15. Nicola

For two years, Nicola and I worked together in the ‘big green building’ (aka: Oxfam Australia’s Melbourne office). Our chit-chat was largely limited to our daily coffee run, so I never heard much about Nicola’s second life as a research student. When Facebook told me Nicola was living in central Australia, I asked her for some insights into local charities. Only then did I hear about her recent work in the remote aboriginal community of Hermannsburg. Nicola agreed to a post-work wine and chat while she was back in Melbourne between school terms. Opening my eyes to an issue I’d never really considered, Nicola very quickly became another example of people in my life surprising me in all of the right ways! Her vision is unique and her personal and professional investment in her research project is unwavering. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds!


“I’ve always loved words and pictures. When I was young, going to the newsagency with my Dad was a really special treat. I would buy a magazine, flip through the pages, read the stories and see how they worked together with the imagery.

This love of drawing and writing stayed with me. I studied graphic design and journalism at uni and now I’m working in design and writing a thesis.

I’ve always tried to use my skills for the best possible social outcome. After my undergraduate studies, I worked as a designer for a small non-profit providing jobs for disadvantaged youth in Peru. I then worked with marginalised groups in South East Asia, India and America.

After working at this grassroots level to ensure these groups had a voice, I transitioned into a larger context at Oxfam. And this was where I found the impetus for my postgraduate research.

Working as a graphic designer, I was designing a lot of materials for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’s Program. I always felt a bit odd representing Aboriginal culture. I think Indigenous people should have the opportunity to represent themselves in the way they wish to be represented. This also extends to other cultures around the world and how people perceive and then depict them within design.

Unfortunately, design is a very euro-centric profession. Whether it’s Scandinavian style or Swiss typography, most design influences come from Europe. I think that the industry as a whole needs to start drawing inspiration from elsewhere and being more culturally inclusive.

This line of thinking led me to combine my full time work at Oxfam with a Master’s at Swinburne, where I looked at how non-Indigenous designers can work better with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in communication design. Then, 18 months ago I quit my full time job at Oxfam to pursue a PhD. It was a difficult and risky decision, but I knew it was something I wanted to explore.

My PhD looks at how to introduce design technologies in remote Aboriginal communities. Fortunately, a colleague from Oxfam introduced me to a school principal in the small town of Hermannsburg, about 130km east of Alice Springs.

Previously, when kids from remote communities like Hermannsburg reached Year 8, they were moved to a boarding school in Alice Springs. But now, kids have the option to stay in their community with their family and attend a Senior School. I’m working with kids aged 14-18 at one of these senior schools which focuses on vocational education and training to provide young people with employment pathways.

I visited for the first time in September 2016 to meet the principal, talk about the project and determine whether it was going to go ahead. I wanted to make sure the community were actually interested and I wasn’t just assuming these kids wanted to learn design skills. It took me about a year to actually get the project off the ground.

We decided if the project was going to work it would be best for me to be in the community for a whole school term.

This was a huge transition for me. Hermannsburg is a small, dusty, quiet town with a very interesting culture. Prior to colonisation, a German Lutheran mission was established. The introduction of religion has fed into the community’s traditional storytelling. There’s an interesting combination of this and their traditional Arrernte culture of dreaming, lore and initiation ceremonies.

Hermannsburg has its own way of working that is so distinctly different from a city like Melbourne. Time and space work in very different ways. Some things happen, some things don’t and you just have to go with the flow.

I’m a very structured and organised person so I arrived in Hermannsburg with eight weeks of meticulously planned lessons. I was pumped and prepared but didn’t have a single kid to teach on my first day. The local sports carnival ran a day longer than intended so no one came to class.

I’ve had to learn to deal with these situations and plan for the unpredictable. Some weeks I have two kids, other weeks I have twenty. There are so many cultural responsibilities that interrupt their schooling or create challenges in the classroom. Western Arrernte is the first language and a lot of the students will speak two or three other Aboriginal languages. English is their second, third or even fourth language.

But, rather than focusing on these barriers, I try to understand where these kids are coming from. There are a lot of challenges for young people living in remote communities and a lot of horrible statistics. Kids will more likely end up in prison than at university. There are high rates of alcoholism, imprisonment, suicide, teenage pregnancy and family violence. But these kids are real people with their own identities. They’re not just a statistic.

So, I try not to perpetuate this focus on disadvantage and instead, look at what these young people have to offer — their values, strengths and interests. They’re incredible. They go through a lot and yet they manage to turn up at school, ready to learn. To me, that’s amazing.

I am in the classroom two days a week, introducing the students to design technology and tools. At the moment we’re working on iPads to design t-shirts, stationery, bags and posters. Drawing with their fingers or with an Apple pencil seems to be quite intuitive to them, because it’s almost like the process they would use for traditional sand drawing and storytelling. They’re fabulous drawers, so it’s a matter of transitioning those skills onto a digital outcome.

Next, I’ll be trying to move that knowledge onto a computer screen using a mouse or tablet — the professional standards for graphic designers. I’ll also be working with the students to open a pop-up shop so they can sell the things that they’ve made and gain some business know how.

I also want to see if they use the technology when I’m not there. A lot of people go into remote communities really well intentioned to deliver a program but when they leave, their knowledge leaves too. My approach is to try and make the program sustainable. I’m training the staff to manage when I’m not there and trying to inspire the kids to see communication design as a viable career option.

Along the way, I also interview the students. I ask them about their process of design, what they find hard about the technology, what they find easy, what’s working in the classroom and what challenges they face. While most of them are happy to be interviewed, there are many things they can’t share. But these stories come out in their artworks — stories about dreaming, the land, gathering bush foods and spiritual ancestors — stories that are important and sacred to the community.

Being back in Melbourne between school terms, I’ve been trying to get my head back into city life. But certain things don’t seem as important as they once were – gossiping about workplace dramas, comparing salaries and house prices, whose turn it is to unpack the dishwasher, what to wear or where to go for dinner. You realise how trivial your life can be.

I’ve definitely fallen into that trap living in a big city. But when you’re out in a desert community, there’s none of that. No one cares what you wear or what you’re eating for lunch. There is no single origin coffee or skin contact orange wine. You just have to work with what you’ve got.

Finishing my PhD seems like a long way away. I don’t know what will be next, but I know I’d like to keep working in this space. I think Indigenous communities all around the world have a lot to offer design and I don’t think their potential is acknowledged. But, I think people are starting to see this potential and I just feel like I need to keep pushing.

I hope one day, organisations broaden their perspective to become more ethical and inclusive with cultural representation. I hope that Aboriginal graphic designers and people from other cultures will be able to represent themselves.”

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