Looking to incorporate Indigenous design? 10 rules that underpin respect

Incorporating Indigenous design is a symbol of respect, reconciliation and a powerful aid that can add depth and authenticity to your work.

Branding, Design, Brand Marketing, Creative, Indigenous Affairs

Hayley Emmett 11 Jul 2023
4 mins

Incorporating Indigenous design is a symbol of respect and reconciliation — and can also be a powerful visual differentiator that can add depth and authenticity to creative work.

The beauty and cultural significance of Indigenous design makes it a valuable asset in various artistic and design disciplines we see and use today.

In our own experience we recently had the privilege of working with two local indigenous artists who created amazing artwork incorporating our company’s values as part of our Reconciliation Action Plan. The response to this design has been positive, as it resonated with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences alike.

But alongside the many compliments we received for the design, we also received questions — How did we work with Indigenous designers? What did we learn from the experience? What can other people do to have a similarly positive result?

It highlighted to us not only the importance of engaging with Indigenous design in a respectful and collaborative manner, but the need to help clients learn more about using Indigenous design effectively and meaningfully.

Fortunately, the Design Institute of Australia has recently issued a 10-step Design Charter, designed to provide a set of protocols for designers when looking to incorporate Indigenous design into their work.

Known as the Australian Indigenous Design Charter — Communications Design (or AIDC:CD)

The Charter, developed in conjunction with Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria and Deakin University’s Institute of Koorie Education, is worth reading in full, but builds on 10 critical positions, outlined below, which relate to any work involving the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

Indigenous-led: The Design Charter starts by ensure that the creation of Indigenous representation is Indigenous led, which means considering the new protocols whenever new works are created involving Indigenous culture, especially on any relating to place and history. It means going beyond ‘procurement’ of design to engaging with “local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers who are connected with the relevant communities and provide opportunities for them to oversee the creative development and design process”.

Self-determined: The rights of Indigenous peoples to facilitate representation creation of their culture should also be respected. This means only using Indigenous knowledge if the right permissions have been granted and community protocols observed.

Community-specific: The diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture also needs to be respected, which includes following specific local community cultural protocols.

The Design Charter makes the point that protocols can differ between communities, and whether it is urban, rural or remote. Communities can have different specific rules, including limits of when or how information might be shared.

There are also knowledge and practices that can be specific to gender — “women’s business” and “men’s business” that need to be considered.

Deep listening: The Design Charter urges the practice of respectful, culturally specific, personal engagement behaviours, recommending teams “start conversation as if you are there to learn not teach.”

To support better engagement, you should keep technical terms to a minimum, be aware that an indirect communication style is common in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and consider the heightened importance of body language and non-verbal cues.

Impact of design: The reception and implications of all designs should be respectful of Indigenous culture. While the Design Charter notes that Indigenous culture is seen by design firms and branding agencies as providing a unique point of difference, use has to be considered carefully.

Indigenous knowledge: Clients should be asked — respectfully —if their design brief or project could be improved with Indigenous knowledge. Understanding the Indigenous background is of particular relevance when working on place branding, tourism and land development projects, here, reflecting the significant rise in the desire to reflect Indigenous heritage in many projects.

Shared knowledge: Given designers often act as the conduit between client and the Indigenous creator, this puts the onus on design and communications team to have appropriate collaboration, co-creation and procurement methods. That can start by ensuring clients are across the complexity and demands of the consultation period, but also ensuring all stakeholders are engaged from the start of the process. It is not sufficient to seek approvals after the fact.

Legal and moral positions: The Design Charter requires all parties respect and honour cultural rights and intellectual property rights, which means obtaining appropriate permissions, respecting copyright, and considering not only the acquisition of artworks but their reproduction.

Reconciliation Action Plan: Beyond a specific project, the Design Charter also urges designers to develop a dedicated company RAP, and to be explicit that they support AIDC:CD practice. Over time, this should help compliant design practices build awareness of best practice protocols.

Charter Implementation: Finally, the Design Charter recommends implementation of all protocols to safeguard the integrity of Indigenous design. This includes using clear language that is culturally appropriate, seeking permission from the people who own the stories, clearly outlining and discuss final designs prior to publishing, ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are recognised as the primary guardians and interpreters of their cultures, and taking a collaborative design approach that respects cultural values and customary laws, empowers Indigenous peoples, and shares the benefits of any form of commercialisation.

The move to incorporate Indigenous design into commercial and corporate practice is an important step forward towards more authentic elevation of First Nations stories — and having seen how resonant design can be, we will repeat this exercise again.

Our bigger goal, though, is to help the design and communications teams of our clients to do the same, so we can all work towards a more equitable, respectful future.


Hayley Emmett More from author

As the Design Manager at Cannings Purple, Hayley pushes the creative boundaries to ensure visual direction and design elements are fresh and inspiring, whilst still holding strong to brand integrity.

With experience working with various stakeholders across several accounts and providing her expert knowledge and eye, Hayley approaches every project with enthusiasm and professionalism.

Hayley’s energetic approach to design is sparked by her prowess on the sporting field and love of the outdoors, fashion and live music.

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