5 mins with Rachel Knight: the path that led to design & reconnecting with whakapapa.

1 month ago by

Design Assembly loves to profile the breadth and depth of design practice in Aotearoa and this month we’re celebrating Māori design and designers.

In today’s interview Rachel shares her journey of reconnecting with her whakapapa and the path that led her to pursue a career in Design.


Ko Maukatere te mauka

Ko Rakahuri te awa

Ko Tuahiwi te marae

Ko Tūāhuriri te hapū

Ko Kāi Tahu te iwi

Ko Rachel Knight tōku ikoa.

What or who were your early design or creative influences?

Although neither of my parents were formal artists or designers, they raised a very creative family. My three older brothers are very clever with music, visual arts and language. As a teacher, my mum is a natural problem solver – always coming up with creative ways to help children learn in the classroom. My dad is more literal and analytical – a documenter and debater. So it’s not too surprising that I ended up in design; the child of art and science. 

Can you describe the path you took to get where you’re at now as a designer? What made you decide to switch career pathways from graphic design to design researcher & facilitator?

Studying visual communication design at Massey, I thought I’d come out as either a photojournalist or a designer of CD covers. Instead I learnt that design is about challenging everything; how to take the world apart and put it back together, better. A pivotal moment was a guest lecture from Empathy about ethnographic research. I was fascinated by their approach to deeply understanding people and exploring all the ways we could create change instead of assuming graphic design was the only solution. I was hooked, and did my best to morph my visual degree towards research and co-design.

My first few design jobs at Trade Me and Internal Affairs taught me how the world really worked. Then at my first agency job at DNA as a service and experience designer, I started volunteering on my days off for what became the Shift Foundation – a small youth development charity. These two roles developed my service design practice and my understanding of the for-good world. 

Rachel with Shift Foundation founder Fran McEwen at an event in 2016 to teach young women entrepreneurship skills.

When I was later asked to apply for a role at social change agency Innovate Change (now Innovation Unit), I barely slept for a week because I knew it was hands-down my dream job. 

Over the next four years I led research and co-design projects on everything from homelessness, heart disease, mental health and addictions, to transforming the future of early childhood education in Australia. The work we did created real change, like helping the Heart Foundation rethink their whole approach to make heart checks more accessible for Māori. I was surrounded by incredible role models, and given the space to figure out my own leadership style. Part of this was working with my talented illustrator friends to bring powerful stories to life. I still often used my graphic design skills to create prototypes, workshop resources, and final reports or outputs – but saw it as only one part of a whole project, rather than a passion on its own. 

Report sharing the impact and model of the ‘Harakeke’ parent-led support programme.
Sport New Zealand project featuring illustrations by Samuel Joseph.

I was then asked to bring what I’d learnt back to DNA, to lead the development of a new social impact practice. It was a leadership opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, and I spent two years learning a lot about organisational change. As well as leading a range of social impact projects, I worked with my iwi for the first time, and coordinated an internal ‘doing good better’ team focused on improving our social and environmental practices. During this time I also became a trustee on the Shift Foundation board, deepening my understanding of not-for-profit strategy, leadership and governance. 

Finally, after a restructure, I fell into my current role as a freelancer. Although losing my job during a recession was mildly terrifying, I’m very grateful for my new freelance life. I love working with values-aligned clients and collaborators, spending more time with my wonderful husband, and getting to the beach or in the garden most afternoons.

Rachel working on her many landscaping projects.

As someone who has been on the journey of reconnecting with their whakapapa, can you share a little about how this has looked like for you?

When I was young, I knew I had Kāi Tahu whakapapa, but that was pretty much it. Growing up in te ao Pākehā, I didn’t think it was possible to be both white and Māori. It was only when I started working at Innovate Change that Kataraina Davis challenged my entire worldview around what it means to be tangata whenua. She gave me the courage to find and learn my pepeha, visit my maunga, awa and marae for the first time, go on a hīkoi with my iwi, and help tell the stories my aunty and uncle had captured from our whakapapa.

Rachel on the Te Ara Whakatipu hīkoi facilitated by Kara Edwards and Kahurangi Mahuika to help young people strengthen their connection with Ngāi Tahu.
‘Pāitu and the Mountain Fairy’ storybook Rachel wrote and designed to tell stories from her whānau, featuring illustrations by Fern Grant

Every step has been equally confronting and rewarding, and I’ve only just started to learn how much I don’t know. It will be a life-long journey, but I really enjoy helping others jump in that learning waka alongside me by sharing my experiences – both the good and the bad.

One challenge is that Māori are often expected to make other people feel comfortable and safe no matter where they are on their journey, but not expected to challenge harmful ideas and behaviours if it makes others uncomfortable. Our history is deeply confronting, and changing our future trajectory is equally confronting, so it’s an almost impossible task to walk that line. I think a lot of us get burnt trying.

One thing I wish I knew earlier on was just how diverse Māori are, and that you can never tell someone’s whakapapa by looking at them. Knowing this now gives me the confidence to stand in my own Māori identity, and to lean into the learning with less fear of being called out as a fraud. I still catch myself making assumptions about other people – it will take generations to unlearn these biases, and relearn the knowledge that’s been lost. But for now, I want to help break down the stereotypes. When I succeed at something, I want people to see the success of Māori.

Following on from the above question, how have you seen this impact your approach and process as a designer?

Exploring the overlaps and tensions between te ao Māori and the design world is something I really enjoy. It’s challenged a lot of what I was taught over the years and assumed to be true. From simple things like how to run an interview, to the bigger questions of where frameworks have come from, the power imbalance in using them, and the assumption that ‘design’ is new to Māori. One big lesson has been the importance of relationships. I’ve learnt to always make time to build personal connections before and during projects – it always makes the mahi better.

Rachel and Kataraina sharing what they learnt together about the tensions between design and te ao Māori at UX New Zealand in 2019.

Do you have a project that is memorable because it challenged you, if so what lessons did you learn from that work?

There are so many. Every project where I’ve heard directly from people about their lives has fundamentally challenged me and how I look at the world. 

Many projects have changed me for the better: I’m more open-minded and have a better understanding of how different and difficult peoples’ lives can be. But some stories have left scars. When people tell you about deeply traumatic experiences, those voices stay with you if they’re not properly processed and let go. Some of those stories were shared with me more than six years ago, and to know that even more people are going through those things now…it sits very heavily. It makes you beyond impatient – anxious – for change. 

These days I’m trying to find a better balance between important work, with work that sits lighter on my soul. Part of that is dedicating time to my own wellbeing; intentionally slowing down and disconnecting from the work. Turning my phone off, reading fiction, and appreciating the simple beauty of being in te Taiao with my hands in the dirt.

The great thing is when people tell me about how some of those projects have changed policies, investments, or behaviour far beyond the original kaupapa. Hearing about those ripple effects gives me hope.

Finally, where can we see more of your work and connect with you?

Check out my website or say hi on Linkedin – I’m always keen to meet good people doing good things.


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