Cultural Appropriation In Design: The Dos And Don’ts

Cultural appropriation is often a hot bed topic in design that unfortunately gets mixed up with political issues. However, at its essence there is nothing political about it, and as a designer is important to take heed.

In our multi-cultural society, we are constantly exposed to different cultures from around the world. We get to experience different foods, different styles of art and music, different styles of clothing, and even furniture. Then things go even further with cultural fusions, taking inspiration from multiple cultures and joining them together to create something wonderful.

This mix of cultures offers a hot bed for small businesses. Most businesses benefit from the new markets or opportunities opened by the new cultures we experience every day in our own cities. However, this is where the question of cultural appropriation begins to arise. What is ok for a business to do and what isn’t? Especially in the way a business presents itself through its brand.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a one-sided process where someone, or a business, benefits from another group’s culture without receiving permission and without giving something back in return. It can have impacts on the abilities of these particular cultural groups to manage the maintenance, protection, transmission, and expression of their cultural heritage. This can cause real damage to the cultural group’s economic health and wellbeing.

So, if you want to make a business selling indigenous art, for example, you may want to include indigenous elements in your branding. All of this is fine, as long as you have permission from the particular Indigenous group and provide positive benefits back to their community.

How can I avoid cultural appropriation in my brand?

When you want to build a brand or products around another groups culture there are a few steps you can take to avoid misappropriation. As a brand, it is important to appeal to a wide audience, and ensuring your brand is built without misappropriating another group’s culture will ensure that it holds this appeal. Here is a 10-step process you can take to avoid cultural misappropriation, especially of indigenous cultures.

1. Have the project be Indigenous-led

Bring Indigenous stakeholders onto the project to oversee the creative development as advisors. They will be able to advise throughout the creative process, and which direction the designers should take to avoid misappropriation. An Indigenous stakeholder is also a powerful backing in the creative process, often revealing the true meaning behind particular cultural symbols or art elements. This will allow you to use these cultural symbols and art elements, with permission, appropriately, amplifying their effect.

2. Respect Self-determination

It is important to respect the rights Indigenous people have in determining the use and application of traditional knowledge and the representation of their culture in design. Essentially give credit where it is due, and don’t use symbols, or cultural and art elements inappropriately or if you have been told not to. Understand that the Indigenous group controls where and where it is not appropriate to use their cultural elements.

3. Understand community specificity

There were over 500 different indigenous nations across Australia. Each had its own distinct cultural differences. This is similar to other Indigenous cultures across the world. It is important to acknowledge and respect the diversity present in Indigenous culture by following regional cultural understandings in your designs.

4. Always listen

The best way we can be respectful of indigenous cultures in our design is to listen. We should actively engage and listen respectfully with the recognised custodians of the cultural elements we wish to use. They should be actively involved, consulted and listened to throughout the design process.

5. Understand the ownership of Indigenous knowledge

We should always acknowledge the rich cultural history of indigenous knowledge while using their cultural elements. It is important to understand that their designs, stories, sustainability and land management knowledge remains with the Indigenous custodians.

6. Collaborative and shared knowledge

Collaboration and co-creation are vital to creating the best end result while ensuring cultural elements are used appropriately. It is important that we create respectful, culturally specific discourse for the transmission of shared knowledge. Through this, we must also remain aware of Indigenous cultural realities.

7. Share the benefits

Make sure that Indigenous people receive benefits from the use of their cultural knowledge when it is commercially applied. This is necessary for ensuring that Indigenous communities remain economically healthy, receiving back for what they paid out through knowledge.

8. Impact of your design

Keep the eventual impact of your design in mind. Consider all the implications of its use. Ensure that it protects the environment, is sustainable, and remains respectful to Indigenous cultures now and in the future. Remember that you are using shared knowledge, and so, must ensure that the design is being used in a way that respects the Indigenous culture’s wishes.

9. Legal and moral

We must respect and honour all cultural ownership over the designs we use. This includes respecting intellectual property rights and moral rights. Ensure that you obtain the permission required from the legal and cultural owner of Indigenous cultural elements.

10. Use the Indigenous Design Charter

If there is an aspect to your project that you believe could be improved with Indigenous knowledge use the International Indigenous Design Charter to ensure that your project safeguards the integrity of Indigenous design and respects the traditional owners. Raise cultural awareness and the need for Indigenous stakeholders to your clients and other associated stakeholders.


Ensuring that your work is respectable to other cultures is important to its success. Design that utilises Indigenous cultural elements that has been created in collaboration with respectfully shared knowledge is far more likely to achieve the desired impact. If you would like to include Indigenous cultural design elements in your branding consult the Indigenous Design Charter and feel free to contact the appropriate Indigenous culture institution for advice.


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