The Power of Collaboration

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A quote that I stumbled on during grad school stuck with me. From the story of the elder’s box as told by Eber Hampton, it sums up my philosophy of working and teaching:

“How many sides do you see?”
“One,” I said.

He pulled the box towards his chest and turned it so one corner faced me.
“Now how many do you see?”
“Now I see three sides.”

He stepped back and extended the box, one corner towards him and one towards me.

“You and I together can see six sides of this box,” he told me.

—Eber Hampton (2002) The Circle Unfolds, p. 41–42

Creating a Learning Resource with Aboriginal Students

My graduate school thesis project was to create a learning resource for an Aboriginal literature course for Aboriginal students at the University of Alberta. This effort was an interesting challenge since it involved me—a non-Aboriginal designer—trying to design for Aboriginal students from multiple cultural backgrounds.

While navigating the expected cross-cultural design issues, I met some wonderful people and learned a great deal about the importance of letting those with whom you design guide the research and design process.

This daunting task left me more than a bit intimidated at the end of the day. However, I felt from the outset that if I took the time to get to know my design partners and if I took the time to examine how they could guide me, somehow we could be successful.

The resource was to be a website representing Aboriginal literatures from multiple cultures to enrich the learning experience for first-year Aboriginal students. My final project was a prototype design that I then tested in paper form.

The learning resource is based on materials used in English 114: Aboriginal Literature and Culture, a compulsory, full-year Aboriginal Canadian literature course in the Transition Year Program (TYP) at the University of Alberta. The TYP program is for Aboriginal undergraduate students and is designed to prepare them for admission into one of eight faculties at the University. Some students have extensive contact with their Aboriginal communities and heritage; some have little or no contact. Most students are from Canada, but there are students in the program from all over North America.

Extra tutorial support is included in every class, to aid in the transition to post-secondary study. The material used in English 114 comes from Aboriginal authors from diverse communities in North America. Many different forms of literature are studied, including poetry, prose, and oral literatures.

Resource objectives

There were no specific learning outcomes created for the resource. It was simply meant to help students explore and appreciate the literature—particularly oral literatures—through video, audio, images, and text. Both teachers and students felt that commenting on and discussing works on the blog portion of the site was important. Teachers felt that the materials and the blog would help students become more engaged with the material.

“I found I wasn’t comfortable, until the end, talking to the professor because for me, the work I was doing was so personal I was afraid of criticism—to think I didn’t know what I was doing. I was kind of shy.”—Jesse, student

I spent many months completing a literature review. I didn’t find much research on visual design practice for multiple cultures and genres. I interviewed students, all the instructors, the teaching assistant, and many other academics and professionals working in Aboriginal studies. I also audited courses in Aboriginal literature and attended as many classes as possible for the course for which I would design the website.

There were some pretty clear needs identified for the course that the instructors, students, and I felt might be helped by the use of digital media. One of the biggest benefits centered on the importance of oral literatures. Audio and video files would clearly benefit the study of oral literatures when storytellers could not be brought into the classroom. Other benefits were to:

  • Help students refine independent research skills
  • Encourage communication between students and between instructors and students by creating a forum
  • Show media in class using the website
  • Give students the opportunity to access materials outside of class
  • Provide background materials to students who are unfamiliar with the material, benefiting students who hesitate to ask questions
  • Provide a more “low stakes” context for students to explore concepts raised in class
  • Allow students to seek out information
  • on their own and explore issues they might be too embarrassed to raise in class
  • Increase continuity between course sections and allow instructors to share resources
  • Allow instructors to check in more often on students’ progress
  • Give reticent students the chance to express opinions in the possibly less-intimidating forum
  • Use multimedia to demonstrate the “webbed” nature of the texts by allowing students to see how issues intersect

Some pseudonymous student comments about the course:

“I think there wasn’t enough visual stuff, personally. I would like to see the places described in the story.”—Sarah, student

“We did have some overheads, but we couldn’t make out the overheads.” —Trish, student

“ …when the author reads it you are like, wow, is that ever powerful, I’ve got tingles. You can hear their emotion and what they are trying to portray with the literature.”—Christine, student

“Video would be awesome—tone and facial expression are really important.” —Jason, student

Importance of Visual Design

I obviously can’t summarize here all the project complexities or discuss all the wonderful things I learned throughout this process. One aspect of the research, however, reinforced for me the power of collaboration in the design process.

Refining needs and features for the project was challenging, but my most daunting task from the outset was how to create a visual design to meet the needs of the university course, the multiple cultures of the students, and also reflect the literature studied.

Students and instructors also felt the resource had to visually represent traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture without using imagery that was specific to one culture or geographic region, but they also believed it needed to reference Western literary traditions because many of the authors on the syllabus referenced Western literary traditions in their literature. A daunting task to say the least.

Visual design is not of minor importance to Aboriginal cultures and the visual expression of those cultures.

While progress has been made, by various institutions, to foster understanding of Aboriginal cultures in Canada and the United States, images created by non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal designers found in mainstream media are not nearly as enlightened. Visual communication design creates effective communications that can “affect the knowledge, attitudes and behavior of people” (Frascara, 1997, p. 5). If designers can affect people with the communications they create, then they might be able in some way to prevent visual stereotyping of Aboriginal peoples and cultures.

It is easy to find examples of appropriation and stereotyping of imagery in mainstream media. Logos for the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago Blackhawks are some highly visible examples of blatant stereotyping, but more subtle examples also exist. The popularity of the “New Age” spiritual movement is one such example of cultural appropriation that furthers the misrepresentation of Aboriginal cultures (Hulan & Warley, 1999–2000).

“ …you just can’t have a dreamcatcher a wagon and a chief on every page. There is a lot more to Aboriginal culture.” —Jason, Student

“ …the fact that there’s a million different medicine wheels if you look on the internet, it’s almost like a cliché or something, even though it has real cultural worth.” —Rob, Instructor

The “Aha” Moment

My plan for the visual design process had been to conduct semi-structured interviews with students and instructors and begin collecting ideas for visuals. I had hoped that from there we’d have some ideas to start working together on creating some participatory design sessions.

However, each time I came to discuss the visual tone of the resource and what should be included, it seemed we ended up talking about placement of menus and what types of information were desired for the website. Looking at websites or thinking about them made it very hard to get away from talking about features, functionality, and content. Not that those factors were not critical to shaping the visual design, but I wanted to discuss the visual tone and symbolic references that users felt might be important to include.

My thesis supervisor suggested I try to move away from the digital medium into the print medium to avoid the focus on features. Why not look at some other medium? You’re thinking this is the big “Aha” moment right? Not yet…

My plan was to try a session with five students reviewing book covers from Aboriginal authors and discussing what visual design appealed to them. From my own training and experience as a designer, I selected what I felt was a representative sample of different visual styles: Illustration, photography, typography, and the like.

Throughout my research, a critical theme was the importance of the land and landscape to Aboriginal cultures. I had this information, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. Any specific references to a geographic region might exclude some students or authors referenced in the curriculum. Students were from all over North America and had connections to a huge variety of landscape—prairies, mountain ranges, coastal regions, arctic regions, rain forest… This project had to be respectful to the students, teachers, and Aboriginal literatures studied. Imagery was already a very sensitive topic, so omitting any particular region or any one group was far from ideal.

abstract landscape abstract landscape

abstract landscape abstract landscape

During our sessions, students gravitated to abstract images of landscape that employed natural color palettes. Interestingly, some students selected these images because they felt the images represented both contemporary and traditional cultures. Few if any students selected imagery that had specific symbolism. There was great sensitivity to the use of symbols, partially because they may exclude certain groups but also because there has been a long history of offensive appropriation of Aboriginal symbols. Most students seemed to gravitate to those images that suggested the land in an abstract way.

For example, the book Transitions was selected as both a contemporary and traditional portrayal of Aboriginal culture. One student thought that because the stones were constantly evolving and were part of the land that they were representative of the contemporary and the traditional. Another student mentioned that the industrial feel of the rock landscape suggested the contemporary but that the rocks also suggested traditional elements of the “Grandfather, the stones of the earth.”

Photography and landscape seemed most appealing to students.
Monkey Beach and Transitions: Photography and landscape seemed most appealing to students.

I had already been thinking about using natural imagery, but the problem seemed to me to be the suggestion of one geographic region. Abstract representations of landscape seemed to solve my dilemma. It was suggestive of some type of landscape, but it wasn’t specific. When students suggested a color palette of earth tones, images of landscape, and photography instead of illustration, I had my a-ha moment.

Screen grab of the learning resource Screen grab of the learning resource

Screen grab of the learning resource

I now had a direction for the visual design that was so simple yet would address a very complex issue. I could create an image that was respectful and addressed what was important to those involved but was universal enough not to exclude anyone.

Putting it all together

In the discipline of design—in sharp contrast to the modernist movement—there is a concern with how to tailor communications specifically to suit audience needs. McCoy (1995) calls this “narrowcasting” instead of “broadcasting.” With this concern comes the understanding that designers cannot make assumptions about cultural groups, even their own (Steiner & Haas, 1996).

I felt so incredibly challenged by this project not only because it meant I had to try to learn how to respectfully design with students and teachers from cultures that I was not familiar with but also because I could not understand how I could possibly design something that could be tailored to so many varied groups. My session with the students helped me realize how my own background led me to subconsciously dismiss the idea of finding some kind of universal solution since it would go against my own postmodern sensibilities.

Those sensibilities closed my mind to the possibility of universals that might be meaningful to the students and also be representative of the wide variety of literatures and cultures represented in the curriculum.

In short, without the different perspectives brought to the project by the students and teachers I was working with, I would probably never have come to the solution that I did. As I have moved forward with my career and my teaching and I see so many changes in the world of design, I think that more and more we may find ourselves in a position where we may have to challenge ourselves to find those universals. My takeaway from all this: try to practice a collaborative approach whenever possible to inform your work and allow yourself to see six sides of the box.

Works Cited

  • Frascara, J., (1997). User-centred Graphic Design: Mass communications and social change. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Hulan, R., & Warley, L. (1999–2000). Cultural literacy, First Nations and the future of Canadian literary studies. Journal of Canadian Studies, 34.3–4, 59–73.
  • McCoy, K. (1995). Graphic design in a multicultural world. How 10(2), 146–151.
  • Steiner, H., & Haas, K. (1996). Design for the global village. Applied Arts, 11(3), 46–48 and 50–52.


  1. Thanks for sharing Andrea. Sounds like a very interesting project and I loved the walkthrough on the challenges and solutions that came up along the way. It’s a great example of the design value that can come from developing that deeper understanding and connection with the target audience.

    Well done!

  2. Hi Andrea, it is interesting piece of work. I am impressed with the way you outlined the benefits of using the audio and video files to study oral literature when storytellers could not be brought into the classroom. It shows that there is a different way of achieving collaboration to share the knowledge among the student. Good work.

  3. It’s a great example of the design value that can come from developing that deeper understanding and connection with the target audience.

    Well done!

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