Design’s Role in Cultural Sensitivity: The Line Between Inspiration and Appropriation


In the quest for unique and resonant design, it’s imperative to navigate the fine line between drawing inspiration from diverse cultures and veering into the territory of cultural appropriation. This article sheds light on the ethics of design in a globalised market, offering insights into the respectful and authentic representation of cultural elements. By understanding the origins, collaborating with cultural experts and giving due credit, designers and businesses can foster a more inclusive and understanding world, ensuring that their creations build bridges rather than walls.


Design is a visual language that not only speaks, but also winks at its audience, evoking memories and creating experiences. But just like trying to order a Vegemite on Toast in Italy using French (oops!), it can lead to misinterpretation or outright offence. The design challenge for businesses in this globalised market is to strike a balance between drawing inspiration from diverse cultures without inadvertently stepping into the territory of cultural appropriation.

The Distinction Between Inspiration and Appropriation

Inspiration involves deriving ideas, styles and tastes from a broad and diverse range of sources. It celebrates, acknowledges and gives credit to its origins. On the other hand, appropriation occurs when elements of one culture are borrowed by another culture, especially when the latter has historically oppressed or colonised the former. This borrowing often overlook the original context, leading to oversimplification and misrepresentation.

Think of it this way. Inspiration is that good friend who borrows your Savile Row suit, returns it cleaned and credits you for their James Bond look while ordering a martini (shaken not stirred). Appropriation is that sneaky pal who borrows your watch that was handed down 3 generations before you. Then has the audacity to claim it’s his and forgets where it originate from, stripping away its emotional and historic value.

Examples of cultural appropriation in design include H&M’s 2018 campaign that showcased a black child donning a hoodie with the phrase “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” This campaign faced widespread backlash for its lack of sensitivity and inadvertent reinforcement of racial stereotypes. Similarly, the name and logo design of the Washington Redskins have faced criticism for their derogatory implications towards Native American communities.

Navigating the Complexities: Best Practices

1. Research & Understand: In today’s hyper information world, it’s easy to superficially borrow elements from various cultures without diving deeper into their origins. However, for any brand looking to integrate a cultural element, it is essential to go beyond the surface. Understanding the origin means studying the historical, religious and societal significance of the element. The sentiment attached is the emotional and cultural weight the element carries for its people.

Every design element rooted in culture has a shared story, a heritage and a context. The mandala motif, for example, traditionally used in spiritual Indian symbols, carries religious and cultural significance. When graphic or digital designers use them merely as background patterns without recognising their meaning, the sacred significance is overshadowed by aesthetic appeal.

2. Collaborate with Cultural Experts, Not Stereotypes: It’s one thing to read about a culture and another to live it. Engaging with cultural experts or those from within the community ensures a first-hand, authentic perspective. These experts bring in nuances, intricacies and subtle details that might not be apparent to an outsider. Their life experiences and profound understanding of their own culture provide a lens through which a design can be viewed and critiqued.

3. Tip your Hat and Give Credit: We live in a time of rapid information exchange and sharing, the source of origin sits deep in the shadow. But in cultural design, acknowledging one’s sources is more than just a nod to originality. It’s Eminem saying to 50 Cent “Hey, I see you and I respect you”. And when you do, it sets off a chain reaction. Your audience learns, grows, and before you know it, we’re all rapping in the glow of shared knowledge and mutual admiration. And what’s not to like about unity, understanding and collective celebration of our rich humanity?

Real-life Examples of Thoughtful Cultural Design: Google Doodle

One of Google’s most recognisable features, aside from its core search functionality, is the “Google Doodle” – a creative and temporary alteration of the logo on the search engine’s homepage that commemorates holidays, events and notable historical figures. It’s like getting a mini cultural lesson each time you open your browser.

To ensure they honour and represent each culture appropriately, Google often collaborates with local artists for their country-specific doodles. These artists, being natives or deeply familiar with the traditions they’re representing, can bring an authentic touch to the doodle, capturing the nuances with accuracy and reverence..

These creative doodles act as a bridge, educating global audiences about various cultures. For many users, a Google Doodle might be their first introduction to a foreign holiday, a notable personality, or a significant event from another part of the world. In this way, Google leverages its vast platform to promote cultural exchange, awareness and appreciation.

The Bottom Line

Design is powerful. It shapes perceptions, crafts experiences and influences decisions. But with great influence comes profound duty. Cultural sensitivity in design is not about tip-toeing around traditions but understanding and embracing them.

As responsible businesses working in a globalised world, our objective is twofold: to be authentic ambassadors of diverse cultures and to continually educate ourselves. By walking the sensible line between inspiration and appropriation, we not only enrich our visual communication but also contribute to a more inclusive and understanding world.

So, the next time you find yourself on the drawing board, remember: It’s okay to borrow some bread, just remember whose kitchen you got it from. Maybe even invite them over for the Vegemite on Toast. May your designs always build bridges, not walls.

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