Styling Australia’s New Visual Design Identity

By Dr Russell Kennedy

How can we incorporate the amazing features of indigenous iconography into design without denigrating or disrespecting the original owners and creators? This question has challenged designers for many years and in the majority of cases, the response has been to ditch their intended design concepts and relegate the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in contemporary design to the ‘too hard' basket. 

Yes, it is a tough question but to simply shy away is to limit our ability to maturate a truly unique Australian design style and to exclude the contributions of our first people from this advance.

This avoidance rests upon a fear of inappropriate representation and misuse, and it is one which is grounded by historical examples. Australian history is littered with inappropriate examples of Indigenous representation. What was considered acceptable in the past is now viewed as obscene and distasteful as evident in previous examples of ignorant designs referencing Australian Indigenous people and their culture.

Although historically there have been clear racist overtones, some designers of the period did celebrate Aboriginal culture as a key component of an evolving national identity that is seeking to represent independent sovereignty and uniqueness. Australian designers such as Estonian born immigrant Gert Sellheim appreciated the emergence of a new aesthetic that made a stylistic connection between modernism and Aboriginal imagery. Sellheim, designer of the original Qantas Flying Kangaroo logo was an early explorer of an Australian Identity that incorporated Aboriginal graphical representation. Although having deep appreciation of Aboriginal art, designers like Sellheim had little understanding of the cultural context or meaning behind the work, which was often appropriated or created by them in an ‘Aboriginal' style. Sellheim's 1948 Australian Stamp celebrating Aboriginal Art and his 1957 poster for the Australian National Travel Association feature ‘so called' traditional expressions of Aboriginal Art but were in fact drawn by Sellheim himself.

historically there have been clear racist overtones. . . Sellheim’s 1948 Australian Stamp celebrating Aboriginal Art and his 1957 poster for the Australian National Travel Association feature ‘so called’ traditional expressions of Aboriginal Art but were in fact drawn by Sellheim himself.

In 1964 when much-celebrated Australian designer Gordon Andrews incorporated David Malangi's  'Gunmirringu Funeral Scene' painting on the reverse side of his design for the Australian one-dollar note, he did so without seeking permission.  Although a well intended recognition of Aboriginal cultural representation in visualising Australian identity, Andrews' methods were ill informed, lacking empathy and cultural understanding. Only after it was printed did the Reserve Bank later recognised Malangi's copyright and awarded him compensation. This copyright case was a milestone event in the recognition and application of Aboriginal design in Australia, but it also left a legacy of uncertainty for many years about the use of Indigenous imagery. The awkwardness that is felt may be understandable but avoiding the issue is not the answer.

Branding expert, Richard Henderson shared his thoughts on the complex and awkward dynamics surrounding Indigenous representation in design practice;

 ‘Ripped-off' is not the right word but the suggestion has been made that you're trying to take something which is not yours and pass it off as yours. I always find that a bit difficult because Indigenous art is so authentic to Australia and it should be part of our broader identity, we just need to find a way to make it happen more often. When we did the Olympics, it was quite confrontational in that some people were asking: ‘Why are we using Aboriginal culture? Why do we have to use it? Why is the white man developing something with which we had no right to?' I think that attitude probably comes back to feeling, as I said, ripped-off. As Desmond Tutu said, "When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land." It's that sense of being disenfranchised (ripped-off) because no one really fully explained what they're going to do with it' (Kennedy, 2013).

Designers need access to a shared knowledge base but the process by which this occurs must  be led and supported by our Indigenous communities. It is important that they are not only in control of their own culture, but also acknowledged to be in control. To do otherwise is merely to appropriate their rights, knowledge and status.

The Australian Indigenous Design Charter, devised by a team Deakin University and its Institute of Koorie Education (IKE), the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), and Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IADV) and adopted through a formal Memorandum of Association, provides a series of steps and protocols to help communication design professionals to approach the topic and allow indigenous and non-indigenous designers to incorporate indigenous knowledge, communities and culture in their projects. 

The Australian Indigenous Design Charter. . . provides a series of steps and protocols to help communication design professionals to approach the topic and allow indigenous and non-indigenous designers to incorporate indigenous knowledge, communities and culture in their projects.

The MOU enables Deakin to act as a meeting place to research, share knowledge and discuss methods to advance the ethical and appropriate representation of Indigenous culture in communication design practice. Named Visible Steps, this collaborative research group explores issues of hybridity, post colonialism and relationally with a primary aim to encourage contemporary expressions of traditional culture within a respectful, cross cultural frame. The objective of Visible Steps is to strengthen identity and by doing so build self-esteem and a sense of place through cultural visibility. Indigenous representation is an issue for all Australians. On 30 August 2016 the Design Institute of Australia (DIA) published the Australian Indigenous Design Charter – Communication Design on its website. The Deakin research team, supported by a DFAT Cultural Diplomacy grant, is now working to develop an International Indigenous Charter. A study tour program featuring a series of workshops titled ‘Was.Is.Always: South to North' will explore issues surrounding the use of Indigenous knowledge in design practice, with colleagues in Greenland, Denmark and Sweden, and consider the meaning and impact of the recently launched Australian Indigenous Design Charter and showcase examples of Indigenous design from each nation. The workshop outcomes, to be presented at next years World Design Summit will form the basis of a wider discussion around the development of an international Indigenous design charter.

Professor Brian Martin (Muruwari, Bundjalung, Kamilaroi), Deputy Director of Deakin's Institute for Koorie Education explained: "The Australian Indigenous Design posits a framework to give Indigenous voice with political integrity. Image making in Indigenous culture is paramount to relaying our memories of the past into the present which has been practice throughout millennia".

Co researcher, Dr Meghan Kelly makes the point, "As design researchers, it is our role to progress innovative concepts and different directions that can lead to a new design expression and shape the visions of contemporary Australian design". By recognising the failures of the past and, in collaboration with our current indigenous communities, we have grasped this intractable problem and proposed a ten-point strategy for design practice.  It is one that is unlikely to have emerged from the design industry alone and highlights the critical importance that design schools play to how we can visualise at an inclusive and authentic Australian identity.

This paradigm shift has already started as the national psyche shifts from understanding Australia as a young, colonial country to the ancient home of the world's oldest continuous living cultures. As Australia steps closer to formally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution, designers are increasingly called on to include Indigenous cultural representation in their work but acknowledge the need for guidance on how to do so with ethical and respectful contemporary expression. The Australian Indigenous Design Charter has been created to help facilitate this change. The Charter advocates, if we change the way we look at things, then the things we look at will need to change. 

Dr Russell Kennedy is a Senior Lecturer and Course Director of Visual Communication Design at Deakin University.  He was a Senior Lecturer at Monash University 1994-2010 and a Research Fellow at Swinburne University of Technology 1911-2014 where he completed his PhD titled, Designing with Indigenous Knowledge: Policy and protocols for respectful and authentic cross-cultural representation in communication design practice. President of Ico-D, the International Council of Design (2009 – 2011) and board member (2003 – 2013) Kennedy is a Fellow of the Design Institute of Australia (DIA) and Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (The RSA).