphic design settings, such as the reproduction of iconography, manipulating shape, colour, cropping of designs and/or imagery and the general look and feel of Indigenous representation within communication outcomes.