Culture, environment at heart of Indigenous languages conference design

Not just ticking the boxes: Backyard Creative brings a sustainable design mindset to designing an important conference.

Sustainable design champion and longtime National Sustainability Committee member Lisa Hemingway, CGD, leads Backyard Creative, a creative design studio. Based in Nanaimo, BC, Backyard Creative believes that “high-quality design can effect positive change in our communities. We believe good design not only communicates efficiently and embodies the craft of design, but also considers its environmental, social, economic and cultural impacts.” In 2019, Backyard Creative worked with the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation (FPCF), a non-profit organization that generates support and funding for Indigenous and First Nations artists, communities, cultural organizations and educational organizations. The foundation is “devoted to the revitalization of First Nations languages, arts and cultures.”

With a team that included designers Sebastian Abboud and Laura Timmermans and project manager Madelen Ortega, Backyard Creative was engaged by the FPCF to produce the branding and a wide range of event materials for HELISET TŦE SḰÁL – ‘Let the Languages Live’. This international conference, focused on the revitalization of Indigenous languages, took place over three days in June 2019 and was held on the territories of the Lekwungen speaking Peoples, in Victoria, BC. (HELISET was hosted by the First Peoples' Cultural Foundation and the First Peoples' Cultural Council, in partnership with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.)

An Indigenous master carver and painter, TEMOSEN Charles Elliott, designed a unique icon which Backyard Creative then digitized, with his approval. The Backyard Creative team built upon the engaging colours and textures and the inclusive, celebratory spirit in Elliott’s original work, and created a modular brand approach to express his intent through various visual channels. They designed a set of graphic assets and a graphic standards document to ensure consistency across all materials, both pre-event and during the conference. This included a collection of original icons representing the various program streams for easy visual recognition and another set for sponsorship levels as part of the sponsorship package, which they also designed. 

Choosing a Canadian-designed syllabics font called Huronia allowed the design team to represent a wide variety of Indigenous languages as closely as possible, which was crucial for this event. They sought opportunities to visually integrate and highlight Indigenous languages as much as possible, such as on the volunteer t-shirts, suggesting to the client that the Lekwungen word ‘skʷəniŋəɬ’ be included and placed above the English ‘Helper’. 

This highly collaborative project included designing the event program, signage, banners and wayfinding on a compressed timeline and collaborating with event producers, Connect 7 Group.

Backyard Creative was very thoughtful and comprehensive in the way it approached the sustainability of this project. They designed modular signage that could be adapted in the case of anticipated event programming changes — schedule changes were planned up until the day before the event, which was unlike any other event they had designed for. They excluded the event dates from collateral as much as possible, so they could be reused for future HELISET events, saving raw materials and transportation. The team recommended the client choose high quality, ethically-sourced event promotional products — bags, mugs, pens and t-shirts for example — that would be useful to delegates, saving unnecessary production of unwanted products destined for the landfill. They also encouraged printing on FSC-certified recycled paper and reducing the amount of printing needed by using digital communications. This project fostered cultural responsibility and diversity by bringing awareness to the time-sensitive importance of preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages around the world and promoting inclusivity while activating the vision of an Indigenous master carver and painter.

The HELISET conference was a huge success, drawing over 1,000 attendees from more than 20 countries. This diverse group included Indigenous language educators and champions, and Indigenous elders. Many delegates did not speak English. Backyard Creative’s collaborative nature and ability to expand their team capacity allowed them to provide a range of services for the HELISET event in a short amount of time. 

Project roles:

  • Creative Direction: Lisa Hemingway, CGD
  • Lead Designer: Sebastian Abboud
  • Design & Illustration: Laura Timmermans
  • Project & Client Management: Madelen Ortega