Mathan Ratinam

You can’t help but feel humbled when meeting new Victorian Premier’s Design Awards (VPDA) Design Strategy judge, Mathan Ratinam. If ‘making a difference’ was an Olympic event, he’d be a multiple gold medal winner. As a design professional, he wears many hats, but it’s his innate commitment to giving back to communities that makes him a stand-out human being.

In a career that has taken him around the world – to countries that many of us would have trouble finding on a map – and back again, Mathan knows a thing or two about leveraging design thinking to affect change.

Starting out as an architect and university lecturer, Mathan was always drawn to a humanitarian path. Perhaps it was his personal experience of having escaped a conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka to emigrate to Australia as a child – when so many others he knew suffered or didn’t survive.

Or maybe it was following in his father’s academic footsteps and becoming a second-generation PhD (along with his brother). But no doubt, he has elevated the field of design strategy and taken it to its furthest limits in working with organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, the Obama administration and now with the Victorian Government in a quest to change the way First Nations youth interact with the justice system.

Design strategy as an enabler of  change

To Mathan, design strategy is a ‘calculated risk worth taking.’ It’s that collective delivery of a material object, place or policy that will have the greatest possible impact on the community it serves.

‘Design strategy is the ability to see the whole chess board and determine what’s the path to optimal outcome in the most elegant way possible,’ he commented.

Mathan points to fashion design as a great example of all the factors a successful design strategist needs to consider.

‘In fashion, you’re navigating multiple things at one time. Looking at the street for inspiration, gaining material intelligence, knowing the particular audience you’re designing for, understanding the capability of the fabric and having a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in society.’

‘From there, the designer needs to assess the political and economic environment they’re working in and be mindful of the external factors that will influence how to get something from the drawing board to the rack. They need to realise the impact of what they’re doing. A strategic designer has to ask themselves what additionality do they bring to the world? And what role will their strategy play?’

Mathan is intrigued by the ambiguities of design. For example, the fact that architects don’t create buildings. They create representations of buildings through sketches, models and detailed drawings – and all these methods scaffold around a concept that needs to be communicated visually and verbally to others to bring the project to life.

That concept helps Mathan articulate his thoughts on the design strategist’s role – to ensure they have the optimal way to codify and communicate a project to capture the essence of what those who will use the space, the object or program, will feel and experience when they do.

‘As a design strategist, you realise that you’re operating on a level of complexity and sophistication and you’re aiming for an ideal outcome. It’s not necessarily a building – it could be policy, an economic model or even a military campaign. Dynamics at play are so intricate, you’ve got to ask the tough questions, be thoughtful and understand how people will be affected by what you are helping to create,’ he commented.

‘Each project is a collection of jigsaw pieces and the design strategist works with those around them in a multitude of disciplines to put those pieces together. Collective delivery means that no one person is responsible for changing society,’ he added.

Transitioning from design practitioner to teacher to policy change maker 

After completing his PhD in representation of architecture, Mathan moved on to teaching and it’s in the reflective space of the classroom that he feels he can delve into the greatest intellectual adventures. Having taught design strategy at Columbia University in New York, his passion and interest in humanitarian development led him to pitch an idea for a specialised course in humanitarian design at Parsons School of Design. What started out as a brief contract turned into a 7-year stint, exploring how to shift from design responsiveness within the international humanitarian community to preparedness. His love of teaching combined with his personal connection to the lack of equality in global prosperity spurred him to pursue relationships and ultimately roles with some of the world’s most prolific NGOs and institutions in the public purpose sector.

Mathan sees direct parallels between design strategy and humanitarian work. Being open to observing, learning from others, factoring in every element and developing trust are vital in both. ‘Facilitation of the process is the project.’

‘No matter what the challenge is, a positive design strategy approach will factor in cultural, social, political and economic variables at both a macro and micro level.’

‘The design strategist needs to bring the right people to the table and manage the atmospherics, the tempo and the vocabulary used – to produce something that will allow people to resonate with the subject matter.’

Applying his global experience to domestic challenges

When returning to Australia after many years overseas, Mathan soon noticed that there were marked differences in the way design thinking was being used here. The problem-solving capacity of design strategy was being underutilised.

‘With so many amazing design schools here, its graduates didn’t have access to the same opportunities as their overseas counterparts. People here didn’t seem to get design strategy, although thankfully that perception is changing now.

‘Elevating design thinking, so it has seismic impact on society, is the best way to see the full force of what design strategy is capable of.’

In his current role, as Principal Practitioner, Aboriginal Youth Justice Hubs with the Victorian Department of Justice, Mathan has the rare opportunity of doing something he loves while integrating all the global best practice experience he has accumulated over his career. The hubs project he’s leading is using a co-design approach to develop a series of spaces that will provide wrap-around support for kids coming into contact with the justice system – where they are needed most across the state.

He believes that experiencing and witnessing adversity is the best inspiration for exceptional design thinking.

‘I love working in the public sector as it brings me in contact with extraordinary human beings. I’d like to think that as a design strategist I’m bringing more than just a safe space and support to First Nations youth in this project. I also see it as a platform for economic empowerment. Without economic power you don’t have political power,” he said.

Mathan is pensive as he describes the disproportionate number of First Nations youth who come into contact with the justice system. The incarceration level is more than 10 times that of the non-Indigenous population. Initial police contact is not the beginning. The roots of the disparity are complex, influenced by underlying factors such as family background, economic circumstances, lack of resources, identity challenges, structural issues and even language barriers.

He’s committed to designing the youth hubs in a way that looks at the driving factors but also provides opportunity for the best outcomes to reach as many kids as possible. The importance of this project extends far beyond the hubs themselves, as they have the potential to set a precedent for how we think about other populations at high risk.

First Peoples as design strategists

It was only when Mathan began working with the Aboriginal Youth Justice team that he realised that some of the most thoughtful strategic design is inherent in First Nations communities. The fact that many of their languages don’t even include specific words for ‘art,’ ‘design’ or strategy’ actually points to the fact that these elements are so entrenched in their culture that there is no need to articulate them.

‘Theirs is an unbroken culture of 60,000 years in one of the harshest environments in the world. Their deeply sophisticated and intimate understanding of Country and context and all the dynamic elements that are at play is so beautiful and efficient, while being largely invisible to others,’ he noted.

‘It’s only through my new role that I’ve realised the intricate design strategies at play among Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. I’ve never paused to appreciate it but having the privilege of being embedded in that community now, gives me the ability to notice,’ he added.

Recognising design strategy and celebrating its contribution

Design strategy is often internalised and not celebrated – almost like a secret that people don’t want to share. But according to Mathan, it needs to be talked about so that others can collectively benefit as a design community.

Being a VPDA judge is something that Mathan is excited about. He’s looking forward to working with people who pay deeper attention to every stage of the design process.

‘The VPDA design strategy award gives practitioners exposure in a field that is often largely misunderstood. Design strategies work upstream and move downstream, translating into discourse, collaboration, plans, operations and materials that benefit people and communities. There is enormous value in being able to potentially lift others up to meet societal changes and that’s definitely worth celebrating,’ commented Mathan.

‘The award is recognition of a design strategist’s thoughtfulness, especially when something is immaterial. More than that, it’s a major contribution to the broader design community and starts to change the conversation – setting new benchmarks and precedents that say we can push further,’ he concluded.