DA Conversations Podcast with Johnson Witehira, February 2017

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Welcome back to Design Assembly Conversations for 2017. In this series we talk to New Zealand graphic designers, hear their stories, and celebrate their work.

I’m Louise, and today I’m talking to Johnson Witehira. Johnson is an artist and graphic designer from Wellington. Currently he has his own graphic design practice and teaches at AUT University in Auckland.

Johnson, hi.



Interview resources



Interview Transcript

Johnson, hi. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Kia Ora. Hello. Thanks for inviting me in.


I’d like to start with asking you where you come from.
Ki te taha toku mama, no Whanganui ahau. On my mother’s side I’m from Whanganui. Ki te taha toku papa, no ngapuhi ahau. I was born in Taumarunui. So on the top end of the river. On my dad’s side I’m from ngapuhi.  I’ve kind of lived all over the country, though. Lived in Taumarunui. I lived in Gisborne. Lived in Whanganui. Lived in Wellington. And now I’m living up in Auckland.

And how did you first get into the field of graphic design?
I got into design almost on accident. I was always into art and design when I was in high school, and I lived in Fielding for the last few years of my study, and I ended up going over to the Whanganui School of Design for a day trip, to go and see what was over there. One of my friend’s cousin was there and when I got there I was just blown away by everything I saw, so I decided graphic design is what I wanted to get into. I was really interested in game design when I was a student, but that pretty much didn’t exist in New Zealand at secondary school or in tertiary institutions, so I saw graphic design as combining my digital art and kind of things that I liked. So, yeah, that’s how I ended up there.

And did you have any influences or mentors in your family?
I guess, maybe in some ways, my father was a mentor in that he’s a very creative guy. He was always building and making things around the home, from furniture to building trailers. And he was always interested in typography and doing his own little signage and signs and things, even though he wasn’t trained in any of that. He was trained in carpentry. So, yeah, I think there might have been a little bit of a creative streak through my dad, I guess.

And training at Whanganui, did you have any tutors that stood out to there, that influenced you?
There are so many good tutors and Whanganui. I really admire Hazel Gamec who’s the woman who set up the school, and her crazy vision. She came to New Zealand in the mid-80s, I think, just for a holiday. Ended up in Whanganui somehow and decided she was going to start this design school in the back blocks. And, within a few years, it was New Zealand’s leading graphic design school. And for the time that she was running it, for a period of about 20 years, it was the leading graphic design school. So she’s an amazing woman. At the time when I was a student she was implementing things like– we would do [inaudible]. And this is a design tool 20 years ago, and this is stuff that’s only coming through in conventional tertiary educational institutes now in New Zealand. So I think she was a real visionary for that. I mean, it didn’t have the hang-ups that these schools have. But I can just name the tutors I had, like Jo Giddens, Emmanuel Turner, Andreas. There’s just so many good lecturers there. And part of the reason was that the school had a huge body of international lecturers. So, again, even though I’m in Whanganui, half of the staff that were there were from America, or from Hong Kong, or Malaysia, or something like that. So that was a real advantage, I think.

And when you finished your training in Whanganui, where did you go, where did you work?
So when I finished in Whanganui, I studied there up to my master’s, and my master’s was a gestalt-based analysis of Maori carving. So I was just really interested in how we might try and develop, I guess, Maori principles in terms of design practise. Because there’s lots of guidelines in terms of carving, and weaving practise, but there isn’t any in terms of design, so I thought I’d start with carving. Did my master’s in it, and at the end of it, Hazel suggested that I go and do my doctorate. And talking to my father, after I finished the degree, he said, “Oh, so you’re going to go and do your master’s?” And I would say, “I don’t know. Should I?” And he’d say, “Might as well.” And that’s what pretty much happened with my PhD, the same thing. It was, “You should do your PhD. I mean, you’ve done all that study.” I said, yeah I might as well [laughter],” sort of thing. So, again, I just kind of went straight on through. But during my master’s and my doctorate, the whole time I was doing freelance design projects, trying to figure out what Maori design is on the way.

So really developing your own voice as a designer from the beginning.
Yeah, I think so. Like most designers went through traditional kind of teaching, where it’s mostly focused around Swiss and German design, also American graphic design. But I was interested in what Maori design might look like, and I couldn’t find any models. Or the models I was finding were in terms of Maori design that I thought were good design were being created by designers with kind of Maori cultural advisors or artists, and I thought, “Well, why can’t we have Maori doing good design?” So that was the whole thing behind my journey and what I’m still doing, I guess.

And how did you learn the business aspect then of working as a professional designer?
I don’t know if I’ve learned that [laughter] very well. Just on the fly. Again, just going through project after project, probably doing a lot of things really badly for quite a few years, but more recently, picking up really, really good books like Design Is a Job. And a few people have taken me into their wings along the way, and that’s been really helpful because I haven’t had that type of studio experience where you get to learn the ropes by being in a studio. I’ve had to kind of figure it out a lot on my own, but, yeah, I think that I’ve managed to find a few good people to help me.

And at the moment you combine teaching with practising as a designer. So how do you go about balancing these two aspects?
I don’t think I’m really balancing it at the moment. I find it quite tricky because there are a lot more demands, I think, on lecturers than there used to be, particularly in terms of research. So the way I try and deal with it is if I am doing any commercial projects, it’s still research for me. Every new design project I do is a research project, and almost every new project I do is in a field I’ve never done anything before, so that offers a new challenge that throws new questions at me in terms of modern design. So if it’s something that involves theatre, I’ve got to figure out how my design might work in a theatre space. If it’s something that was fashion, it’s the same thing. If it’s a project involving packaging– and these aren’t areas I’m an expert in, but I can try and bring my knowledge into it and figure out how we might be able to deal with these kind of conceptual problems.

So you’d say that you use the same process, then, for professional projects as for the research-based projects?
Yes, essentially I do. And I’m just pretty driven and ambitious, and just kind of chase. I just chase anything that kind of comes through for me [laughter]. Probably a little bit like a mad dog sometimes in terms of projects, because I get new ideas every day. And the way I kind of get them going is I throw them out at people and see if they bite, as well. And then see if I can get a little momentum like that. And then just get little conversations going around projects, and they just seem to take on a life of their own.

And do you have a personal practice at the moment? I know in the past you had your alphabet blocks for children. Are you working on anything like that at the moment?
Yeah, what I’m trying to do because I’ve got a practice as an artist and a practice as a designer, at the moment it’s kind of hard for other people to see the difference between the two. So what I’m trying to do at the moment is separate them so that my design practice is really clear. And what I do as an artist is also really distinct. Even though they’re connected in terms of technologies and some of the philosophies, I think it’s going to be more important for me to kind of separate those two things.

So tell us about some of those differences between your art practice and your design practice.
Well, I guess the main difference between them is that with the art practice, I’m the client, in a way. I’m the client and I’m trying to problem solve my own problems, my own kind of ideas. Whereas when you’re working on a commercial design project you’ve got stakeholders, you’ve got printers, you’ve got all kinds of different variables that art for me is just as challenging, but it’s probably a much more personal thing, and I’m not really beholden to anyone other than curators, I guess, in terms of finishing work and getting it out there.

And which of your projects to date would you say you’re most proud of, and why?
I think the one I’m still most proud of is the Maori alphabet blocks. And that’s solely because they’ve gone on to have a positive effect on the lives of Maori, and that’s one of my kind of main goal as a Maori designer. And also they’ve gone on to move into Maori homes, and not just Maori homes, but homes of many New Zealanders. One of the positive things I hear and see is people buying these as gifts, as kind of a contemporary taonga in a way. And I tried to design them in a way that all New Zealanders would look at these things and think, “Man, those are just kind of cool design objects,” but also there’s this rich Maori meaning and narrative tied into them. So that’s the thing I’m most proud of. I am really proud of the work in New York as well. Even though it came about in a very strange way, it’s been so good for my profile. And the things that I hear other Maori saying about it makes me think, I guess, it’s a positive aspirational work and then other Maoris see this on this kind of stage and think, “Man. Wow, we can do that? As Maori designers we can get go out there and do that?”

And can you tell us a little bit about that project for people who might not have come across it?
Yeah. That was a project undertaken for Chorus, and they were looking for work that would show off something special about New Zealand. At the same time, Chorus wanted to show off to New Zealanders their ultra-fast broadband capabilities. So they built this really big campaign around it and what happened is my work ended up being shown in Times Square on 34 billboards at the same time, which was really exciting. And I can’t imagine I’ll do any other projects like that again, but, yeah, it was great to be part of.

And have you done any other work with Chorus following that?
Yes, I have actually. I ended up doing a small bit of advertising for them a couple of years after. And again, it was around ultra-fast broadband and they were needing a number of billboards and a few concepts for a website design and a few other things. So I worked with Chameleon Partners, who ran their campaign for them, and I produced a number of, I guess, kind of new designs, but using the artwork that we had. And that was for billboards and advertising for the ultra-fast broadband.

And are your alphabet blocks still in production and being reproduced?
They are. They’re still in production. We’ve just changed the packaging for them recently. But we still need to do a lot more work, I think, in terms of getting them out there, getting them probably wider distribution. Their price point is a little bit high at the moment, and that’s one of those things too, where I don’t know what I’m doing, to be honest. But it’s a cool project and I work with this company who make it. But we need to bring that down so we can get it in the hands of more people. We need to make it more affordable. The challenge is, at the moment, they’re made in Michigan out of recyclable pine and that’s part of the reason the price point is high. We can make them in China for a lot cheaper but then ethically there’s kind of different considerations around that as well. And these are all things that are really interesting for me to think about as a designer.

And did you think about producing them in New Zealand?
Yeah, that’s interesting because a few people have asked me that before. And some Maori were like, “Well, why did you do it over there? Why didn’t you just make them here?” And my kind of initial response is that the company who make them, first off, make amazing products. They’re really well crafted. Secondly, they came to me with this idea. This wasn’t an idea I had. So I wouldn’t have even made these really, without being contacted by them. So that’s kind of the second major reason.

And how did they find you?
I think they just found my website. Yeah, years ago. And I got this sort of, single line email saying, “Do you want to work together on a project?” And I had the usual scepticism and it was a random company. And America, why do they want to make these Maori blocks? What are they interested in? But I Skyped the owner and we had some really great conversations, and he’d always had this real interest in New Zealand culture. And at the same time, the thing that really brought me on board was they had produced an alphabet block set for the Cherokee language. It’s similar with the Maori alphabet block. It’s not a money maker for them, and it was just something they were interested in. And they could see that that language was struggling and I thought, “Man, that’s really cool that they’re doing that,” and, “Why not work with them and help make a really cool product?”

So would you say you have a philosophy then of saying yes to everything?
Up until this year, Yeah [laughter].
I think, yeah, that has definitely been my well, maybe not yes. Because I get kind of emails every week from someone wanting to do some random projects. So I’m in a space, I guess, where I can be choosy at the moment. But for the five or seven years as a designer, especially on a freelance basis, you kind of have to say yes and you kind of have no choice. But, luckily, I think I made the right choices in terms of my career and just the right doors opened along the way as well.

And can you tell us about a project that you’re working on now or finished working on at the end of last year?
One project that I’m almost finished working on is, which I’m really excited about, is doing all the Maori design elements and also blended design elements. When I say blended I mean design that combines Maori and europen for the Auckland International Airport, they’re doing a really big development of their departure journey at the moment. So, yeah, I’ve been brought on board to create a whole bunch of design for that journey, and that’s been really exciting, really challenging. All kinds of stakeholders involved, as you can imagine, and working with the local Iwi and trying to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with what’s being done. So it’s been a huge challenge.

And is that narrative storytelling or is it more in the way-finding area?
It’s more in storytelling. So they have a phonetic journey in terms of departures. And this journey’s going from standing kind of on the outside part before you go into liquids, aerosols, and gas, and security, and all that. This big phonetic journey through it. And it starts with arriving on waka, and then going across the land, and then up onto a mountain, and into the sky, and essentially onto the plane. So I work with that kind of overarching narrative. I work with local Iwi and looked at how we can kind of tie concepts and stories that were really important to them, and also connect it to the local geography, and how we kind of intertwine that into some of this journey.

And in terms of your process, do you work on paper, sketching? Or are you on the computer?
Yeah. I think I’ve probably got quite a strange design process, because the first thing I do is I write out a bunch of questions. I almost kind of, not even brainstorm. Really, I write them out in a really linear way, just almost on an A4 page, and I write out all the things that I’m thinking about. Like how am I going to solve this problem? What does this thing mean in terms of Maori design? What does this thing mean in terms of Maori culture? I just write out pragmatic lists, and then I write responses to those. And then when I’m designing, it’s almost like I’ve got this thing to guide me. So that’s how I start, but I still sketch everything. So everything is still done by hand. There’s lots of photocopying and iterations. And then I digitise it, a lot of it, normally just through using Adobe Illustrator.

And did you learn that process, or is something that you developed yourself?
No. I think I learned that process through design school. In Whanganui, they really pushed us to use visual diaries. And I love drawing, and I love kind of sketching things, and keeping it a bit rough, and I preach it to students all the time, and they probably get sick of it, but it’s the fastest way to get your ideas out there is on paper. And, also, the thing is I love visual diaries, and if you meet artists or designers, and you’re lucky enough to see their visual diaries, it’s incredible. It’s where you really see how this happen, and you often see most of the cool stuff that doesn’t even come out of them. It’s just incredible.

Do you keep a daily or a regular visual diary?
Yeah, I’ve got stacks of visual diaries. I’m kind of bad, though. I mean, I just draw on whatever is next to me. Sometimes I keep them in order, but I’ve got stuff all over the place, but I love going through them. And one thing I find good about those real diaries, often I’ll have ideas but I’m either not confident enough to do them, or I’m not actually good enough to do them. But maybe three, four, five years down the line, I’ll pull out a project. And this happens to me–[laughter]. Yeah. Should I wait? I’ll wait for that then?

Yeah. Maybe three, four, five years down the line, I’ll pull out something and it’s still a good idea, and I’ll have the confidence or I’ll have the skill to do it now. Sometimes they’re just bad ideas and they should just stay in there as well [laughter].

So do you think that you can then work as an individual designer successfully or is it better to work in a small group as a design team?
That’s an interesting question. I have worked on some small teams. But I think even as a freelancer, you’re still working in teams. Every project I work on involves at minimum a couple of people. So I think that’s just unavoidable. And at the same time, I prefer working with people because it’s again, the process in terms of design and integration can move a lot faster when you’ve got other people to bounce your ideas off. You don’t get frozen in that kind of, almost like writer’s block. Designer’s block. Because you’re not getting it out to people fast enough.
So do you have other independent designers that you’ll bounce ideas off?
Yeah. I’ve got a few people that I send things through to. Normally, I’m doing things, often I have to do things too fast. And that’s a problem, so I actually can’t do that. But I’m not that precious about some of my work. Some people might say the opposite [laughter]. But, yeah, there’s probably only a few people I really respect, in terms of Maori design anyway. There just aren’t many Maori designers out there. We’ve got a hell of a lot of artists, and carvers, and weavers, and tattoo artists. But not many Maori designers so that is a little bit of a problem for me.

And are there people internationally then that you’d look to in terms of a cultural practice and view on design?
I’m just starting to get better at that, to be honest. And some of that’s coming through the research side. And being blessed with an academia because you do a lot more readings and when you go to these international conferences you make a lot more connections as well. But I am looking and interested in things like creating an Indigenous design centre that might be a place for Indigenous designers from around the world to kind of come together and create amazing new design.

And looking forward, we’re in a new year, 2017. Are you excited about anything in particular or do you see any big issues for graphic design this year?
I think the big issues for design are the big issues for the world. This post-kind-of-Trump-Brexit time, there’s little things that I think we need to work on. And I’m really excited about what we’re going to be doing this year at AUT. Within my department, we’ve had some really good discussions at the end of the year around things that we think we can do within our department to help fight ignorance. And that ignorance is causing I think a lot of problem around the world. So we’re going to look at focusing a lot of our content on– or creating content that helps, I guess, create more enlightened human beings [laughter].

And, I think I’ll split this into two, as you teach. What would you say to students and new graduates entering the creative and design industry in New Zealand?
That is a tough question. It’s funny, a student who came out of our design school, she’d been in design one or two years, emailed me. I thought it was kind of funny because the email was pretty much, “So how do I do what you do?” And my only response was, “You’ve just got to work your arse off”, [laughter] right? “That’s what you’ve got to do”. I think it used to bother me because I did a lot of post-graduate study and I think people thought I was having this cruise-y journey. But if you talk to anyone who was living close to me during that time, I was in the studio late every night. I was in the studio almost every Saturday for about seven years doing all this work. So I think if you want to be successful in that freelance space, you’ve got to be really dedicated. You’ve got to work hard. And there are, what, 300 – 400 graduates from year to year, minimum? So you’re not only competing with those other students, you’re also competing with the years and years and years of 400 students each year coming out. So you’ve just got to be really, really driven.

And what about other practising designers out there?
Well, my challenge for practicing designers in New Zealand is to so really try and consider how your design might reflect, I guess, extra ideas or a specific New Zealand design practice. In 2015 I went to the Helix Symposium and talked about this. It was interesting. The Symposium was around what is New Zealand’s design DNA? What makes New Zealand design special? And at the end of the first day, it was quite strange because no one had talked about Maori culture at all, and yet it’s a design conference. All the leading designers and academics, and what makes New Zealand design special. And everything everyone was looking and talking about was pretty much all Euro-American design inspired. So I think we really need to look to our Maori culture, our space within Pacifica and the Pacifica culture, and look at how we can start integrating that and start thinking about who we are as designers. I don’t think it’s easy to designers, because clients aren’t interested in this stuff, but I think there’s ways of kind of sneaking it in there.

Great. Well, I’d like to thank you very much for your time, today, Johnson.
Yeah, thanks for inviting me in again.

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