Hot air: A Monthly Rotating Roundtable — What is Aotearoa New Zealand design? 

3 years ago by

Hot Air: A Monthly Rotating Roundtable, is a new monthly series where a number of designers take on big design conversations. To kick it off we start at the only place rightful place to start, interrogating our national design culture addressing the question. This month we asked Tyrone Ohia, Emma Rogan, Johnson Witehira and Luke Wood, what is Aotearoa New Zealand design? 

Lana Lopesi: I guess to talk about what Aotearoa New Zealand design is today, we probably need to talk about what it was and where it’s been. So, what are the characteristics of Aotearoa New Zealand design historically? 

Luke Wood: I tend to be pretty unenthusiastic about, and unmotivated by any sort of desire to discover or contribute to some definition of what is or isn’t “New Zealand Design”. Mostly because, I think, questions along this line inevitably tend to want a homogenized answer and my experience has been that design, graphic design especially, is very broadly practiced, often to various and different ends that aren’t always recognized as such. Questions like this often come from the industry or a wing of academia that is usually after some form of ownership. I think it pays to remember graphic design emerged as a hybrid discipline in the first half of the 20th Century, but in the contemporary world, in a culture enamoured with technology, the fashion is to pretend that graphic design is some sort of science rather than an art. This is particularly visible in schools-of-art and schools-of-design in NZ, that are generally very sceptical of each other and often don’t even cross the barricades to talk. I always like to remind my students that ‘graphic designers’ were preceded by people who called themselves ‘graphic artists’. So, in NZ for example, people like Marcus King and Leonard Mitchell were artists (painters) who made money as graphic artists applying their drawing and painting skills to mechanical reproduction for the purposes of advertising. This was common internationally, but what’s interesting here – why I think it’s worth mentioning – is that the commercial work of these particular graphic artists then had a huge influence on the work some of NZ’s most significant and now recognised artists of the time. 1930s ‘regionalist’ painters Rata Lovell-Smith and Rita Angus were criticized for their work looking “too posterish”, because of their interest in flattening the landscape into flat areas of colour, as the graphic artists who preceded them had done out of the necessities of mechanical reproduction. The influence of Angus, particularly, on successive generations of NZ painters was obviously huge, and so I’ve sort of always liked the cheeky suggestion that the history of New Zealand painting actually owes a lot to graphic design. Or graphic art or whatever. Obviously, this relationship goes both ways too, there’s an interesting history of cross-pollination between art and graphic design in NZ that is still going strong today.

But to be more specific perhaps, something that characterizes Aotearoa New Zealand’s (graphic) design history, that stands out to me and always has, is the almost total lack of any real sustained critical discourse. There have been moments where certain people, lone wolves often—people like Robert Coupland Harding, Max Hailstone, Christopher Thompson, Catherin Griffiths, Layla Tweedie-Cullen and others—have attempted to generate critical writing or forums for it. Jonty Valentine and I had a go at it for a while with a publication called The National Grid. And now Design Assembly is having a go at it. Sometimes. But generally, there has been very little of it, and it never seems to be met with much enthusiasm.

Tyrone Ohia: My definition of design is pretty broad—it’s the process of thinking up something, then making something. We all do it. So, I’d say that we’re all designers to some degree.

To talk about design, we have to talk about the people and the land it comes from. We design using tools, materials and inspiration from our surrounding environment. Taiaha are made from readily available native hardwood or whale bone. Its parts are inspired by the human body, and the level of detail in the carving tells us that the weapon was designed as an individual. It comes from the land, through the hand, informed by a cultural framework. It’s a beautiful object that reminds us that the richer a culture is, the richer its design is.

Jumping to the present, 2018. The context has changed a bit, we have more tools, materials, and inspiration at our disposal. Not all of them endemic. But I guess endemic depends on how far you want to go back, and I’m not that switched on when it comes to history. We do have shoes made from merino sheep wool. We have very popular honey from our native trees. We have world leading rat and stoat traps, which may not be made entirely of local materials, but they’re protecting our local environments. So sometimes the cause can be endemic.

Johnson Witehira: This is a very polarising question. Before answering I’d like to clarify that with Aotearoa New Zealand design you are probably referring to Pākehā New Zealand design. Putting Aotearoa in that sentence suggests that Māori have actually had some part in ‘design’ in Aotearoa. Not the case.

So looking to Pākehā New Zealand design, historically its characteristics have been defined by the interconnected spaces of design practice and design education. Our educational and design models have borrowed mostly from Britain, Europe and more recently America. Over the years this has produced a steady stream of students, and later practitioners, who have looked offshore for ideas and inspiration. In some ways this makes sense. Since first arriving on our shores, most Pākehā artists, architects and designers assumed that the only design in Aotearoa was that which they brought with them. This is obviously at odds with the fact that design, though not necessarily called that by Māori, existed here already. The vast body of Māori material culture objects is essentially a map of Māori-designed objects. From clothing and weapons to fishing and agricultural tools, Māori had to design things to meet the needs of daily life. Moving past this glaring omission, Pākehā New Zealand design has been characterized by whatever trends were occurring internationally. As such, you can’t pin it down to one style, philosophy or aesthetic. Yes, there has been some local development and hints at genuinely authentic / original Pākehā New Zealand design. For the most part though it has been in imitation. Ersatz, if anything.

LW: The fact that NZ designers have always, somewhat obsessively, looked to Europe and the UK (sometimes America, but mostly Europe) is easily seen/read in any of the literature about design produced in NZ, from Robert Coupland Harding’s Typo (1887–1897) through to Designscape (1969–1983) and Prodesign (1992–2011). This looking to Europe and importing trends from there has also long been encouraged by state-funded organizations like the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (1967–1988), the Design Taskforce (2002), and, of course, Better By Design (2004– ) for example. I think this sort of always looking ‘outward’ can be both good and bad. Good in the sense that someone in, say, Dunedin, might well have a better sense of what’s going on in the world than someone based in New York City. Bad in the sense that we often aren’t very good at, or even interested in, looking ‘inward’.

If I am to try and broadly characterize NZ’s graphic design history I can’t avoid the seemingly pervasive idea that graphic design exists purely in service to business, and can be measured in direct correlation to economic success. So much so that other narratives are hard to find. We don’t have much of a documented history of graphic design as a critical, inventive, exploratory, or research-led practice. I think that, because the industry is generally so singularly focused, it is also a characteristic of NZ graphic design that a lot of the really interesting work gets made by people who are off doing their own thing. And who are most certainly in it for culture rather than capital. Many of my favourite designers wouldn’t even call themselves designers, and their graphic designing is often the by-product of some other outcome or interest.

Emma Rogan: I’ve not heard that term “Aotearoa New Zealand design” before, and am curious about the motivations for evaluating design we produce here and trying to understand it as a singular thing. I don’t think we like to spend too much time reflecting on our own work in this way, it feels like vanity – and vanity is a bit gross. It is probably a good thing if most practitioners have never thought about this right? Like when you’re asked in a job interview to describe your “design style” (it happens) and what you’re really good at – and you think, who am I to say what I am good at, or what my style is? Surely that’s for someone else to observe.

But when I think of ‘design’ I think of commercial design, and even more specifically, commercial graphic design. Your question is broader than that, but that is the framework that I have worked within and coming from that point of view I would say that the characteristics of our own design have been informed by a necessity to meet the commercial needs of our clients, local and international. And the people that have made design. So our design has been to a large degree, a post-colonial, Pākehā, visual design aesthetic, informed very much by Western traditions of graphic design and typography.

Much design has been ambitious and competes to be as good as design done anywhere in the world. As a small, physical outlier, we’ve felt a debt of responsibility to prove that we’re good enough, (just like our clients; NZ businesses) so we’re good at adopting new trends, borrowing and repurposing to suit our needs. Even if we’re not always very good at valuing and investing in design the way our European counterparts do.

Outside of commercial graphic design I think of Māori design culture, of our Māori and Pacific visual languages, patterns and symbols.

LL: And so then, what does Aotearoa New Zealand design look like? 

ER: Taking a drive through the shops in New Market and looking for examples of what I might identify as Aotearoa New Zealand design or ANZd, at this point in time it looks like many things, and is quite typical in lots of ways. And though there are some exciting shifts in NZ graphic design that are distinctly Indigenous and unique, they are relatively difficult to find. I do think there is a spirit of humility and irreverence that is reflective of our culture, and that permeates our design, so maybe it’s less flamboyant but it’s also less earnest or intellectual than in other places.

But if I’m to be honest about that drive through the shops, not a single identifying piece of signage, architecture, or design placed me uniquely here.

JW: It looks like everything, it’s nondescript.

LW: I have to say that I can’t really see that, on the whole, it looks any different to anywhere else in the world. I think we’re really good at looking outward and drawing things back in. There’s always been that sense in NZ, especially when we’re growing up, that everything interesting/important is happening somewhere else, ‘over there’. This history of us always looking to Europe is really visible again right now with the proliferation of ‘Dutch’ looking graphic design that appears like it’s come straight out of the Werkplaats Typografie, or even Metahaven, but a few years too late. It starts in the cultural sector and the next thing you know it looks like Daniel van der Velden’s been working with the BNZ. I guess that’s the problem with formalism, it’s all so quickly and easily appropriated and becomes meaningless in the blink of an eye.

But, equally, I’m don’t think NZ graphic design should look any particular way. I know certain people now and then have said that we shouldn’t be setting NZ texts in foreign typefaces (this was a criticism aimed at The National Grid at one time), but to me that’s a kind of xenophobia, and, to be really honest, I just don’t care.

TO: As far as modern design goes it’s too early to define what it looks like. I think we’re just getting started, which is exciting. I can tell you what a shinto shrine looks like in Japan, because it’s backed up by centuries of cultural refinement.

LL: This is potentially a contentious question, but how do you personally, if at all, differentiate between New Zealand design and Māori design? Are the one in the same, should they be? What are your thoughts?

JW: They definitely are not the same! To even suggest this would be to suggest that Māori have had some meaningful engagement with design, design education or design communities within New Zealand. Until recently this has not been the case at all. The terms in this question are wrong anyway…New Zealand design and Māori design. Don’t you mean Pākehā design and Māori design? Once you make this correct adjustment it’s obvious that they are not one in the same. And no, they shouldn’t be considered that way.

While this naïve type of question still bugs me, I can understand why it continues to come up. Most people still fall into the trap of trying to categorizing design by content rather than process.

TO: Johnson is the expert on this. I’m a beginner on the topic. But right now, yes, they are different. They are based on totally different cultural frameworks. Māori design is based on the values, processes and logic of tikanga Māori and matauranga Māori. It’s a different way of looking at the world, and it produces a different solution. Some of these solutions are pretty effective and can have a lot of relevance to modern situations.

For example, the rahui placed on the Waitakere ranges will help protect our kauri. The hei matau that a lot of Maori wear are today seen as beautiful pieces of jewellery. But in earlier times they were used to adorn fishing lines alongside a baited hook. The idea being that a well-designed piece would earn the respect of Tangaroa, and lead to a good catch of fish. This type of function can only come from looking at the world through a tikanga and matauranga Maori lens.

LW: I don’t know if the question is contentious, or if it’s just that as a Pakeha designer I find it hard to answer. Partly this is a fear of getting it wrong. I can appreciate that we’ve been getting it wrong for years. I grew up in a New Zealand full of superficial and tokenistic gestures towards Māori and Pacific visual cultures, and perhaps I’d cite that as a characteristic of Aotearoa New Zealand design history. Does it feel like we live in a slightly more bi-culturally competent society now though? The use of te reo in popular media is on the rise (while still meeting with inevitable speed bumps!), and I personally would love to live in a country that was more legitimately bilingual. How that translates to a differentiation between New Zealand design and Māori design, I don’t know. I guess we’d need to define those terms better?

In the late 1990s I worked for Tainui designing exhibition graphics and a book for a big exhibition that was being organized following their first major settlement with the Crown. I was pretty young, fresh out of school – a white boy from the South Island – and I remember that I felt a bit out of place. I tried my best to educate myself, and the Tainui people I worked with very much took me in, showed me the ropes, and accepted me. But I always felt slightly awkward or uneasy about my role, and I ended up applying a very cold modernist sort of grid to the whole thing thinking that if, stylistically, I did as little as possible, then I wouldn’t fuck it up? But then looking back now I can see that I totally did fuck it up and it’s kind of a bit embarrassing.

ER: I’d defer to Johnson on this but to me Māori graphic design is New Zealand design. But the reverse is not true. Māori design must eventually give rise to a new kind of mainstream graphic design here and I think we are seeing this start to happen – however most practitioners (including myself) simply don’t know enough yet about te ao Māori to incorporate a Māori lens, or Māori-influenced visual language regularly into our working practice. For a long time Māori and Pacific designs have sat squarely in specific places, in the realms of say, government bodies or sport and health organisations.

Like others, my sense of deference to Māori culture keeps me from diving in and having a crack, I don’t think I am alone in that, we (non-Māori, Pākehā/Palangi) know enough that we want to do it right, and so many of us can’t begin. This is absolutely as it should be too considering the oppressive history of colonisation.

I’ve found a way forward for myself in my practice by working with Māori practitioners and clients when I can. It’s fascinating to work with NZ business owners to bring forth their own Māori heritage into their visual identity, even if we (myself and client together) are sometimes still working out how to find a way forward so that the design doesn’t ostracise non-Māori. I hate that that is a concern, and am hopeful that as our design language evolves to be more inclusive, those anxieties will disappear.

It’s become obvious to me recently that I need to learn to speak te reo, after all language is a foundation of design.

LL: What do we have to offer the world, that no one else does?

TO: We have our native flora and fauna, our Indigenous Māori culture, and an attitude that comes from living all the way down here—it’s a humble, hard-working, no bullshit type of attitude.

JW: I’m not sure what you mean by we. We Aotearoa New Zealanders? We Pākehā or we Māori? We as humans? It’s bloody obvious what we have that no one else has though. Māori culture.

LW: My immediate response to this question is, after years of rampant globalization, ‘not much’… possibly ‘nothing’? Cheap labour maybe? But then I think if that’s true why do I keep coming back to live here? I guess I don’t see that the graphic design industry has anything particularly unique to offer the world, but, I do think that living in New Zealand – well, parts of it – can be very beneficial to maintaining a creative practice (of any sort really). I’ve always been more productive when I’ve lived here.

ER: In a visual design sense? Our Māori culture. I would also include a wider sense of Pacifica culture too, the influences of other migrant communities who make NZ their home. In other more ambiguous ways we have a very low-key, irreverent kind of social norm here that seems unique to this place. Again, I think a lot of this is informed by Māori and our Pacific Island cultures and our geographic place in the world, whether we are Pākeha, Māori or a mixture of heritages. Outside of main cities, everywhere in NZ you are very much amongst the natural environment and exposed to the elements. It’s how most of us choose to unwind and decompress from urban life, we seek the journey out, back to the land and sea and it doesn’t take us long to get there. Our relationship to this wild natural place is unique and informs how we see the world and in turn, remake it in our work.

LL: How can Aotearoa New Zealand design keep evolving and in what direction should it evolve? Whats the future of Aotearoa New Zealand design?

TO: Hopefully its respectful. Hopefully its well-meaning. Hopefully it solves problems. Hopefully it’s fun. Hopefully it’s for the people. Hopefully its well-crafted. Hopefully its true to who we are.

LW: I think to answer questions like this one needs some grand sense of affinity with Aoteroa New Zealand design, and I’m just not sure I have that. I find it very hard NOT to think that when you ask that question you mean the ‘design industry’. And I just don’t care what the design industry on the whole does. I certainly did once upon a time, but I don’t anymore. I don’t even know why, I just lost interest. Not in graphic design, but in that larger professional machine.

That said I guess my answer to this would be that I’d like to see some of the more marginal aspects of graphic designing ‘evolve’. And they already sort of are. Compared to when I started my career in the mid-1990s there is now a much more diverse professional culture available. Graphic designers are now working in small enthusiastic collectives with an eye on culture, as opposed to huge, very hierarchical, advertising agencies with purely mercenary incentives. There also seems to be a small but possibly growing interest in thinking, talking, and writing about graphic design as a cultural, rather than purely commercial, activity. Graphic designers have also been becoming more adept at applying for grants and funding to support projects that can be led by them rather than by a third party (client). And, if you ask me, this is where the seemingly more ambitious work of graphic design appears to be headed in recent years. For this though (funding), graphic designers will be competing with artists, and, in my experience, graphic designers, in general, lack the skills to articulate themselves and their work within these kinds of forums. Hence why I think a committed effort to build a platform(s) for sustained critical discourse about graphic design in New Zealand wouldn’t be a bad idea.

ER: The idea of a grand ‘Aotearoa New Zealand design’ is curious. Why is it necessary? It sounds like a trade stand at an international expo – is that the goal? To package it up and sell it to the world? And once we understand the facets of our own design, then where are we? Are we doing less harm? Will we clean up our shitty waterways? Are we less patriarchal, less tight and white? Are we protecting our children from harm? I’m curious about the purpose of this, because commercial design practitioners and design agencies have always been very good at adapting to changing demands of ‘the market’. We’re also very good at using images of New Zealand and her peoples to sell things that come from here.

But beyond individual financial gain, what purpose does ANZd serve?

Design is adept at reforming and reworking itself (and the language it adopts) to benefit from a neo-liberal capitalist system. To make itself a financially viable service commodity. So there’s no doubt it will keep shape-shifting. New practitioners, responding to changing commercial pressures, working within new mediums and technologies will keep influencing and evolving the visual forms to define design according to their own requirements, sensibilities and values.

I would hope that we could demand that along the way it also carries some weight of responsibility to the wider community and the environment, to leave a legacy beyond the aesthetic. If ANZd were a new movement that gave rise to a rich visual language that helped all of us make sense of our own complex identities (because whether we are first or seventh generation Pākehā) we all have to come to terms with living in a colonised country), and gave us each a sense of place and purpose (and tools that we could use), that would be really exciting. The responsibility to be open to that rests with all of us as individual practitioners, students, teachers, design educators, agencies and clients.

JW: I’m not sure what the path towards an Aotearoa New Zealand design is. I know that if we want to use that term though to build (it doesn’t exist yet) a bi-cultural design lineage than Pākehā designers need to genuinely engage with Māori culture and New Zealand history. I put the onus on Pākehā because design is Pākehā term and the design world, at least how its framed in New Zealand, is dominated by Pākehā New Zealanders


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