The Islands Society is pleased to recognize Millicent Barty as our inaugural Local Female Leader. Born and raised in the Solomon Islands, she has also lived in Jakarta, Indonesia and London, England. After completing her BA (Hons) in Design at Goldsmiths, University of London, Barty moved back to Honiara to start her own design firm. Over the last few years, she has been able to establish an impressive list of clients, including the European Union. The Vice President of the Islands Society, Keiko Ono, therefore took a moment to sit down and speak with Barty about the ways in which she thinks that the health and well-being of girls and women in the Solomon Islands could be improved.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in design?
I have always had an immense interest and talent for art and design. Having been brought up in the impoverished masses of Jakarta, I have always been involved in community projects that helped unprivileged people through creativity. As part of my International Baccalaureate – Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) program, I even painted an entire range of educational posters for a primary school. These were mass produced by the Indonesian Ministry of Education to support local students in learning English. That said, my decision to pursue design was itself a compromise. Initially, I wanted to undertake Fine Arts at university. However, my father had always dreamt of his daughter having a career with the United Nations. And, he didn’t see a feasible career in Fine Arts. I therefore chose to pursue a degree in Design at Goldsmiths, University of London. Today, I feel that was the best decision that I have ever made because it allowed me to combine my passion for Art & Design with my interest in helping people.

Tell me a little more about what motivates you in your work? Do you have specific goals and objectives that are driving you?
My goal in life is to bring about change in my country by bridging social cleavages through design. A majority of my people here in the Solomon Islands are illiterate. With over 82 different dialects across 900 islands, communication is a major barrier for us. I believe that knowledge and information is key. We cannot limit an individual from acquiring knowledge or information because of their literacy level. Design provides a critical tool for helping everyone to be able to understand complex information. Through infographics, we can overcome many of the limitations imposed by illiteracy. In the long-run, I really want to establish a design organization in the Solomon Islands that commissions youth to provide a wide range of multi-disciplinary design services. I would like the organization to focus principally on servicing nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies with information graphics.

Now that you have established yourself as a successful designer, you have to juggle a lot of different responsibilities over the course of the day. As I understand it, your clients range from private sectors nonprofits to governments to intergovernmental organizations. I hear that you are even working for the European Union. How do you manage all of these projects?
I’d be telling a lie if I said that I had a workday. I am practically nocturnal. I find that the night is a lot more effective in allowing my creativity to channel into a design outcome. But, I have recently just embarked on constructing and designing my first house, which is a family business here in the Solomon Islands. As part of the project, I have brought aboard over my mother, who is also a designer. This means that a typical work day involves driving around procuring and ordering materials in the mornings, ensuring they get delivered in the afternoon, and managing my own labor on the project. At the same time, I must still attend to meetings with my design clients and carry out out research for my design work throughout the day. Although I find my creativity comes out in the night, I find most of my design inspirations during the day. I must be honest – I am exhausted by the end of the day. But, I make sure that I attend to my graphics design work right after dinner. That involves brainstorming ideas and concepts, prior to getting to the drawing board till I feel the urge to sleep. Most of the time I don’t sleep. I simply get into my zone and carry on working. I like to say that my life is either “sleep is for the weak, or I’m sleeping for a week.”

As a Pacific Islander, you obviously can provide some unique insights into the challenges facing designers. Can you tell us a little more about what you feel are the biggest challenges that designers face when working with clients in the Pacific?
First off, infographics is relatively a new concept here in the Pacific. So, it’s been a real challenge to try to convince nonprofits and government agencies that the most effective manner that they can communicate their researched information to the rural demographic is through infographics. Another major challenge is acquiring tenders and job opportunities from the government agencies due to “politics.” In the Solomon Islands, there is still a lot of dishonesty and corruption that goes along with such communication opportunities. And, it frustrates me when I see the design outcome not effectively being utilized as a tool to help my people. Of course, these challenges are not unique to the Pacific but they are particularly problematic in our region. To be honest, I’ve also had a few challenges convincing authorities of my work due to the gender inequality aspect of our culture and society. This may sound incredibly stereotypical but I’ve never allowed it to deter me from trying.

Now that you have laid out some of the challenges, can you tell us what you think individuals, communities and governments should do to support and celebrate young designers in the region and help them compete on the global stage?
In my opinion, there are no opportunities or established platforms for young creatives to pursue a successful career in the creative industry here in the Solomon Islands. I believe everyone should begin support by encouraging creative subjects such as Fine Art, Drama, Design Technology and Music in our local schools. This starts with the government. But, our education system is entirely focused on the ‘Sciences.’ Unfortunately, under the ‘Arts,’ the only subjects that are usually provided are ‘English,’ ‘Business Studies.’ and related subjects. This deprives young creative individuals from opportunities to develop their talent at a young age. For those that aren’t familiar with our education system, the Solomon Islands maintains a “push-out” education system. Under this system, a student that doesn’t excel in all subjects at Grade 6, Form 3, 5, 6 and 7 and “fails” is automatically forced out of the system or forced to repeat the grade. In my work, I come across too many creative youth who are pushed out by this policy. I find this awfully saddening since many of these “drop-outs” could have pursued a career in the arts. Instead, they too often become struggling street artists who have no further opportunities or platforms to expose their talent. At the end of the day, creative youth must have access to education. But, they also need access to the platforms that can provide them with the exposure that they need to succeed on the international stage. For example, consider musicians. My partner organizes major music events here in Honiara. These feature famous international artists. This also provides our local artists opportunities to shine and be exposed to international performances and artists. My partner’s organization has brought in the likes of Julian Marley, Conkarah, and Papa Cidy. It has also supported Shaggy coming to the Solomon Islands. They do so because these events provide our local musicians with more than just entertainment. They also give them a chance to be discovered by talent scouts who accompany these bands. And, they provide opportunities for our local artists to hone their performance skills by watching these international artists perform. I therefore believe that festivals, such as the Pacific Arts Festival, are incredible platforms to help our creative youth be exposed regionally and internationally.

Final question. From your perspective as a woman, designer, and Pacific Islander, how do you think that we can promote more women leaders in the Pacific?
I honestly believe that a major factor affecting or preventing our Pacific women from excelling in their talents is self-confidence. What is lacking within our Pacific societies are programmes or workshops aimed at character building exercises to boost self-confidence in women. I believe self-confidence and independence is the key for women to grow and to overcome the patriarchic cultural barriers that we face. Too many women that I meet in my line of work behold amazing courage and talent. However, when they are encouraged to pursue a career, they shy away from the thought of being empowered. That needs to change if we want to have more women leaders in the Pacific.

The views expressed are those of the respective author. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.