Design for Country

How does a global commercial business undertake a reconciliation action plan in an authentic way? This was the question at the forefront of our ‘Civic Good: Design that Connects’ panel. The layers of this idea were unpacked through an immersive and active conversation, with a panel of experts; Simone Thomson, Dr. Christine Phillips, Mark White and Vanessa Panotas. The panel discussed the ways in which authenticity, ethics and civility can be upheld by commercial design businesses, in both business practices and design. A commitment to undertaking reconciliation is a journey in itself and should be viewed holistically, with many contributing factors- business, culture and interpersonal connections.

Simone Thompson, Artist and descendant of the Wurundjeri and Yorta-Yorta tribes, encourages businesses to commit to the “journey of commitment”. Reconciliation is not about “just ticking boxes” and certainly not a responsibility of Aboriginal people. As an artist and designer, she understands the value of authenticity in creation and design and believes that organisations need to create connections and make conscious efforts to ask questions we don’t know the answers to, and to prepare to listen and change.

The panelists, from differing design industries and backgrounds, agreed on two central ideals that must be maintained and implemented to ensure authenticity: engagement and value.  Value can be encompassed in the design process– the longevity, narratology and civic opportunities a design can fulfil, by combining “art, skills and culture into [our] designs.” Thinking about the ‘life beyond the building’ through interconnectedness in the design process, and the lifetime of the design to ensure value in the form of tangible opportunities for all cultures and communities.

Opportunities and engagement go together, by forming relationships, and “connecting to people” to form positive outcomes. Engaging with aboriginal communities, individuals and advocates in all stages of a design lifecycle ensure an authentic solution and step in the journey to reconciliation.

The rich and vibrant Aboriginal culture was discussed, with all panelists in agreement that “there are so many stories to tell…” that artists and designers specifically in their design dialogue need to “take the opportunity to tell…share and listen to them” in an active form of engagement.

The central question of ‘how does a global commercial business undertake a reconciliation action plan in an authentic way?’ does not have one definitive answer and is dependent on the intentions and commitment of a business. However, through active participation and engagement with such events as the “Civic Good: Design that Connects” panel and taking guidance from experts and advocates in this field, we are better able to see the concept in a more nuanced way. Through an honest design dialogue, promoting engagement and valuable opportunities could ensure a better civic good. For all.


About the panel

Simone Thomson

Simone Thomson, Woi-Wurrung Wurundjeri and Yorta-Yorta Traditional Owner and Artist based in Naarm (Melbourne) who has been engaged to undertake an artwork for Steelcase’s new location. She draws inspiration through her ancestral bonds to the sacred waterways of the Birrarung (Yarra River) and Dhungala (the Murray River) and her spiritual connection to Country. She works to carry the language, stories and ancestral oral history and knowledge passed down to her from her mother and grandmother.

Christine Phillips
Oopla! RMIT University

Christine is an active part of Australia’s architecture culture through her practice OoPLA, which includes writing, broadcasting, curating and exhibiting. Her work as a lecturer in Architecture at RMIT University has focussed on creating a design discourse about place, and connectivity with our first nations peoples.

Mark White

Mark initiated Manapan, a self-sufficient and self-funded enterprise owned and operated by the Yolngu people 500kms east of Darwin in Arnhem Land on Milingimbi Island.

Manapan is a furniture factory that aims to connect designers to makers and support traditional cabinet making craft, using timber locally sourced and blended with sustainably harvested, specialty Australian timbers by Yolngu people. The craftspeople are now collaborating with some Melbourne furniture designers to produce complex handcrafted furniture aimed at the top of the domestic and commercial markets

Vanessa Panotas
Steelcase Australia

Vanessa is a working group member on Steelcase Reconciliation Action Plan. She is embarking on this journey to learn and to bring awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia through her role at Steelcase.

Moderator: Rebecca Daff

As an Architect with over 20 years in the industry, Rebecca’s approach to transparent dialogue and strategic processes aims to empower her clients through design. She brings a unique aptitude for assimilating multiple stakeholder agendas to create powerful and insightful visions for projects and the commitment to realise them to finality. Rebecca is passionate about creating forums for dialogue about improving our structure and processes for better design.