“I was worried about insulting Indigenous communities with my designs”: shifting from fear to recognition to create a meeting place of sovereigns

Mr. Peter West, Assoc. Prof. Yoko Akama (RMIT) and Assoc. Prof. Mark McMillan (University of Melbourne)
2016 Conference

This paper shares learnings from a design studio that addresses the continuing disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in higher education. The radical adaptation required for design education is significant to recognise Indigenous people as sovereign who have never ceded their land, rights or identity. This is a necessary foundation for Indigenous self-determination, to build mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and avoid ignoring and perpetuating colonial legacy. The authors argue that this recognition must be part of the foundational understanding of what it means to be a designer. The paper traverses across complex terrains of sovereignty, cultural identity and consciousness of lawful relations to discuss how design theory, practice and pedagogy can create a meeting place of sovereigns. Insights are shared from the teaching studio that assisted non-Indigenous design students develop their understanding of being in lawful relation with Indigenous nations, specifically the Wiradjuri. Through this, discomfort and transformation were experienced as the students designed with, rather than for, Wiradjuri Nation partners. This partnership, grounded on research in Indigenous Nation Building, was central to the design studio and pedagogy. The students were guided by their involvement in two Wiradjuri-led events, Sovereign Weaving Treaty and Wiradjuri in Melbourne, that connected Wiradjuri to gather, talk, share and connect in cultural renewal. We narrate how the students’ understanding grew, and in turn, enabled our own understanding of design pedagogies to evolve through this rich, complex and confronting encounter.

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About the author


Mr. Peter West (RMIT)


Peter West is a Communication Design Lecturer in the school of Media and Communication at RMIT University. Peter is a Partner Investigator on the Melbourne School of Government Research Cluster Grant:  “Indigenous Nation Building: Theory, Practice and its emergence in Australia’s public policy discourse” and a named Research Assistant on ARC Linkage Grant ‘Indigenous nationhood in the absence of recognition: Self governance insights and strategies from three Aboriginal communities’. The thematic of how we act with Indigenous storytelling and narrative, is a trajectory which runs through his PhD research.


Assoc. Prof. Yoko Akama (RMIT)


Yoko Akama is an Associate Professor in communication design at RMIT University. Her design practice is informed by Japanese philosophy of between-ness and mindfulness, to consider how and what futures can be created together. She has won several awards for her research with communities to strengthen their adaptive capacity for disaster resilience in Australia. Her current work contributes towards the efforts of Indigenous Nations enact self-determination and governance. Yoko is a leader and co-founder of several design networks – Service Design Melbourne and Design and Social Innovation in Asia-Pacific – to support a diverse community of practice to tackle complex problems through design.


Assoc. Prof. Mark McMillan (University of Melbourne)


Mark McMillan is a Wiradjuri man, Member of the Trangie Land Council, and Associate Professor of University of Melbourne Law School. He is holder of a number of research grants and teaches in both the Juris Doctor and Melbourne Law Masters programs. Mark’s teaching experience includes Legal Method and Reasoning 2012 – 15, Principals of Public Law (2 streams) 2012 – 15, Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples 2013 – 15. Human Rights and Global Justice 2012. Gods to Genes; Same Sex Desire 2014 – 15.  He is also a member of Melbourne Law School’s Reconciliation Action Plan committee and the University of Melbourne Indigenous Scholarships Committee.