Jean Voon was expecting a polite refusal when she rang the Human Rights Commission a few years back to offer her design skills for free.

A migrant from Malaysia and a Unitec design student, her experience of racism had prompted a social justice theme in her work, and she wanted to see if she could get a "real" client in that field.

Ms Voon approached the commission because she believed in its work. And her timing was impeccable - Julie Watson, an educator for the commission, was desperate for some fresh thinking.

Ms Voon, 24, voluntarily created the "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" poster in 2001, of which 150,000 were printed. They are still around - an enterprising person at the Auckland Public Library has even made it into a children's jigsaw.

These days, Ms Voon, of Pt Chevalier, has a Kiwi accent, a job as marketing assistant at Glen Innes shower mixer manufacturer Feltonmix, and another poster to her credit.

She designed the distinctive fern emblem for this Monday's Race Relations Day and has seen her work morph into 100,000 posters, stick-on tattoos (her idea), T-shirts, badges, stickers and postcards. She spent much time researching the symbols, ensuring that she wasn't misappropriating them.

The poster, she says, is her chance to do something about racism.

Ms Voon says she had never experienced overt in-your-face prejudice until coming to New Zealand - "in Malaysia racism is different and works in different ways" - and thinks those encounters flowed into her work.

Race Relations Day aims to celebrate New Zealand's diversity. Among the events planned are a festival at the Corban Estate Arts Centre in Waitakere City (2pm-6pm tomorrow) and a free art workshop for new settlers, at Artstation in Ponsonby. March 21 is observed worldwide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

It recalls the horror of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa in 1960, when 5000 black people walked peacefully to the police station to hand back the discriminatory "passes" that they had to carry when away from home. Police opened fire, killing 69 people and injuring more than 200.

WHAT'S IN THE FERN?

Right to left from the bottom up.

* Traditional kowhaiwhai pattern from a painted panel, Manutuke church (1849), Rongowhakaata tribe.

* Fleur de lys loosely meant to represent European origins, taken from hinges on door at St Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland.

* Pattern from Samoan tapa cloth.

* Traditional Chinese character found on silk cloth. The character "fu" means good luck and longevity.

* Indian paisley, used in henna designs to adorn the hands.

* Vietnamese motif from a piece of woven fabric.

* Iranian motif.

* Baby fern fronds from nature.