Decolonising Digital Dreams: How can students respond to ways of being and knowing whilst becoming aware of their potential power/authority as designers?

Rebecca Ailís Nally (RMIT University)
2021 Conference

This paper offers an approach of relational, iterative pedagogy with an emphasis on decolonisation. Learning experiences were captured as part of a novel studio model, which was designed during the first COVID lockdown in Naarm/Melbourne, at RMIT University in 2020. The two design education studios (virtual and blended) within the Communication Design program took place on the unceded lands of Naarm/Melbourne and in Singapore, conducted successively and designed with a focus on relational knowledge generation in response to place through iterative, decolonising, material discovery.


What struck the author – and studio facilitator – most, after her recent experience of co-designing and co-facilitating a Reconciliation pilot for corporate businesses called Bundyi Girri for Business, was the way in which the design students were able to explore how they might respond to Indigenous sovereignty through reflective design practices of being in relation to Indigenous sovereignty, redirecting their initial tendencies to ‘otherise’ or ‘Indigenise’ through iterative material designing.


The work of facilitating this studio was not just about shifting the studio lead’s binary likeness of a white-middle-class subject position out of the corporate environment and into the virtual design student setting. The novel studio model needed to be transformed from a physical study tour of ‘Melbourne—Kulin’ to a virtual experience of place. This paper identifies some of the student learning experiences of developing decolonised narratives and the intercultural design relations that resulted from this novel virtual setting.

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About the author

I grew up on a heart shaped island at the bottom of the mainland, not knowing I was living and learning on the unceded lands of lutruwita/Trouwanna and knew my home as ‘Tassie’.

My social identity was shaped for me by the myth of Terra Nullius, the assimilation projects of Trouwanna since colonial settlement and my Irish citizenship through my paternal bloodline, which has been a prominent story in my family narrative.

Identifying as non-Indigenous, I am only now in the process of shaping this binary construct to more openly reflect the ontological layers of who I am, through acknowledgement of the quietly resilient stories of skilled adaptation/assimilation of my maternal Tasmanian Aboriginal Ancestors of the unceded lands of tyerrernotepanner and paredareme.

In my recent industry experience, through my business Public Journal, I co-designed and co-facilitated the award-winning Reconciliation pilot program Bundyi Girri for Business, which informed my practice of maturing non-Indigenous design in relation to Indigenous sovereignty. I was invited by Wiradjuri, Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung, through the work of Bundyi Girri[1], to find ways to hold the mirror up to the Establishment and make the man look at himself, instead of casting his myopic gaze on the Indigenous ‘subject’. This work helped me to see my studio’s commercial design practices through the responses directly offered to me in the program’s corporate workshop settings. It also shaped my awareness of the perceived authority of design in certain settings and my responsibility to sit with and listen carefully to the existing work of First Peoples when developing ways of critically examining non-Indigenous epistemes.

As a guest on the unceded lands and waterways of eastern Kulin, I approach the disciplines of design and education with the intention of respectfully responding to Womin Djeka and the First Peoples of the Birrarung-ga where I work and have lived my adult life. As I continue to live and work on these unceded lands, I am grateful for the privilege to be able to acknowledge the Ancestors and Elders of the Kulin Nations, past and present.