Posts tagged ‘indigenous’

Between early 2018 and late 2019, DMA was involved in a very special project with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural support group, The Deadly Allstars.

Justin set up a service design scaffold that would see the Allstars – a group of young indigenous people in care – lead their own garden design and construction project.

For DMA the project was an exercise in supporting self-determination. For the Allstars it was about leaving a legacy and creating a healing and reflective space for yarning.

Mawang means ‘together’ in the Wiradjuri language. It’s what the garden was all about.

Share our journey Creating Mawang here:

Video Production by our friends at Newcast Studios

Leave a comment

DMA’s office and work takes place on the country of the Ngunnawal people, as such we acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we work and pay respect to the Elders of the Ngunnawal Nation both past and present and emerging.

A note: The following post is our way of describing a topic and spectrum of work that is extremely important to us as designers and people. But we are still learning. So if we use any language or description in the post that doesn’t work for any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, please reach out and let us know.

Back in 2015, DMA was working on an excellent project with a local Directorate mapping the ideal service journey of a range of service cohorts here in Canberra. The final workshop and map we were involved in was with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

The session turned out to be one of the most humbling, difficult and confronting workshops we have ever been involved in. As we endeavored to ‘move people through our service design methodology’ there was push back at every level. Participants told us we were trying to take their intellectual property and not listen to what they had to say in the way they wanted to say it.

There were elements of the workshop set-up that hadn’t sat well with us, but what we experienced that day wasn’t about logistics. The uncomfortable feeling we had as designers was what we should have felt, because those angry voices in the room were absolutely correct.

After the event we didn’t retreat into ourselves to try and work out what happened and ‘how we could fix it next time’. Instead, we licked our designer wounds, and fundamentally changed our approach to how we work with and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both in our local community and further afield.

With background experiences with indigenous-focused work from New Zealand and our existing connections to friends and peers in the community, we knew we had a platform to work from.

Connecting and Understanding

Designers pride themselves on empathy, it’s what makes us tick. So the first thing we thought about was why we had missed the mark at an empathy level with this work. We realised that so much of service design’s engagement with the community is on the terms of Federal and State departments and Agencies who come from a deficit point of view.

We’d only ever been asked to work with the community as an identified group of ‘vulnerable people’. We’d never once been asked to work with people to celebrate excellence or success.

So our first step was to move beyond ‘professional empathy’ to real understanding. We reached out. Connected. Listened. Learned. We still have a lot to learn, but we deliberately built a network of formal and informal advisors who started us on our journey to genuine engagement with the community.

Some of this network were already mates, some new to us – all are a critical part of how we shape our practice. As a deliberate business decision now, if approached by Government to work on a project involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we will not even commence a proposal until we have consulted and listened to our network – their advice drives our business decision-making in this area.

Three levels of activity

As well as this conscious decision to connect we also started thinking about how we can help make real change from a service design perspective.

Firstly, we recognised that all policy is political. That’s not a judgement, it’s a fact. That means that all services designed for and delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not politically agnostic – they are laden with political significance. With that as a foundation we decided to look at the issue from three levels where we thought we could drive action.

The three levels are:

1. Using service design to support direct community action

This level of activity is about us connecting with community and bringing our service design approach to specific projects that create real change. Not with service design as the answer, but as a support for our collaborators to navigate existing service systems and political realities. It’s service design as empowering self-determination as defined by our collaborators, not service design as the lead.

You can read about our first project which was driven by Justin below – we are really proud of it.

2. Using service design to demand self-determination in government service delivery

This level of activity is about DMA, as a service design agency, not only taking on the right work, but shaping the expectations of our client agencies and demanding a collaborative seat at the table for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

How this works in practice is that we will not take on work that has deficit language as a descriptive starting point, and we will tell the potential client why. In the preparation of proposals in how to deliver on the work, we will only do so once we have formally or informally discussed the intent with our network of advisors, this is essential as the method we outline in our proposals guide the whole project, so that advice and opportunities for collaboration must be up-front.

Finally, we recognise that the ‘service design market’ is large and extremely profitable for many design agencies. Therefore, at it’s most pragmatic level and beyond the outcomes being delivered, if there is money being made in this market then we must make actual meaningful steps and take responsibility to bring Indigenous Business into it.

Our first step in this direction has been our work with the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the Census. They approached us to work with them on the under-count of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban locations. We only took on the work once we had consulted our network and built the proposal based on their advice. During the project we continued checking in with our mates to ensure we were on track. Importantly, once we delivered our outcomes and recognised there was more work to do, we insisted that an Indigenous Business be brought in to deliver the next phase. We are extremely proud that the procurement is now complete, and though we maintain a small role, the bulk of the work will be delivered by an Indigenous design capability.

3. The evolution of service design itself from design-led to design as supporting self-determination

This is the highest level of work. A recognition that our practice, our vocation – service design – is enmeshed and intertwined with the very structures that inhibit self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

Our goal with this work is to develop a methodology that brings current service design practice together with existing and successful indigenous practice. The outcome may well be that service design just disappears in this context and makes way, But we know that Departments, policy makers and service delivers increasingly use ‘design’ language and as such we think it’s important to actively think about how this bridge is built.

For the work we are driven by understanding what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service design might look like based on the Australian experience, but also what other First Nation Peoples design practice has worked – such as the Treaty of Waitangi design framework being worked on all the time by our great peers in NZ. Our colleagues in the education leadership space are also strong influencers, with Wendy Cave in particular directing us to thinking from Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta, a Bama man of Nungar and Koori descent, and his 8 Ways of Learning in Aboriginal Languages and processes such as Engoori.

Results of our using service desing to support direct community action

Deadly All Stars Yarning Circle Design
The Deadly All Stars is a group that has been established to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care (kinship and other arrangements) to maintain links to their culture and community.

This award-winning group led a project in 2016 that designed, developed and placed a series of story poles in the front garden of Barnardos’ offices in Downer ACT.

The group was looking to expand this original project to develop more of the built environment around the office. The first goal is a yarning circle for the group itself to use.

Led by Wiradjuri woman Sharon Williams and Katie Martin from Barnardos, the All Stars are a tight knit and highly successful group. They reached out to Justin at DMA for design support.

Working with the group has led to the delivery of a professional quality design research report with you can read here. The following is from the introduction.

The team are now looking to raise $6,650.00 to make phase one of the garden become reality


In 2016 the Deadly Allstars created and built a series of Story Poles in the front garden of the Barnardos offices in Downer in the ACT. The project was empowering for the group, symbolic of their connection to culture and highly successful in terms of the support for and love of the poles by the community that uses the space (Barnardos staff, visiting families and local residents).

An opportunity arose in 2018 to think about what other features could be added to the space, with the primary driver the creation of a Yarning Circle. To support the boys in the group to experience a formal design process it was decided to commence a service design process, which they would lead, to come up with a design for the space.


The Deadly All Stars is a group that has been established to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care (kinship and other arrangements) to maintain links to their culture and community. In this project the group has become the Design Team.

A series of design activities have been set up for them to move through by Design Mentor Justin Barrie, but the team has delivered the design.

Key elements about the team include:

      • The team has been flexible to include anyone who is available at various times – it has been deliberately inclusive – though driven by a core group of around 5 – 7 young men.
      • The team has not been helped to generate content or insight – the results in the project are theirs.
      • The team is not just the young men – the group conveners Sharon Williams and Katie Martin and carers and family members have been active parts of the process as team members over the research phase.


Justin Barrie is the founder and a Principal Designer at Design Managers Australia and long-term volunteer and mentor in the ACT Community Sector.

Justin is a specialist in co-design techniques which seek to deliver projects that are designed along with the users of the service that is being built. His interest in supporting the project stems from a deep personal respect for the group conveners Sharon and Katie and what they are trying to achieve with the Allstars and a desire to support the wonderful young men in the group to work on and deliver a successful project in a context of excellence.


This research report contains a large amount of design-specific language. Readers of the report may (mistakenly) think that the Design Team hasn’t had this language used with them and that it just appears in this paper as the language of the ‘documenter’. This is by no means the case.

Justin has deliberately used this language at all times in the project. The Design Team is made up of capable, intelligent, thoughtful young men and adults.

In fact, a deliberate goal of the project is to equip the team with the language that is used currently by people and organisations that might make decisions FOR THEM, so that in the future they may harness the power of this language and approach to ensure decisions are made BY THEM or at the very least WITH THEM.

This sense of agency through language has been delivered through three key steps:

    1. Deliberate use of the design vocabulary – no simplification of language.
    2. Translation of the vocabulary – to be activity and age specific to provide context.
    3. Debriefing on the design language – when the group hung wall posters to tell the staff of the centre what they had done the previous week.

Not all of these steps, nor all of the language would have been consciously taken on by the whole team each week. Unsurprisingly this is true of adults collaborators we work with as well.

But the project is set up so that they might take away some of this design language and build on the bits that speak to them (and give them tangible results).

Read the report (PDF, 4MB)

Leave a comment