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Firesticks: designing for country

Enhancing connections between Indigenous ecological knowledge and scientific approaches to land management.

Laura, Cape York, 2009

Laura, Cape York, 2009. Photo: Peta Standley.

In summary

  • UTS researchers are working collaboratively with the Indigenous-led Firesticks initiative to deliver award-winning visual communication design and on-ground change.
  • Firesticks aims to empower Indigenous people to renew and strengthen their cultural knowledge and practices relating to fire and traditional burning.
  • Cultural burning strengthens connections between community and country and enhances the health and resilience of ecosystems.


Promoting and communicating the role of cultural burning and Indigenous cultural values in contemporary land management is the focus of a long-term Indigenous-led research collaboration called Firesticks (opens an external site).

Inspired by Kuku Thaypan Elder Dr Tommy George and Victor Steffensen, founder of Mulong Productions, the Firesticks network reaches across Australia. It has communities of practice in Tasmania, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Queensland.

In 2013, Dr Jacqueline Gothe, the Director of Visual Communication Design in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building (DAB), and Oliver Costello, a Firesticks co-initiator and visiting fellow at the UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, partnered with the NSW Nature Conservation Council on a federally funded component of the Firesticks initiative.

Strengthening connections through burning

“The Nature Conservation Council Firesticks Project is working with ecologists and communities in Northern NSW. The project team is creating learning pathways to support Indigenous cultural burning on Aboriginal lands and strengthen healthy connections between community and country,” says Dr Gothe, who leads a creative team responsible for the visual language and communication design of the Firesticks project.

“Through Firesticks, Indigenous organisations are participating in fire planning processes emphasising cultural values in contemporary land management.

“Western land management practices of bushfire mitigation are concerned with protection of life and property; at this stage, the consideration of cultural values and respect for animals, plants, biodiversity and wellbeing is not central.”

Victor Steffensen at national Indigenous fire workshop at Wujal Wujal, Cape York, August 2016

Victor Steffensen at national Indigenous fire workshop at Wujal Wujal, Cape York, August 2016. Photo: Ben Simons.

Designing for country

Dr Gothe with Lyndal Harris, Mitra Gusheh and Sian Hromek have worked on  the website design, education packages and video narratives for the Firesticks initiative. They have also supported the participatory development of templates for reports and fire plans produced through the program.

“My investigation is concerned with the role of the visual communication designer and how visual communication designers work alongside Indigenous led initiatives, in contemporary land management practices,” Dr Gothe says.

“My experience during this participatory project contributes to understanding how the discipline of visual communication design and the visual communication designer as researcher participates in cross-cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations.”

Dr Gothe’s work on the project has received international acclaim, winning two silver International Institute for Information Design awards in 2014 in the Sustainability and Social Affairs categories, and an Editor’s Choice Award in 2011.

Values diagram for Firesticks protocols.

Values diagram for Firesticks protocols. Responsibility, Respect, Recognition

Taking a transdisciplinary approach

Working in an Indigenous-led framework is necessarily different to professional design methodologies, according to Dr Gothe. Listening, waiting, and creating space around ideas and processes are all key to successful outcomes.

“This project exemplifies transdisciplinary work – working with different knowledge systems and different world views including Indigenous perspectives, scientific communities and mainstream audiences,” she says.

“As a visual communication designer, it’s important to find alternative and less directive processes.

“The aim is to bring into visibility practices that emphasise the importance of Indigenous values and traditional ecological knowledge for healthy communities and healthy landscapes in contemporary land management through the principles of respect, recognition and responsibility.”

Yellomundee National Park, 2014

Yellomundee National Park, NSW, 2014. Photo: Michael Snape.

Publications, conferences and exhibitions

Land Dialogues Conference, Charles Sturt University, 2016
Interpretive Wonderings 2016, Produced in collaboration with the Culpra Milli Aboriginal Corporation.
Tracing Country: Visual Communication Design and Chorography. Towards a critical practice in visual communication design, 2016
Chora UTS Gallery 2015
Slow Burn Delmar Gallery 2015
Connecting Communities and the Environment through Media: Doing, Saying and Seeing Along Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways 2009