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Navigating Bi-Cultural Design

pakeha paralysis

In this installment of Rākau Kōrero, we talk to design educator Carl Pavletich about navigating bi-cultural design from a non-Māori perspective.

pakeha paralysis in bi-cultural designFor Pākehā, navigating the bi-cultural design process feels uncomfortable— like floating in a proverbial waka without a hoe. When your life experience falls heavily on the Western/Pākehā side of the scales, the bi-cultural journey is dauntingly steep and disorientating. Much of what we do, we do without thinking. For example, when we master a skill, we create subconscious shortcuts. Mātauranga Māori challenges us to question our worldviews and reassess much of what we thought was true. Participating in a bi-cultural design process can be confronting. But, like all learning experiences, the rewards far outweigh the discomfort.

Pākehā Paralysis in a Bi-cultural World

I tutor Visual Communication Design at Ara Institute of Canterbury. Three years ago, the principles of Mātautranga Māori were embedded into our programme:

  • There was no manual (challenge #1).
  • I am Pākehā, as are most of my colleagues (challenge #2).
  • Gaining advice from experienced kaupapa Māori practitioners is difficult—they’re in high demand and navigating their own cultural load (challenge #3).

This tricky scenario results in a condition called ‘Pākehā paralysis’. A situation where, as Pākehā, you are confronted by your own cultural illiteracy. You want to do the right thing but the knowledge gap is so overwhelming it’s hard to see a way forward.

The Māori creation story describes this state as Te Kore (the void). It’s viewed not as a negative space but one of unlimited potential. The antidote that unblocked my paralysis came from a Māori advisor who said,

‘Māori don’t want you to become Māori, we just want you to acknowledge that there’s more than one world view’.

For me, this advice was liberating. It’s less about reciting your pepehā, and more about genuinely exploring the third space between Western and Māori worldviews:

  • The difference between viewing time as linear or cyclic.
  • The difference between prioritising individual goals and collective values.
  • The difference between focusing on the future and looking back to move forward.

The duality of these concepts (and there are many more) helps us reframe and reorientate design practice.

Adopting a Caretaker Role

Some bi-cultural projects evolve from limited cultural knowledge, but are coupled with a drive to do the right thing. As designers and communicators, we now find ourselves adopting a caretaker role, ensuring that projects are culturally safe and that we maintain the integrity, or mana, of the people and project. As Tangata Tiriti, our role is to recognise where we have the authority or power to act. Ultimately local mana whenua has authority over their cultural narratives, tikanga and taonga. If in doubt, always seek advice, and be prepared to leave or pass on projects that need support and guidance beyond your comfort zone.

bi-cultural design

Exploring Best Practice for Bi-cultural Design

After a few unsettling experiences in the bi-cultural space, I decided to explore best practice. What I found was a spectrum of approaches.

At one end, projects that perpetuated a Western world view and at the other, Indigenous.

The Researched Approach

At the Western end of the spectrum, the ‘researched’ approach draws from indigenous knowledge and interprets it through a Western lens. Gordon Walters is an example of this. His koru-derived OpArt was abstracted from independent research, with little to no engagement with Māori tohunga (master craftspeople).


Consultative is a little further along, where permission and direction are transactional rather than collaborative. Organisations often contract Indigenous artists to provide ‘cultural’ designs that are reinterpreted and remixed into a design system through a Western lens. Neither of these approaches embraces the potential of bi-cultural design, and as a result, the outcome lacks mana and integrity.


The co-design practice offers the best of both worlds. The Ōtautahi Christchurch city rebrand is a successful example. Kaupapa Māori studio Ariki Creative worked collaboratively with McCarthy Studio to produce a design system that spoke to both Māori and Pākehā. The Ōtautahi brand story draws inspiration from the local awa, Ōtākaro River. The mark nods to the line work of whakairo (carving), but it isn’t overtly ‘Māori’. This co-design approach captured the third space—where both cultures negotiate to produce something new. 

Embracing Bi-cultural Design – Integrated & Indigenous

We are fortunate in New Zealand to have a number of design agencies embracing bi-cultural design, as well as some exceptional indigenous design studios. These studios are redefining the design process and enriching our visual language as a nation.

As bi-cultural literacy grows, we see an increased demand to employ young Māori and Pasifika design practitioners from traditionally Western-leaning design practices. These roles come with a high cultural responsibility, often well beyond their experience. As the design industry naturally  moves into the bi-cultural space, we need to ensure these creative spaces are culturally safe and authentic in their kaupapa.

As creatives, we are always seeking inspiration in new combinations. The bi-cultural third space will never be clear-cut. If it becomes comfortable, it will become stale. This is what makes design in Aotearoa so exciting.

GSM would like to thank Carl Pavletich for providing his thoughts to us for Rākau Kōrero.
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This article was originally published in GSM22. To read this and other great articles purchase this issue here.