This week, we’re taking in the success of Indigenous-led co-design. What can we learn from it?

Finding the ‘co’ in co-design

Indigenous-led co-design shines in the design process, but for many corporates, it’s an afterthought – what needs to change?


Business Management

Learning Organisation

6 minute read

Imagine you and I sit down, and you interview me for thirty minutes. Once you get all the information you want from me, you say thanks and leave the room. Is this enough? Because it looks fairly one-sided from where I’m sitting.

Let me introduce the idea of ‘co-design’, a design process which actively involves all stakeholders, and specifically in our case, the Indigenous community. It aims to ensure the group's concerns are addressed and the end result meets their needs.

Going back to the scenario above, this approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s undoubtedly better than having no community input at all. But it doesn’t capture the rich tapestry of people and relationships that form a community. Allowing co-design to be led by Indigenous communities can make the process much more effective.
In short
  • Indigenous-led co-design focuses on actively involving communities to ensure that an end result meets their needs.
  • Elevating the role of Indigenous communities in co-design consistently builds intercultural relationships and provides more effective end solutions.
  • We form three key principles from Indigenous-led co-design that could improve your own process.
How does Indigenous co-design set an organisation apart?
Even though styles of Indigenous co-design may vary across organisations, one thing remains consistent: the community isn’t just being researched – they also become the researchers.1 They are active and meaningful participants in the process, empowering them to reaffirm their agency.2

This process takes considerable effort, of course. But many organisations express concern at the extra time and resources needed. Is it worth it? Quite simply, yes. Any process of co-design should bring you to conclusions that more accurately reflect the problems and prospects the community faces. But the shared understanding and deep relationships engendered through Indigenous co-design means that you truly walk the path to the solution together.
Why is this partnership so important?
Both literature and real-world evidence show that investing time in co-design pays dividends. When members of a community are given responsibility in a changemaking process, they not only embrace the change, but become its advocates3. This attitude is abundant in Indigenous styles of co-design. It appreciates and mobilises the power of community. This has even saved lives; when Firesticks co-designed fire plans with local Aboriginal communities, it resulted in better protection of lives and land for all residents.4

So how can we encourage more effective co-design processes?

1. Commit to true representation
Ensure that your own process is committed to capturing the authentic identity of voices from wildly diverse groups in the community and embedding them into your design. This is where Indigenous-led co-design achieves more true representation than any other approach.

The road to forming the Uluru Statement from the Heart was one of the most important examples of co-design led by Indigenous people in recent times. The process distilled thousands of voices from around the country, the essence of which were then brought to Uluru by their delegates and interwoven within the Uluru Statement.5

2. Invest time up front in forming relationships
Deep relationships can mean the difference between leaving with cursory findings and uncovering key revelations. The transactional relationships of corporate co-design are based on the here and now. The relationships built through Indigenous-led co-design are ongoing and meaningful. There’s no doubt which relationships yield the more precious insights.

3. You’re not the interviewer; you’re part of a team
Any form of co-design is based on the assumption that the people you’re researching have more insight into their problems and opportunities than you do. After all, they’re the ones that live them every day.

So why do we try to extract this information like it’s a surgical manoeuvre? Playing the role of team member rather than interviewer recognises the value that each participant brings to the table. It gives weight to the voices of the community, offers them an opportunity to contribute meaningfully according to their strengths, and allows them to play an active role in designing a solution that will best serve their needs.

“When a community is given responsibility in a changemaking process, they not only embrace the change, but become its advocates.”

Co-design in motion
We decided to put our money where our mouth is, co-designing with Indigenous Brand & Graphic Designer, Leticia-Anne-Maree Quince of Leticia Anne Designs.

Working together, Leticia and our 52 Mondays designer Chelsea and crafted a bespoke digital illustration which reflected both the spirit of 52 Mondays and Leticia’s authentic interpretation of the article. During this process, Chelsea and Leticia were able to yarn about their own processes and backgrounds, letting that influence the final design.
“In this work you will see the essence of co-design, collaboration and sharing in the space of the yarning circle. The round table represents a community circle, for, within Aboriginal culture, community and coming together as people sites at the core of everything we do. It also represents sharing across the Nations and to all people through the cross-hatching upon the land on the edge.”
- Concept Statement, Leticia Anne Designs

on authentic storytelling
So how can brands connect with Indigenous culture and showcase its rich diversity? Indigenous photographer Wayne Quilliam says the key is open-ended communication with the communities he photographs. It’s not just about showing up with a camera, but collecting stories and images in a way they want to share with the world.

Co-designing Reconciliation
Want to see co-design in action? Reconciliation Action Plans are a great place to start.
Let’s look at what a Reconciliation Action Plan is (or a RAP, as it’s more commonly called). It’s a document that supports an organisation’s strategic plan to contribute to reconciliation, both internally, and in its community. And it helps create deep relationships with and meaningful opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Organisations who have achieved Elevate RAP status are recognised as capable of leading societal change on a national level. The key to that success? You guessed it, co-design. The most effective RAPs are born of robust co-design processes, with a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people sitting in their working groups.

It’s important to recognise that the responsibility of reconciliation doesn’t lie with Indigenous people, and as such, Indigenous people shouldn’t be obligated to drive the design of a RAP. Instead, co-design on a RAP requires the collaboration and advocacy of every person on the committee.

When it’s time to put that co-design into action, you might wonder how far it can go. The RAPs of organisations like Westpac and Transport for NSW continue to prove that Indigenous co-design propels real outcomes that profoundly connect with the values of the business.

  1. Julie Mooney-Somers and Lisa Maher, The Indigenous Resiliency Project: a worked example of community-based participatory research, (2009) NSW Health.
  2. Tony Dreise and Evalynn Marzuski, Weaving Knowledges, (2018) Aboriginal Affairs NSW.
  3. John Kotter, Accelerate, (2014) Harvard.
  4. Indigenous Knowledge Institute, Co-design in fire management, (2020) University of Melbourne.
  5. From the Heart, The Journey to the Uluru Statement, (2020).

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