birribirrimarra marramangidyal mayiny murrugay bu marramaldhaany-dhurray

Introducing Indigenous Design and bandalang studio

Indigenous design, as it is now called, has been around for millenia. In many places, ‘Australia’ included, science and engineering were used as tools of colonisation (for example see Bishop,1990 about the use of maths). In fundamental terms, settler-state engineering preferences have caused the decline in the practice and transmission of First Nations design approaches. Furthermore, with no direct translation between the English word ‘design’ and First Nations languages, in Australia at least (Page & Memmott,2021) talk of Indigenous ‘design’ becomes problematic. Articulating First Nations practices in terms of western beliefs and practices is an age-old tactic of colonisation and dispossession. While benefits of engineering can be identified (think, for example of medical equipment), there are also undeniable problems (such as unethical practices including inappropriate materials or inadequate consideration of the assumptions underpinning engineering principles).

Compounding the specific disadvantage of First Nations status, engineering generally is beyond the average citizen of settler-state societies, with both the conception and execution of engineering plans being the domain of professionals and technocrats. Education and training represent another component of the engineering ecosystem that is also reasonably exclusive, in both curricula and student cohorts. In First Nations societies, creating and making artefact expertise is relatively widely shared, with community members often participating in constructing and maintaining common design artefacts (Page & Memmott,2023) such as gulaman (wiradyuri for coolamon), leaky weirs or fish traps. In places like contemporary Canberra, engaging all people is something design does better than engineering. Engaging people with the design skills and knowledge of First Nations peoples and systems to drive change towards a more equitable and sustainable future is an important element of what bandalang studio seeks to create and nurture. That is, the studio aims to salvage design from the currently exclusive and exclusionary system of design and engineering education and training.

Indigenous beliefs and research frameworks

Indigenous design principles and practices reflect a vastly different set of beliefs about the practice of science and the purpose of design to those guiding western science and engineering practice. In essence, Indigenous sciences, including design, are country-centred and relational, whereas much of ‘Western’ science, and engineering, are human-centred and transactional (Harriden,2023). While not all First Nations peoples use the uniquely Aboriginal Australia word ‘country’, there is a widespread shared meta-ontology of the existence of a web of relationships between human and other-than-human entities, such as plants, animals, landforms, water ways, spirits and more, forming a territorial and social place/space that the word country represents. Relationality, the practice of an ethics of care to the relationships (Bawaka Country, Wright, Suchet-Pearson et al, 2015) binding the web of relationships forming country, is deeply embedded in First Nations ontology and axiology (Tynan, 2021). When brought to scientific practices, including design, a country-centred perspective and relationality form the basis of what are regarded as the primary Indigenous science frameworks of respectively, centring country and relational accountability. (Wilson, 2001; Tynan, 2020).

Country is considered indivisible (Marshall, 2017) and through understanding humans’ place in country as often peripheral, First Nations people have developed a custodial, rather than ownership, ethic toward the other-than-human (Harriden, 2023). Consequently, cenring country in design means that all steps in the design process must consider country as a unified whole, rather than address just one of two of its components. Country-centred practice is both as simple and complex as all design considerations being done from the perspective of what is best for country. Relational accountability similarly directly reflects the importance of relationality, between all aspect of country, in First Nations worldviews. Wilson (2001) outlines how relationality means research is regarded as coming from country, and shared with all of country-rather than the individual knowledge production, and ownership, paradigm of western science. If knowledge comes from country and is for country, then the production of knowledge demands the research be accountable to all relevant relationships. Thus, relational accountability is an Indigenous research framework incorporating the axiological imperative that researchers account for all relationships throughout, in this case, the design process (Harriden, 2023).

Indigenous design principles

All Indigenous design principles reflect either, although usually both, the Indigenous sciences frameworks centring country or relational accountability. There are many principles, including storytelling, with the artefact materials, colours, and shapes contributing to narratives integral to the design, or working with social organisation principles to inform camp layout (Page & Memmott, 2021). High level design principles shared by First Nations peoples in Australia, include:

  • Everything is sentient

The actions and activities of creator beings in the Dreaming imbued all aspects of country with sentience, giving all a place in the web of relationships forming country. Recognizing the sentience of all country contributes to First Nation practices of asking permission before taking anything, taking only what is needed and using all that is taken.

  • Functional sophistication

Artefacts designed with Indigenous principles may seem simple, but are extraordinarily effective. An example of the functional sophistication of Indigenous design is the woomera: a spear already capable of killing, enhanced by a throwing device that carries seeds or plants cut by its single stone edge (Page & Memmott, 2021). To get a sense of the enduring functional sophistication of the design steeped in centring country and relational accountability, as practised by First Nations peoples in Australia, the ABC TV series First Weapons is a good start.

  • Design with country

Rather than significantly remaking land and water scapes to suit humans, First Nations peoples’ design with country. For example, using, and extending, natural windbreaks formed by vegetation for camp structure and shelter (Page & Memmott, 2021) or the Gunditjmara eel traps that use lava formations as the structure’s skeleton. The use of local materials, particularly fibres but also rocks, skins, bones and wood, and working at site and local scales are part of designing with country. From these brief examples, it is clear that designing with country requires using centring country and relational accountability methods.

  • Adaptive reuse

Adaptive reuse is a modern term for an ancient practice. For First Nations peoples, the idea of reusing materials, even entire sections of infrastructure, was so ingrained in design practice as to not require a specific term. So-called adaptive reuse is a direct consequence of First Nations country-centred and relational perspectives and prevents excessive demands being made of county.

bandalang and Indigenous design

bandalang is a wiradyuri language noun meaning joining, a junction. In the context of the studio, bandalang references more than the typical ‘joining’ activities intrinsic to design and engineering. A critical ‘joining’ the studio seeks to support is that of First Nations peoples with their intellectual and design heritage. The studio is a place where First Nations residents and fellows will be free to use Indigenous frameworks and design practices when crafting and conducting design projects, rather than strongly discouraged as more often happens. Another aspect of ‘joining’ enmeshed in the studio’s name is the desire to join western practices to the principles of Indigenous design. bandalang studio is also a physical junction for the flip from working top down with First Nations peoples’ that Aunty Anne Martin notes in the studio’s welcome video. A place/space where Indigenous design frameworks, principles and practices lead interactions with other knowledge systems, as Matt Heffernan calls for in the same video. Through respectful intellectual, creative and physical actions, and relationships created, the studio could become a repository, a keeping place, for First Nation design practices embodying centring country and relational accountability.

bandalang studio founding principles

The four principles guiding the studio’s priorities, reflecting a country centred ethos and relationality, are the:

  • principle of bandalang (collaboration) bandalang = joining, junction (noun)
  • principle of wudhagarbinya (listening) wudhagarbinya = listen
  • principle of dhurinya (equality) dhurinya = being, continuing to being
  • principle of gurray (change) gurray = change or refreshment

The languages used to articulate these principles include Walgalu, Wiradyuri, Dhurga and Ngunnawal/Gundungarra.

bandalang projects and Indigenous design principles

The ‘joining’ work has already begun. The inaugural resident, now fellow Patrick Green, alongside the poignant We Were Free Before also created the studio’s icon. This beautiful image is an elegant design, reflecting a piece of ancient Indigenous engineering - the boomerang – which is repeated in a rotational symmetry of three parts. The number three is intentional, each element represents each of the three schools in the college. As well, Patrick’s stunning artworks, made on an iPad during his 2022 residency, are now installed in the windows of the heritage listed Birch Building where the Bandalang Studio is located.

The 2023 residents aim to join old ways with new technology, with projects seeking to:

  • bring native plants in high numbers quickly to communities for post-disaster recovery, revegetation and horticultural or landscaping projects;
  • use AR/VR technology to revive and rebuild First Nations languages; and
  • develop culturally and linguistic relevant maths books.

The sharing of knowledge intergenerationally, an important aspect of relationality, is an active and key component of the possum cloak project, as is the studio’s inclusion of Pasifika peoples’ in the residency program. Blending ancient thinking and practices with new technology and materials is exemplified in the native grass seed sorter project and that to transfer coolamon cutting technology and design beyond trees. The emotional ‘joining’ has not been neglected, with a project seeking to show the wider community to see waterways differently, using Indigenous ways of being and thinking. While this project is one that more obviously embraces a country-centred perceptive, each reflects First Nations understandings that country’s well-being is an integral part of our heritage, and that it is our shared responsibility to care for country.

By using, (re)building and sharing Indigenous design beliefs and values, as well as practices and methods, Indigenous-led studios such as Bandalang support First Nations (re)building while contributing to a broader, stronger knowledge base from which to tackle contemporary problems.

From essay “birribirrimarra marramangidyal mayiny murrugay bu marramaldhaany-dhuray - Introducing Indigenous Design and bandalang studio” - bandalang studio Advusory Board

General Enquiries

+61 (02) 6125 6841

The Birch Building (Building 35) is located at 35 Science Rd, Canberra, ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA

ANU School of Engineering staff and students also occupy the following buildings on the Acton campus of ANU:

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