Indigenous Engagement, Human Connection and the Designer

Indigenous Engagement, Human Connection and the Designer

Indigenous Engagement, Human Connection and the Designer

Well designed places should encourage human connection. With the world becoming increasingly digital and human connection decreasing due to the apparent connectedness individuals can feel online, it is important that as a designer you allow for privacy but encourage communication. Before white settlement, Indigenous people experienced a connectedness to Australia, their place, but also to each other through access to important places that celebrated a shared culture. Tangible connections were made with landmarks and sacred sites that celebrated spirit­uality, provided opportunities for learning through oral traditions, and highlighted the importance of the land and their connections with it and each other. The support their place provided them ensured the longevity of their livelihood through this connected sharing.

For 60,000 years Indigenous Australians have connected with place through the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a non-linear cycle of time which accounts for the past, present and future, it is constantly evolving to account for both negative and positive change in the world as we know it. The Dreaming is made tangible through the connections forged by the rituals performed by Indig­enous Australians in places specific to the stories within the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a placeholder central within Indigenous life, it encompasses religion, law and moral systems, it defines the relationships between people, plants, animals and physical features of the land. The Dreaming contains the knowledge of how these relationships came to be, what they mean and how they must be maintained. Australia is not made up of a homogenous Indigenous culture, different cultures celebrate different aspects of the Dreaming and have different connections to place.

For thousands of years, Indigenous people have expressed connections to the Dreaming through song, dance, ritual and symbols. The concept of place for Indigenous people is very much ingrained in their identities and plays a large role in their culture. The Dreaming and the connections made with place by Indigenous people have been passed through oral tradition, forging a necessity for communication between generations of First Australians.

With the displacement of Indigenous people and their culture, Indigenous Australians’ relationship with place has become less tangible and more condensed. With 250 different Indig­enous cultures presently represented throughout the continent compared to the original 500 cultures, connection and occupation of place has become noticeably reduced. The disregard for their culture and the modernisation and expansion of settler civilisations have stunted the ability to share in this oral tradition. For this reason, many connections to sacred sites and many individual cultures have been lost.

Today, we witness the importance of Indigenous connections with place through acknowledgement of land, welcomes to country and smoking ceremonies. Yet these connections with place are still consciously under-represented and respected. Many non-Indigenous designers have experienced in one way or another a need to fulfil design criteria that has been introduced by the Indigenous Procurement Policy. In 2015, the introduction of the Indigenous Procurement Policy meant that the government was making a commitment that three percent of their budget would be used to support Indigenous Businesses. This also meant that a number of major corporate bodies set their own internal targets for Indigenous engagement. The reason for this is that it has been found that Indigenous Businesses are more likely to employ fellow Indigenous Australians and this addition in funding meant that further employment opportunities were able to be made within these businesses. The Indigenous Procurement Policy has been a means by which the Australian Government has been working to create better economic opportunities for Indigenous Australians, break the social security cycle and create Indigenous middle-class wealth.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of perceived value and a perceived tokenism in engaging Indigenous people because ‘it’s difficult’. Many of the designers who are tasked with engaging Indigenous businesses do not understand Indigenous culture, history or its value. Having consulted with these businesses for extended periods of time the outcome of this consultation is seen to have been more trouble than it is worth. This is often the case for designers engaging with remote Indigenous communities who operate at a different pace, meaning that designers, pressured by deadlines, do not engage effectively. Never truly connecting and losing the value of learning from one of the oldest cultures on earth­­—often resulting in a tokenistic outcome that alienates Indigenous communities. Over time processes to fulfill design criteria have become more about ‘ticking a box’ as opposed to being exposed to culture, collaborating and learning valuable design concepts. Many designers are missing out on invaluable knowledge that has been developed over millennia of oral tradition.

Despite all of this there are many current design trends with roots in Indigenous culture that many people are unaware of. With the move towards collaborative learning and workplace settings to encourage connection in an increas­­­ingly digital landscape, and the push to create functional open ergonomic places, Indigenous placemaking concepts are inadvertently incorporated into building structures, interior designs and the design of internal and external communal places. Being aware of the origins of these designs can help designers utilise this diverse cultural knowledge respectfully to create places that enhance interactions rather than hinder them.

When designing places, drawing inspiration from Indigenous placemaking can make the place functional for individual use and collaborative use. Indigenous placemaking symbols for Campsite, Meeting Place, Travelling signs and resting camps, and People Sitting (pictured left to right). These symbols are key in current collaborative special designs particularly in open layouts and this is something that has been mimicked unintentionally in today’s office furniture and office design. The placemaking concept for people sitting can also be seen as a con­ference or meeting setting. The meeting place displays pathways of individuals which then unify together. This kind of design is often mimicked when creating break­out or lounging places. Similarly, when creating larger scale breakout and lounging areas, the travelling signs and resting camps symbolism can be seen in these layouts. The design featured aside for the lobby of the Department of Infrastructure features several options for meeting and collaborating at different scales, the designer used Indigenous placemaking concepts to create a place that encourages human interactions and connection.
Winya's fit-out for the lobby of the Department of Infrastructure


The majority of Indigenous placemaking concepts surrounding the coming together of individuals utilise central circular bodies as a main feature. The reason for this is because the circles are the oldest geometric symbol and they commonly represent unity. With roots such as these you can see how and why circular designs are particularly prevalent within collaborative and open places. The unifying nature of the circle allows designers to create places that encourage unity, conversation and inclusivity.

Traditional office designs and many current office places are designed to create maximum privacy. Closed-door settings and the reliance on technology to communicate ‘meaningfully’ has meant that many people feel lonely and disconnected. With the increasing entry of ‘Millennials’ and the upcoming ‘Generation Z’ entering the workforce it’s really important for designers to encourage meaningful communication through utilising Indigenous symbolism in their layouts.

The generations entering the workforce, having grown up in a world full of technology, have been reported to be the loneliest generation. Humans are social creatures and this predisposition goes right back to survivalist instincts. With 1 in 4 Australians reporting feeling lonely once a week its something we really need to pay attention to. Many young people who may appear social and popular in a techno­­­­logical sense lack strong mean­ingful relationship to enrich their lives and protect their physical and mental well-being. And these closed-door settings are further prohibiting meaningful human connection.

The theme of this issue is the construct of ‘place’. This can be both a physical and tangible thing but also a construct of the human mind. Place as a contrast implies a sense of belong­ing, learning from older cultures like Indigenous Australians and their sense of belonging to the land and each other can help us create better connections today. It is especially important for designers to learn from this culture.

Architectural renders of proposed Seacombe West Nunduk Spa by Alfano Architecture.

Collaboration is a vital part of strong business settings and designing places using Indigenous placemaking concepts can ensure that collaboration is achieved with ease.

An example where the value of Indigenous consultation and collaboration has been illustrated is in the Melbourne Design Schools Seacombe West First Regenerative Community in Australia. The land stability of the area was quickly corroding, so the elders from the community and Thrive Research Hub, which is facilitated by Melbourne University, came together to create a solution. What they came up with was a resort facility that incorporated specific trees that would stabilise the soil. The resort facility was designed using the same circular central bodies seen in a lot of Indigenous placemaking. This meant that attendees of the resort were able to witness a sense of community and feel included in this community. The concept of tourism has always been represented through the lens of creating a global community and belonging. For the resort to be successful the designers needed to artificially create this through the layout of the resort. The resort’s overall design utilises both the placemaking concepts of meeting places and the placemaking concepts of travelling signs and resting camps. The meeting place (centre of picture left) would be the hub of most of the resort activity including the lobby and other facilities, this then branches off with travelling tracks to resting areas where smaller central meeting areas are surrounded by resort attendees rooms.

An interior example of the utilisation of Indigenous placemaking is in the office fit-out for the Bureau of Australian Statistics completed by Winya Indigenous Furniture. While the building itself features a circular design, the incorporation of closed places was minimised and segmented to a single region to ensure the maximisation of open concept and connection. Workstations have been positioned throughout the place maximising the open layout and the employee’s ability to collaborate. Similarly, the kitchen/break area has been designed with the notion that connection and conversation is of a high priority. Smaller and larger meeting areas have been segmented to the right to maintain the open layout while also creating a place where employees can meet without distracting co-workers. Placemaking concepts such as the Campsite, Meeting Place and People Sitting have been used to create a highly productive and connected workplace.

Winya's boomotto in the Australian Tax Office

As a designer, creating places that encourage connection is vital particularly in the 21st century. While there has been a move towards open plan offices, there often lacks the opportunity for people to connect due to the lack of place to do so. Many offices are highlighting the importance of this lack of connection to designers and by knowing and utilising Indigenous placemaking to support your work, this can be achieved with ease.

One of the problems designers face when engaging with Indigenous people and business is the ineffective communication and lack of understanding. Creating understanding between both the designer and the Indigenous business or person, is incredibly important and can create a wealth of knowledge beyond what procurement targets can achieve.

The reason communicating and understanding effectively between designers and Indigenous people is so important is to avoid any level of cultural appropriation or disrespect. The historical devaluing of Indigenous culture has made the consultation process between cultures home to a number of historical undertones including the genocide, the stolen generation and the degradation of Indigenous people by not respecting them as people.

For this reason, the acronym to consider when engaging with Indigenous culture is R.I.C.C; Respect, Indigenous control, Communication & consent and Continuing cultures.

Respect the rights of Indigenous people to own and control their heritage, including Indigenous images, designs, stories and other cultural expressions. The reason this is so important is because of the historical disregard of Indigenous rights to culture and cultural expression.

Customs and protocols for respect vary widely across the many and diverse communities of Indigenous Australian people. Some examples of respecting cultural heritage include acknowledgement of country and acceptance of diversity. Indigenous cultures are diverse and extensive, and each community has a cultural context due to diversity of experience, this can be reflected in the medium, subject matter and cultural setting the artist might choose. Indigenous cultures are living and evolving entities not simply historical phenomena, this means that our knowledge and opinions cannot remain static.

Indigenous Control means that Indigenous peoples have the right to the self-determination of their cultural affairs and expression of their cultural materials. This means that when engaging with Indigenous cultures there needs to be extensive discussions over the level of involvement within the project. For example, you should discuss how Indigenous control over the project will be exercised and to what extent they will be involved.

When discussing these things, there needs to be meaning­ful discussions over who actually has the right to consent to the use of cultural materials. Generally, elders within the community hold authority over specific stories, geographic locations, styles and imagery, these need to be identified and addressed accordingly.

As a designer you need to be effective in the way in which you Communicate and gain Consent. The outcome of the project needs to consider the needs of both parties. This means that both parties need to be aware of the way in which their own cultural heritage affects how they view an issue, both parties need to understand and build awareness of the other culture and both parties need to work through misunderstandings that may arise due to cultural differences patiently. Informed consent is especially important in order to maintain a respectful collaboration, this means people must be given time and all the information necessary to consider the requests made of them. Therefore, communicating changes to the project is equally as important as the initial agreed consultation. This will ensure that both parties are satisfied with the end product.

Consultation on projects is an ongoing process due to Contin­uing Cultures. The Dreaming is an evolving and changing concept and never remains static which is why in order to respect Indigenous cultures, throughout the process of the project there needs to be open lines of communication. Indigenous cultures are dynamic and evolving and the protocols within each group and community will also change. Therefore, by communicating effectively as a designer you’re ensuring that the connections made through mutual understand­ing remain open and mean that in the future work within that culture is possible.

Understanding of Indigenous cultures can only be created through communication. The value of the wealth of knowledge available that has been passed through generations of Indigenous Australians has been largely untapped. There is so much designers can learn in terms of communicating ideas and creating meaningful places from the oldest culture on earth. Today’s designers hold the key to creating better and more meaningful human connection and combating the increasing epidemic of loneliness, you just need to take some time, have an open mind and work more collaboratively.

Article written by Grace Welsh from Winya Indigenous Furniture. This article appeared in Issue 9.