Cultural Design

Culture provides the catalyst for Designer to create services and products that are fit for their context but also innovative and culturally sensitive.

Our role as designers hinges on integrating the socio-cultural factors that leads to the final outcome. Now more than ever, we need to be aware of the impact of culture.

Indigenous Designs

Latest Tweets

Subscribe to Cultural Design

Join our mailing list and be advised as soon as articles and interviews go live on the website.

A Reflective Pause…

A Reflective Pause…

“Philosophy is a homesickness of the mind. The exile misses many things: The loss of familiar signs makes every turn problematic. Disconnected from place where action was guided by experience the exile is catapulted into social spaces where nothing can be taken for granted. The smell of the sea, the glare of the sunlight, a certain way of greeting people, all these ordinary things once taken from the exile, make the rest of living a drudgery. “ (Papastergiadis 1998, 4)

Every culture has its own definitions of home. “To leave home is always risky” (Papastergiadis 1998, 3). The concept of home and our connection to it is central to our sense of place and identity in the world. Over the last 12 week, I have immersed myself in Indigenous Knowledge by engaging with their community in Melbourne, to gain a better understanding of Australian Indigenous culture.

Home is where we are first imbued with knowledge about the world. We learn about people, our obligations. Home is where we learn to dream for the future. The place we are indoctrinated with a sense of who we are and our relationship to others. Home is where we learn about traditions of our society. “The set of principles with which society interprets its place in the world” (Papastergiadis 1998, 13). Germaine Greer explores this further in ‘Whitefella Jump Up’. She gives us some clues to our current state of affairs. As actors in our dominant culture, we have been afflicted by a kind of emotional paralysis, a pathological indifference caused by a lack of connection to this land (home, country).

“People are like trees, old Jimmy said, they must be grounded.” – Deborah Rose Bird
During the course of 12 weeks, we visited a number of Indigenous Sites. The Koori Heritage site visit, was my first foray into establishing contact with an Indigenous Community centre. The site visit was informative and answered many questions I had about indigenous culture in Australia. We were introduced to a range of topics such as the complex roles governing individual relationships, social and cultural obligations and sense of belonging. Some of the most important questions raised regarding identity within the Australian Indigenous context was around the sense of belonging:

Who is your family/mob/community?
Where are you from, what is your country?
Where do I belong?

In particular the information on building partnership and the principles they discussed was a great starting point. Two important points stood during the course of our dialogue.

• Be Self-aware, understand and challenge your own cultural assumptions and prejudices.
• Attend activities or events to demonstrate support for the community.

The story that left the most impression, was the extract from William Barak’s petition in 1886, written in perfect English, poised and beautiful in its simplicity and asking for the same rights as anyone else, nothing more or less. It was gut wrenching to say the least.

Cultural Trauma has been part and parcel of the Australian Aboriginal experience since the European settlement. Colonialism has framed the indigenous experience. Given its destructive effects on the indigenous cultures around the world, it comes as no surprise that writing about their experiences under imperialism and its more specific expression of colonialism has become a significant project of the indigenous world (Smith 1999).

“Because imperialism still hurts, destroys and is constantly reinventing itself” (Smith 1999).

It cannot be struggled over only at the level of text and literature. Indigenous people have to challenge, understand and have a shared language of talking about history, the sociology, the psychology and the politics of imperialism and colonialism.

One must explore this further to fully grasp the destructive nature of imperialistic methods which have been employed since the fifteen century as discussed by Linda Smith in her book. The summation of these methods are:

• Economic imperialism for the purpose of economic expansion
• Subjugation of others
• Imperialism of ideas with many forms of realisation
• Imperialism as a discursive field of knowledge

These four methods of reinforcing and developing imperialism all work in tandem and in the European discourse can be seen in 4 complimentary phases: ‘ discovery, exploitation, distribution and appropriation’ (Smith 1999). This is evident in texts that are produced on indigenous people and feed into reinforcing the stance of imperialism. As Patricia Grace, a Maori writer, communicates: “These appropriations don’t enforce indigenous values, customs and culture, they don’t put it in the context of the indigenous experience as they are written by people that are far removed from the culture even if they have spent many years with indigenous people. They embellish their writing to suit their own needs… writing about things that are not true. They write in a way that reinforces a negative and insensitive attitude”. (Smith 1999)

Our western idea of self (psychological self) is a highly individualised notion, and one that frames the way we view and experience the world. This is in sharp contrast to notions of identity within Indigenous cultures. “ The values, attitudes, concepts and language embedded in beliefs about spirituality represent, in many cases the clearest contrast and mark of difference between indigenous peoples and the west”. (Smith 1999)

In our modern, connected and globalised world who really is indigenous? There is a very powerful tendency in research to take this argument back to biological essentialism related to race. The heart of this argument is based on the fact that we in the western world view indigenous cultures as stationary or frozen in time. We tend to view indigenous cultures as uncomplicated, not diverse or contradictory. In the western way of relating only the west has the right to be complicated, internally diverse or contradictory (Smith 1999). This of course is the product of the “Island discourse” which perpetuated the myth of the remote and exotic in relation to indigenous people.

“In colonial literature, the Island was a place of adventure…a place inhabited by savages, and beckoning civilisation” (Papastergiadis 1998, 216-17).

The Savage identity was conferred by the colonisers and perpetuated by the colonists’ fantasies of primitive people. This is evident in texts that are produced on indigenous people and feed into reinforcing the stance of imperialism. Popular myths such as lack of ability to use their minds or intellect or that the indigenous population could not invent things or create institutions or history were actively spread. In other words these indigenous cultures did not according to a western understanding of the natural world practice the art of civilisation. It is disheartening that even today, colonialism has reduced indigenous people to making claims about their rights and dues. They have to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Families in particular have born the brunt of these painful acts. So it is important to remember the past and allow for healing to take place. In the indigenous context, research is based on the struggle of people to survive, preserve their cultures and language and to become self-determining (Smith 1999).

Smith reminds us of the importance of methodology, because it frames the question being asked, determines the methods being used and of course shapes the synthesis of the research. In this frame then it becomes very important that indigenous methodologies are embraced. The mission then becomes the task of taking back control of their destinies. For indigenous researchers sharing is about demystifying knowledge and giving back to the community information that has been put in plain terms. In a way sharing is about empowering people with knowledge which may have been denied them due to an inadequate education system (Smith 1999). This cannot be achieved without reframing the experience of colonisation and establishing dialogue between both the indigenous and dominant culture. Rose suggests that by engaging in dialogue or what she refers to as “ an ethical turning towards each other” we can attempt to recognise, heal and end the passive violence that has resulted from this attitude.

One must try and understand the differing viewpoints that can help shed light on this process. The concept of dreaming is one that is quite foreign to our notions of self and community. We have been heavily influenced by the view that understanding the natural world in the context of human beings and societies can only be achieved through measuring. In indigenous philosophies, notions of true and complete do not show respect for living knowledge. Indigenous philosophy is relational, non-reductive, non materialistic and non-empirical. Western epistemology has tried to box indigenous ways of knowing and philosophy in its own hierarchical and dualist fashion, which makes the making sense of the meaning of whole system knowledge mute.

“Respect is a key tenet of indigenous knowledge. Aboriginal culture is part of a very practical, sophisticated, refined, philosophically sound and relevant understanding of the world, an understanding that is in my view well in advance of much of western philosophy“ (Sheehan 2003).

Rose has described the knowledge framework of aboriginal people to being attuned to understanding whole systems. She refers to this as Dreaming Ecology. The crux of this philosophy is that everything exists as “ intersubjectively embedded in a system that has no centre” (Sheehan 2003). In this way of seeing and being, the parts are interconnected, it is self contained and self-regulating, there is no hierarchy that would create a need for a central control centre. In indigenous philosophy, everything has knowledge and is alive. Knowledge is dispensed to specific people through their relationship to country.

Country is seen as a place that nourishes life. And everyone is responsible for the care of the country and the country is responsible for nourishing people. A fundamental principle that emerges is that those who destroy country destroy themselves. “Indigenous Philosophy situates itself within the context of being-of-the-world, because world and everything in the world is a living system in a perpetual state of awareness and exchange. “Knowledge in the indigenous context revolves around being alert and aware of the state of natural systems of which humans are but one part” (Sheehan). In Australian Indigenous philosophy, cultural exchange of knowledge within these systems are highly contextual and extremely local. Within this philosophy knowing is not instantaneous, you must wait and see what happens from specific events.

These intricately interconnected systems harbour a rich culture of ceremonies and design uniting the Indiginous concepts of respect and emotion through visual relationships to patterns. These visual designs carry the views of our forefathers and our cultural history.

In trying to understand the IK visual language, observation and learning must first take place. And this can easily take a lifetime of learning. By not separating the visual or art aspect from the environment that it takes place in and the knowledge that is contained there, we don’t lose the complexity of this visual language. In summary, art in indigenous context operates primarily as a vehicle to transmit knowledge. Sheehan refers to this as ‘Indigenous visual philosophy’.

Indigenous languages in Australia are extremely complex because they are relational and context based (what we have come to understand as place). The Indigenous Australian languages display in the most fundamental way their understanding of the world and the whole system philosophy. Sheehan explores the “The observation-learning methodology” which has been conducted for thousands of years and as a result has been coded into indigenous languages, designs and ceremonies. This has flourished as an oral and visual tradition, effective in passing on knowledge from one generation to the next.

“Visual literacy is culturally derived strength of indigenous people”. All indigenous cultures are rich in their visual story telling. In the tradition of Native American cultures there is a heavy reliance on visual metaphors, which are multi-layered and meaning is revealed based on your engagement level with, and way of knowing. This is also explored in Sheehan’s thesis. Visual vocabulary is not valued highly in our current education system.

What is very interesting is the absence of remote observer standpoint in Indigenous Visual Philosophy. To participate in any form, you are in the frame of either designing, observing and/or learning. “This engagement of continuous designing, observing and learning in place, creates respect for the livingness of the whole” (Sheehan 2003). To gain a clear understanding is achieved through your-way-of-being, or what we refer to as identity. This identity connects language (design in this instance) to place, providing a reach source of stories about self, country and ceremony. For example in the Australian Indigenous context, through dreaming one forges a link with both the mother’s and father’s country. One becomes responsible for both. The concepts of ‘My country’ and ‘My Dreaming’ form a sense of responsibility for the well being of both (Rose 1992).

“Country is everything”(Sheehan 2003)
All these interactions build on the past and evolving connections to other intelligent systems. By layering the ‘Earth emotions’ to this mix, we are able to feel the deep connection for country. Country is the place that is alive and has knowledge and we occupy this space, this country. We are in direct contact with country and its knowledge, and the country is in direct contact with us and our body of knowledge. In this way, there is a pattern of responsibility that emerges which support a deeper bond and understanding of whole natural systems philosophy. Sheehan refers to this as ‘Reciprocal Mutualism’. Through researching back, we are able to contextualise cultural information previously collected by anthropologists to serve the need of the current indigenous people by making this information relevant to their understanding in their own context. Within this wounded space of misunderstanding in our current culture, we need to educate Australian Students so at the very least they are familiar with the indigenous perspective. In adapting western understanding and mixing it with indigenous philosophy we can create a dialogue space, and turn towards each other, in the educational context. Such an approach allows us to study and grasp the whole system idea of culture through its relationships via a respectful approach (Sheehan 2003).

‘Problemetising the indigenous is a Western obsession’ and one that feeds perfectly into our ‘deeply held fear and hatred of the other’ (Smith 1999, 91). In essence by shifting the larger issues experienced in the wider community unto indigenous communities we absolve ourselves from any responsibility in creating these problems in the first place. Through this essay I have tried to engage and understand the Australian Indigenous Culture and its rich philosophy. Colonialism has silenced our need to connect with the Custodians of this land. Its influence can be felt by its unbending view of indigenous culture seen only through the European lense, resulting in an exaggerated feeling of hopelessness. There is an urgent need for opening up our views to other ways of knowing. Germaine Greer suggests that perhaps one way we could make amends is ‘to turn back to the point where we went wrong, sit down on the ground and think about it. As we charter our own way forward, we need to understand the “Aboriginal sense of Responsibility – which keeps people in their own country, attempting, against all odds to take care of it” (Bird SR 2009, 41). By cultivating this sense of responsibility, perhaps we could start the healing that needs to take place. The custodians of this land see themselves as people with both responsibility and choice (Bird SR 2009, 57). Isn’t that the definition and right of a true citizen in our western thought? Let us not forget that to be human is to have free-will, independence and the right to self-determination (Bird SR 2009, 41). How could we then ignore the other’s wish for the same?

This has been my first attempt to engage with Australian Indigenous Cultures in Australia. Both the readings and actual engagement with the community has been nothing short of profound. Both in terms of my academic understanding and most importantly, dealing with my own sense of place, home and traditions. I would like to leave you with an extract from the Introduction to Pig Earth by John Berger (as quoted in Dialogue in Diaspora) which encapsulates how I felt while writing and reflecting on my experiences:

“To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. ‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field’. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it precedes me. Experience folds upon itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear. And so the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both a scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance). Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.”



Greer, G 2004, ‘ Whitefella Jump Up: the Shortest Way to Nationhood,’ Quarterly Essay 11, August 2003, Viewed 29 September 2011, .

Godbold, N 2009, ‘User-Centred Design vs. “Good” Database Design Principles: a Case Study, Creating Knowledge Repositories for Indigenous Australians’, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 40, 2, pp. 116-131, viewed 13 October 2011, <>.

Go-Sam, C 2008, ‘Working With and Against Indigenous Design Paradigms’, Architecture Australia, 97, 5, pp. 53-58, Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre, EBSCOhost, viewed 6 August 2011,

Papastergiadis, N 1998, Dialogues in the Diasporas: Essays and Conversations on cultural Identity, Rivers Oram Press, London.

Sheehan, N 2003, Indigenous Knowledge and Higher Education: Instigating Relational Education in a Neocolonial Context, PhD Thesis, School of Education, University of Queensland, Sections 1-3.

Rose, D B 1992, Dingo Makes Us Human. Life and Land in an Aboriginal Australian Culture, Cambridge University Press, Sydney.

Smith, L T 1999, DecolonizingMethodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples, University of Otago Press, Dunedin NZ.

Leave a Comment