In 2017 Jacqueline Gothe and Jason De Santolo began an iterative process of curriculum development for a design studio with advice from local First Nation Elders and cultural advisers Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, Uncle Jimmy Smith and Nadeena Dixon. The aim of the initial studio was to foreground Indigenous voices, stories and texts. The outcome of this iterative approach over four years has eventuated in the reframing of design-led research methods through a process of decolonisation led by Elders, Indigenous designers and researchers. In this article, the authors reflect on the curriculum design and implementation process over four years, including the response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This final-year subject is part of a three-year undergraduate degree within Visual Communication in the School of Design in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia. The aim is to bring a critical awareness of ways to change practices in order to decolonise design and research for graduating students. The School of Design at UTS is committed to supporting this trajectory and, in this article, we describe a model that seeks to consider the role of the design educator/practitioner/researcher practising on unceded Gadigal Lands, the traditional lands where the School is situated, in the city of Sydney, Australia. This research provides a direction for the continuing re-orientation and decolonisation of teaching, learning and research in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Built Environment, UTS through three pillars of transformational educational experience: cultural and land-based resurgence; Indigenous-centred liberation and self-determination; and reorientation and emergence through decolonisation. This investigation of curriculum development stems from significant education and research that the authors have undertaken in the classroom and on Country.
In order to frame this project of decolonising practice and research in design within a pedagogical context, a land-based approach was adopted to provide a foundation for understanding issues of Indigenous rights, environmental degradation and social justice. In the weekly studio, students are guided and supported with conversations and consultations with Elders and creative practitioners. These sessions are led by Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, Uncle Jimmy Smith and Nadeena Dixon. Aunty Rhonda is a Gadigal/Yuin/Dharug/Dharawal Elder, academic and Traditional Saltwater Knowledge Holder. She has over 40 years of expertise working in the fields of Aboriginal justice, cultural revitalisation, healing, wellbeing and self-determination for Aboriginal Peoples, and she sits on numerous boards and consultative groups advocating for the rights of First Nations Peoples.1 Uncle Jimmy Smith is an Aboriginal educator and cultural practitioner. Jimmy comes from Erambie Mission outside the town of Cowra, New South Wales. He has extensive experience in teaching Aboriginal art, culture and heritage in Australia and abroad. In his role as a cultural practitioner, Jimmy’s scope and breadth ranges from early childhood, primary, high school to university. He has worked with the Australian Museum, EORA TAFE Redfern and Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council as a cultural educator.2 Nadeena Dixon is a Gadigal/Dharawal/Dharug/Wiradjuri and Yuin multi-disciplinary artist, academic and programme developer specialising in Interactive Technology. She is a recognised master weaver practitioner with expertise in the fields of Indigenous knowledges, and experience in developing Indigenous Cultural Teaching and Learning Frameworks.3 This transformational work understands its impact within the studio, with the intention of extending into the workplaces where the voices of the graduates who have gathered capabilities of working with and for Indigenous communities can provide guidance and leadership within the profession and industry.
Context: design, Indigenous rights, climate crisis and social justice in Australia
In Australia, Indigenous Peoples have experienced the power of the colonial project in the disregard for cultural relations and practices by the colonising forces. Australia is the only Commonwealth country to have never signed a treaty with the Indigenous People. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are not formally recognised in the Constitution. More than 200 years after the invasion of Australia by the British, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to experience displacement, loss of languages and disrespect for traditional knowledges. This process of attempted erasure, silencing and appropriation of practices and knowledges often goes unacknowledged.
These ongoing human rights issues aside, the environmental destruction in Australia over 200 years and the disregard of the importance of Indigenous knowledge systems for the health of the environment is devastating.4 Australia has one of the most diverse collections of plants and animals in the world. The degradation of water, land, air and soil has seen the extinction of 54 mammals, birds, frogs and other animals in the wild, and 37 species of flora. Thirty-five per cent of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 have occurred in Australia. This equates to 30 out of 84 worldwide extinctions.5
The land-based approach brings visibility to issues of human and environmental justice as important considerations in the decolonising of design. The focus on design-led research methods informed by Indigenous principles ensures a strength-based approach to intertwined human and environmental concerns as the project of decolonisation reframes design practice and research. In response to the recognition of the studio as part of a colonised and colonising institution, the focus on Indigenous ways of learning and the impact these approaches bring to the learning emphasise the relation of place, responsibility and respect in the practices of design – not only in the studio but also in everyday life experiences. This studio-based subject for a cohort of 180 students runs over a 12-week session. Each studio leader supervises 20 students for a four-hour studio with a lecture offered once a week. Central to this subject is the recognition of the students’ post-academic experience and their future role in the professional world.
Design education in Australia is influenced and constructed by northern hemisphere traditions informed by modernity and reflects the cultural dominance of ideas of progress, growth, industrialisation, systematisation, modernisation, globalisation and technocentric practices motivated by economic imperatives. Central to the concept of progress, in the Australian context, is the hegemony of the dominant ideology of extraction and economic benefit at the expense of the environment, the climate and the health of the people. This is strongly evidenced in the Australian government’s fossil fuel gas-led COVID-19 economic recovery model being rolled out across the continent. The human and environmental justice consequences of the colonial project pose important considerations for the designer and researcher.
Our pedagogical approach reframes design-led research methods by centring Indigenous research principles and issues of social and environmental justice. The Indigenous-led process has been developed through three iterations culminating in 2020 as an online studio experience ‘In Our Own Backyard’, when the global pandemic forced an online delivery of this subject that was framed in relational connection. The understandings described in this research are the result of four years of deep collaboration with Local Elders, Indigenous scholars and practitioners and continuing curriculum change. This investigation of teaching, learning and research in studio is guided by a belief in a transformational experience that creates the condition of possibility for the re-orientation of the future for creative and professional practitioners towards social and environmental justice, relational and respectful negotiation of difference, and the capacity to action Indigenous self-determination in complex scenarios. This living research, led by design, resonates across institutional contexts and inevitably returns to the project of decolonising the institution.
The foundations of the approach to decolonisation: foregrounding Indigenous voices in principles, conversations and written texts
The project of decolonising the educational experience in the context of visual communication design was first delivered in 2018 when we posed the foundational questions for students: How do creative practitioners respectfully and responsibly practise on land where Gadigal First Peoples have never ceded sovereignty? And in what ways can a decolonising perspective informed by Indigenous voices reframe design methods? In each session the students in this subject engage in a range of qualitative design research approaches, including practice-led visual and material exploration, social and participatory methods, and secondary research to produce design outcomes that demonstrate the excellence and expertise of the designer in their professional discipline. Over the past three years we have iteratively considered the foundational questions to understand the social and pedagogical requirements for the education of design researchers in the context of decolonising our educational and research approaches through the respectful negotiation of First Nations’ perspectives and knowledges.
In all iterations that have been undertaken since 2018 Gadigal Elders, Indigenous creative practitioners, cultural advisers and researchers were at the centre of the work and the student experience. This ensured that Indigenous worldviews were considered in all thinking, making and speaking in studio with students and studio leaders. To support the students, our non-Indigenous studio leaders undertook cultural training, including day-long workshops and visits to cultural sites, and were able to consult with Elders if any issues came up in teaching (Figure 1).
The work of decolonising design methods requires a critique and a re-orientation to make visible the implicit perspective of the hegemony of the intellectual traditions perpetuated in the Enlightenment project with assumptions about individualism, the separation of mind from body and the dominance of objective, rational, positivist worldviews. This re-orientation is brought into being through story and conversation with Elders, cultural advisers, researchers and practitioners. The Indigenous viewpoint understands land, body, mind and spirit as interconnected, and this poses a radical critique of the assumptions made in dominant design research pedagogy. How can this difference in worldviews be addressed in the education of young designers as researchers? Fundamental to the curriculum approach was the inclusion of the Indigenous Storywork research principles of respect, responsibility, reverence, reciprocity, holism, interrelatedness and synergy.6 Alongside the principles we created a bibliography of texts written by Indigenous researchers, authors and practitioners for studio reading. These included writings by Linda Tuhiwai Smith on the following 25 Indigenous projects: Claiming, Testimonies, Storytelling, Celebrating Survival-Survivance, Remembering, Indigenizing and Indigenist Processes, Intervening, Revitalizing and Regenerating, Connecting, Reading, Writing and Theory Making, Representing, Gendering, Envisioning, Reframing, Restoring, Returning, Democratizing and Indigenist Governance, Networking, Naming, Protecting, Creating, Negotiating, Discovery of the Beauty of Indigenous Knowledge and Sharing.7 Larissa Behrendt’s examination of the story of the Scottish woman Eliza Fraser, mythologised in literature and film, provides a vital Indigenous perspective on power and colonial storytelling.8 The significance of the reconsideration of history in order to decolonise the colonial narrative is exemplified in Dark Emu (2014) in which Indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe returns to the historical archives of the diaries of explorers using descriptions of their observations and relations with local people to argue for a re-examination of pre-colonial life.9 Mary Graham’s article on the philosophical underpinnings of Aboriginal worldviews and Shawn Wilson’s Research Is Ceremony (2008) emphasise research practices that respect the interrelational connections across research and other practices of living.10 And, importantly, the recent book by Victor Steffensen, Fire Country, describes the value and importance of Indigenous ecological knowledge in the healing of landscapes and revitalisation of contemporary land management.11 These readings become conversation guides with Elders, advisers, peers and studio leaders, bringing visibility to the relational complexity and dimensionality when engaging with design research methods. In this scholarly-based Indigenous approach to research, the emphasis is placed on relationships over knowledge, participation over expertism, holism over specialised understandings, and it requires researchers to honour the participants and the processes.
Alongside these discursive investigations of Indigenous research approaches we also required students to examine the following public documents: the United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Protocols (ICIP).12 The ICIP are based on the right to self-determination and Indigenous People’s rights to their heritage and culture. Heritage includes all aspects of cultural practices, traditional knowledge, and resources and knowledge systems developed by Indigenous people as part of their Indigenous identity. They provided students with some guidelines to understand their responsibilities in working with Indigenous people and projects. Although these protocols are non-legal, they offer a system of rules stipulating the correct procedures to be followed in particular situations. These protocols have been widely used in Australia in areas where the law falls short and provide a mechanism for the protection and recognition of ICIP. The protocols identify the following practices when working with Indigenous peoples and projects: respect, self-determination, consent and consultation, interpretation, cultural integrity, secrecy and privacy, and attribution.
From the field of design, we included the Indigenous Design Charter.13 The Charter is officially endorsed by Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IADV) and peak professional design bodies, including the Design Institute of Australia (DIA) and the International Council of Design (ico-D). Central to the Charter is the principle of ensuring Indigenous leadership. This requires the designer/practitioner/researcher to commit to a process of critical reflexivity and openness in order to decentre the role of the designer in complex relational contexts.14 With leadership and advice from Elders and knowledge holders, this critical process recentres the designer’s responsibility to place, sustainment and issues of social and environmental justice.15 In addition, the developing field of decolonising design provides a Western intellectual trajectory that initiates a recognition of the experiential understandings of First Nations’ perspectives. These texts bring emphasis to the Global South and the contemporary intellectual enquiry undertaken as a consequence of post-colonial experience in the context of social justice and the climate crisis.16
The principles, protocols and readings were further enhanced with talks and lectures by Elders, cultural advisers and Indigenous scholarly practitioners offering descriptions of practices that acknowledged connections between land, body, mind and spirit.17 These perspectives provide students with strategies to ensure a critical awareness of their position as designer and processes of designing in the context of place, community, practice and profession.
Iteration 1: Indigenous perspectives on sovereignty, decolonisation and country, 2018
In 2018, in our initial iteration, we foregrounded Indigenous voices through a series of lectures, conversations with Elders, a set of texts that students were asked to document in an annotated bibliography and individual group discussions in studio. Students were led on cultural walks in urban environments and were shown cultural sites and heard stories in place. Students were invited to interpret, translate and represent a decolonised perspective informed by Indigenous speakers and supported by Elders and studio leaders into a form that we called ‘knowledge objects’. Students established their own direction and produced many varied forms, ranging from three-dimensional exhibitions to interactives, publication designs, films, animations, typographic and image outcomes, either online or in print. The work drew on student experience, histories and connection to place. These knowledge objects were then brought into conversation with peers and Indigenous advisers. Students documented the processes of participation and engagement through conversation. With the guidance of Elders and research advisers, students engaged design-led methods of prototyping, conversations, observation and user-experience sessions. This documentation was presented as a poster to describe the process and included a reflexive analysis to articulate the learning and suggestions for the next iteration.
We noticed that although students understand their role as service providers and are able to use their design skills and creative approaches to respond to complex contexts, the project outcomes often lacked respect for the Indigenous voices. The students engaged in cultural appropriation in their interpretations without an understanding of professional standards, cultural protocols and the political import of representation, particularly language. This manifested as appropriation of publicly available material without understanding the nuanced complexity of permission, responsibility and the limitations of co-design and collaboration that is required for ways of working to provide the conditions of possibility for strength-based work. Deep discussions and conversations often suggested reworking of processes. These interactions were, at times, confronting for all participants as together we began the exploration of cultural exchange through critical engagement with design-led research methods in conversation with Elders and Indigenous cultural and research advisers. The reflection that emerged from this iteration was a recognition of the need to rethink the processes in place. We realised that we needed to increase support for the redirection of the students’ understanding of cultural responsibility in the cultural conversations with Elders, cultural advisers and researchers and to bring more visibility to ICIP rights and protocols.
Iteration 2: Indigenous-led design projects, 2019
In response to the issues identified during the first iteration, in 2019 we partnered with key Indigenous organisations and projects. Briefs were co-designed with Luke Pearson, founder and CEO of Indigenous X, an Indigenous-owned independent media, consultancy and training organisation; Maya Newell, the director of In My Blood It Runs (2019), a film that demonstrates the need for Indigenous-led education systems, developed a brief for students addressing the social impact campaign for the film; Elder Uncle Jimmy Smith developed a cultural heritage project with local walks and stories to provide content; scholar Kirsten Thorpe provided a living archive project with the NSW State Library collection; and Victor Steffensen, senior cultural fire practitioner with Firesticks Alliance, briefed on a visual archive project on cultural burning. These projects mitigated the risk of appropriation but required considerable guidance by Indigenous project leaders and studio leaders, supported by Elders and cultural advisers to ensure professional responses to the briefs.
Students were provided with three weeks of lectures and readings investigating Indigenous methodologies of decolonisation, processes and protocols alongside contemporary design discourses on coloniality and sustainment. They were then invited to choose an Indigenous-led design project that aligned with their design orientation. Outcomes included an annotated bibliography and a self-directed design intervention or mediation through data visualisation, communication design, wayfinding, experience design, service design, written and visual essays, web/social media, interactive including immersive and installation, generative/experimental prototypes, video and animation. This iteration provided students with a context of professional expectations that they were familiar with and also explicitly addressed cultural responsibility and consultation. The Indigenous project leaders were able to work with the students and, in some cases, continued the relationship after the formal semester to build visual material and communication design for ongoing applications.
Iteration 3: ‘In Our Own Backyard’, 2020
In March 2020 when the COVID-19 lockdown began we knew we needed to consider an online model without the on-ground and face-to-face contact with Elders and Indigenous project leaders. Rather than place-based learning experiences such as cultural walks, visits to cultural sites and hearing stories in place, the online delivery created an opportunity for online discussions in small studio groups and one-on-one appointments with Elders and advisers.
In this context of remote learning and social distancing we turned our emphasis to care, which was reflected in the Code of Care that was developed to centre the wellbeing of all in the education journey in an online context (Box 1). ‘In Our Own Backyard’ encouraged investigation through a local pedagogy in which attention is paid to the local ecology, local information, materials that come from your local area such as the local environment, the local library, local institutions and local people.
We come together in this educational circle of trust in exceptional times, colonial contexts for climate crisis, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. As guided by the Elders as Traditional Custodians of lands and knowledges, we honour and respect diverse worldviews and cultures while evoking decolonised design aspirations for a better world.
Respect, responsibility, reverence, reciprocity, holism, interrelatedness and synergy are principles of Indigenous storywork that we highlight as aligning with provocations – ethics of knowledge, living archives, places and wellbeing, and Country.
UTS School of Design is committed to actioning Indigenous self-determination as reflected in the UTS Indigenous Policy and Strategy, the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights and Indigenous Higher Education Priorities. This commitment is embodied as design sovereignty within an Indigenous research and practice agenda and the strengthening of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights frameworks.
During this iteration we developed the idea of Provocations that focused on the themes of ‘Land and Well Being’ with Victor Steffensen; ‘The Living Archive’ with Kirsten Thorpe; ‘Place’ with Peter Wildman; and ‘Ethics and Knowledge’ with Jason De Santolo.
These Provocations were provided as spoken audio and transcribed as a short text for students to respond to. These themes, alongside the principles, served to support the direction of students’ investigations. Online studio discussions between students provided questions for the provocateurs that were answered in an online webinar.
Student and graduate voices
Despite the challenges of online delivery, there has been significant positive feedback from students and collaborators.
Thank you for running this great subject. I didn’t expect to connect with it as much as I did but I came out of it feeling much stronger in my identity as a designer. I felt empowered through talking to the Indigenous Elders. I had never been given that kind of opportunity before and their passion and practicality had a big impact on me. I was surprised at how learning from that Indigenous perspective also led me to feel stronger in my identity as an Australian, and I think that feeling will enrich my work a lot and help me when I’m feeling frustrated or lost.
(Personal communication email from Liesel Schwinghamer, 1 December 2020)
This email from a student who graduated in 2018, sent during the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, demonstrates the ongoing power of the connection with Elders and cultural advisers:
In light of recent events, I wanted to reach out to let you know how grateful and honoured I was to have participated in the VC Design Studio: Visual Communication and Emergent Practices. I have been reflecting on the subject of late, and I still find it immensely valuable and rewarding, particularly the graduation ceremony we conducted on the UTS lawn together. Thank you for giving us that opportunity to engage with and listen to our Indigenous communities.
(Personal communication email from Rachel Macpherson, 9 June 2020)
In 2021 we received the following email from a graduate student, demonstrating the transformation of professional practice through profound impact:
I’m reaching out on behalf of my workplace as they have shown great interest in running an Indigenous cultural awareness workshop for the employees after I presented my Emergent Practices assignment … The subject had a profound impact on me, and I can’t wait to hear how it evolves and responds to the changing contexts over time.
(Personal communication email from 2020 graduate Elsa Presslaber, 12 May 2021)
These comments provide some affirmation of the potential of this approach to enable students to understand the significance of First Nations’ experiences, a re-orientation towards social and environmental justice informed by Indigenous perspectives, and the strength to become an advocate for Indigenous voices in the workplace.
Importantly in this work of Indigenous autonomy and self-determination is the inclusion of acknowledgements, welcomes and ceremony. Gadigal Elder Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor spoke to all School of Design students in an online welcome in the second semester of 2020. This welcome, offered by the traditional people who have history in Australia for over 60,000 years, provided students with a connection to the history of where the University stands and learning that takes place. In this time of COVID-19, Aunty Rhonda drew attention to connection through story that touched on history, survival, resurgence and responsibility, connecting each individual’s relationship with place. Although this was an online experience, the importance of recognition of where we are and the human experience of histories that need to be told was strong. This provided students with a grounding for the semester experiences.
In line with the position of the School to acknowledge the lands of the Gadigal and Gadigal leaders past, present and future, the offer of ceremony and story by the Traditional Owners is a key platform to enhance connection between First Nations Peoples, the students, the academics, the School and the University. In 2018 Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Gadigal Yuin Elder and Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor and their family proposed a Smoking Ceremony on her lands to bid farewell the students as they finished their three-year degree at UTS, bringing ceremony to the Gadigal Land that the University sits on.18 This was the first time that fire and smoke were brought in ceremony to the University’s Alumni Green (Figure 2, Figure 3, Figure 4 and Figure 5), an important step in recognition and reconciliation.
This subject is committed to and draws on the three pillars of transformational educational experience: cultural and land-based resurgence, Indigenous-centred liberation and self-determination, and reorientation and emergence through decolonisation holding true to intergenerational values: All our Relations, Lifelong Learning, Practices of Renewal, Living Landscapes and Ethical Impact. These themes guide the strategy for the empowerment, autonomy and self-determination of First Nations Peoples and the centring of social and environmental justice in this demonstration of living research led by design. Recognising the limitations of this work allows for significant but slow growth. In taking a humble approach we hope to ensure that meaningful and long-term relationships flourish and benefit all. Working with Indigenous Elders, knowledge holders, practitioners and scholars we also know that we provide more of a genuine living knowledge ecology for deeper learning experiences into the future. In this way of re-orientation, we begin to actualise respectful and relational educational pathways where decolonising design practices reframe design-led research methods.