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Designing with Two-Eyed Seeing

When you take on the role of a professional designer, it’s your responsibility to support people’s visions in a way that is authentic and true to who they are. That often requires a designer to research and become knowledgeable in various topics, but sometimes, we as designers can misrepresent the work when we are not looking at it through the right lens.

When non-Indigenous designers undertake projects for Indigenous clients, it’s necessary to take on a two-eyed seeing approach. Described by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall from Eskasoni First Nation, two-eyed seeing means “…learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing, and to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.” In a design sense, that means applying contemporary design theory to traditional and culturally significant principles so that they can serve the client in both moving forward with their brand and keeping to their roots. The designer should, in a way, act as a bridge between non-Indigenous and Indigenous concepts and be open to the different interpretations that come from that.

Something that I as a non-Indigenous designer found to be particularly enriching — and I’m sure this is well known to many Indigenous designers — is that the process is as equally important as the final product. When you are searching for the inspiration for your designs, you are pulling from traditional knowledges and culture that have strong connections to the land, history, and spiritual beliefs of the people you are working with. With that, the work ends up going deeper and often brings more meaning to the final product because of the rich connections woven through. Storytelling within the visual identity is a way to pass on and share knowledge with future generations, which is one of the many beautiful things about Indigenous design.

A helpful tool for designers who are looking to work with Indigenous clients is the International Indigenous Design Charter. The purpose of the Charter is to encourage the design community to be mindful when sharing Indigenous knowledge in a professional design practice. 10 best-practice protocols are given that speak to inclusivity, shared knowledge, self-determination, and the legal and moral impacts of design. There are many concepts, stories and elements that are shared in collaboration by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Peoples on Turtle Island, but there are much more unique forms of identity found throughout. Staying away from the typical tropes and symbolism that has been used for centuries by settler designers to represent Indigenous Peoples reflects Indigenous realities as they are perceived by Indigenous Peoples.

The key to designing with a two-eyed seeing approach is to be intentional in everything you produce, as you have the responsibility to create accurate and respectful representation. As we continue to balance contemporary form and function on top of traditional culture, we are gifted with the opportunities to uplift the voices of Indigenous communities and collaborate on truly meaningful and impactful design.

Shay Harder
Senior Designer at Narratives Inc.