Small Business

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Dream of design identity becomes reality

An indigenous Qantas aeroplane model helped a company fly to great heights.

It was one of those moments most of us would probably chuckle about, roll over and sleep on: Ros Moriarty still recalls how she woke up at 2am one morning some 20 years ago, and told her husband John: ''I've got to paint a Qantas jumbo.''

Thus began an ambitious pitch to the national carrier that would ultimately put the couple's Jumbana Group, an Australian indigenous design and strategy company, on the map. ''It took us 18 months to convince Qantas to do it,'' the 56-year old entrepreneur says.

Having pinned Qantas's then-boss James Strong at a frequent flyers' event with a large poster of a Boeing 747 they had overlaid with Aboriginal-inspired designs, the Moriartys got a call a few months later with the airline wanting a ''showstopper'' for the opening of Osaka's Kansai Airport in 1994.

They designed the Wunala Dreaming jumbo, evoking the colours of the bush, the wetlands and the reds of Uluru. Planned as a three-month promotion, it became the world's most photographed aircraft and would fly for 17 years until it was grounded this year.

The Qantas commission was ''absolutely pivotal'' for Jumbana, which had been founded in 1983 using the family's $12,000 in savings, Mrs Moriarty says. ''As a design company it pitched our whole philosophy about branding Australia, and the power of indigenous branding to say who we are as Australians.'' For her husband, 74, a full member of the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria who had been taken from his mother during the time of the Stolen Generation, it was also highly emotional seeing the national airline fly the Aboriginal colours.

Fast forward to today, and the Sydney-based business counts companies such as Nespresso, IBM, and Xstrata among its clients. Its design arm, Balarinji, has decorated two more planes and designed the boomerang fabric for the uniforms Qantas's staff have been wearing for the past decade. It also attracted some international clients including rock band U2, which used its graphics as a stage backdrop for its Australian tour in 2006.


Two-thirds of Jumbana, which employs a dozen permanent staff, are design projects, and public art such as decorating the Alice Springs and Darwin airports. The company also provides corporate consultancy services such as leadership immersion and cultural workshops, often to companies active in Aboriginal communities such as miners or tourism operators.

Keeping mum on financials, Mrs Moriarty calls it the ''best year so far'' for the company, which began on the kitchen table with John sketching spirit figures and long-necked turtles, while his Tasmanian-born wife would create patterns. What started to connect their three children with their tribal heritage has clearly evolved into a profitable business.

Asked if there have ever been any issues given the sensitivities of commercialising indigenous culture, the former radio journalist says the company found ''enormous support from the community'' with its ''respectful business approach''.

''We were never about putting Aboriginal art on things, it was about trying to create a new Australian design ethos based in landscape colour, cultural integrity and tradition, and contemporary graphics,'' she stresses.

Having sponsored some Aboriginal kids from early on - the designers provided Cathy Freeman's running gear before the Olympic gold medal winning sprinter signed up with Nike - the Moriartys 18 months ago founded a not-for-profit arm for Jumbana, the Nangala Project, running pilot initiatives in John's community, Borroloola.

They include a pre-literacy project bringing books to children in remote communities, soccer coaching for under-10s (John was the first Aboriginal soccer player to be selected for the Australian national team), and a travel agency that brings tourist and corporate volunteers into disadvantaged communities.

The business model is to integrate the non-profit activities into Jumbana's branding concepts for commercial clients, such as having Qantas fly books from Sydney schools to the Northern Territory, seeking sponsorships and getting corporate volunteers for leadership development into remote communities.

Some 160 children have been enrolled in the first six months of the pilots.

Mrs Moriarty says her focus will stay on the design and consulting work. ''In terms of time, my priority has to be at the commercial business. It's what sustains us to do what we're doing on the not-for-profit part.''