Field Guide 2020: Speaking with your ears
This Field Guide article sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on designassembly.org.nz and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally.
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community. The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, six illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency.
Supported by Creative New Zealand
The artwork to accompany this essay is by Munro te whata a Māori, Niuean creative artist based in Auckland. He lives in The Gardens, with his wife and three kids. At the age of 16 Munro studied animation and began working as an inhouse animator on the hit TV show Bro’town. After 4 years there he went on to work for a show on Māori TV and began illustrating and teaching. Munro went back into studies and gained a Bachelor of Creative Arts from MIT and then started working as an in house illustrator for Kiwa Digital. Munro is now freelancing from home while also teaching art in schools.
Over the school holidays, I walked the treaty grounds at Waitangi with my two sons. Thanks to COVID-19, it was quiet, almost empty of visitors. For a few precious moments in the winter sun, with the exception of some inquisitive piwakawaka, we were all alone as we stood in history.
The boys explored and talked and photographed and soaked it all in. Across the water was Kororāreka, Russell, where we had walked and explored the previous afternoon. We were back at the start of the Pākehā story. There was plenty to be learned.
Other than pointing the odd feature out, I was mostly quiet. Things were on my mind, including this essay. When I pitched my ideas for Field Guide 2020, I knew that I wanted to write about how Tauiwi might engage with creative briefs where they are asked to speak to, or for, or from Māori. I wanted it to be a useful reference, a field guide for creatives venturing into a space they may not know well.
It seemed like a good idea. Despite the limits of my own understanding of Te Ao Māori, of kawa and tikanga, I’ve worked on creative projects with a Māori dimension before. But as I stood there reflecting, I wondered if I should have. I was feeling uncomfortable.
I shook it off and we carried on with our wanderings. We had already spent time in Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi and went next to the stunning and sobering Te Rau Aroha, which tells the story of the Māori commitment to New Zealand’s armed forces and of the 28 (Māori) Battalion’s A Company. Friends who I have worked with on other projects had worked on this new addition, so I was paying particular attention to how the powerful stories in both museums were shared.
There were reflective stories, hopeful stories, regretful stories. But what stood out most were the uncomfortable stories that grappled with a fundamental truth of Aotearoa: we are still working these relationships out. Between Māori and Pākehā and newer arrivals. Between history and the future. Between land and people. And I came away feeling that the sense of discomfort was important, that living with an awareness of it is how we will navigate a way forward. I recognised that I needed to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
Going back to what this essay intended to be, how does this discomfort become useful in a design context? How is it useful as a tool for non-Māori working on projects with a Māori dimension? It starts with unlearning some of what, as creative professionals, we might see as our usual strengths.
My background, as a copywriter and creative director, has primarily been with agencies working within the usual industry paradigm. We present ourselves as experts in design, in language, in filmmaking, in persuasion. We reassure clients with our ability to understand their business or their culture and get up to speed, fast. Despite curiosity and discovery sitting at the heart of creative exploration, the dynamics of the commercial creative industry mean we will often push discomfort aside to project competence and expertise.
In a world shaken up by COVID-19 that impulse is even stronger. I’ve felt it myself – do what you need to do to get paid. I can only imagine how it weighs on the shoulders of people holding an agency team together in economically uncertain times. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ is a pervasive attitude and it’s often how you survive in a commercial environment.
Usually, this approach works. But I don’t think it is controversial to say it too often comes up short when it comes to projects that intersect with the Māori world. Often our clients are far ahead of us on their own journey of, for example, engaging with Māori audiences, incorporating elements of a Māori world view into their organisation’s culture, and including te reo Māori. For clients who are Māori, or Māori-led organisations, the expectation should be that a project they brief into an agency or a designer is handled with genuine competency, not smoke and mirrors.
A side note: I’m wary that I’m using ‘we’ and ‘our’. It’s habitual and unconscious and I’m using it to refer to the overwhelmingly Pākehā world of advertising and design agencies. I know the industry is changing, but I still see it as hegemonically white-centric in a way that is out of balance with the real composition of modern Aotearoa. And we need to get to a place beyond bringing in a cultural consultant to reassure us we’ve ticked the right boxes.
Let’s go back to the role of a creative working on a brief. You are there to give voice to an idea or to information, to communicate something in a way that moves people to feel or think or act. This is more than an act of translation. You need to go deeper than the words laid out in the brief and express the meaning in them. And yet often a basic translation into te reo Māori, or a one-dimensional translation of a concept, is seen as enough to show some kind of cultural competency. We don’t just recycle our packaging, we practice kaitiakitanga. We don’t just offer friendly service and customer support, it’s manaakitanga in action. There’s a whakatauki at the beginning of our annual report.
These statements can be true, but only if they go beyond superficial translation. There is a conceptual depth and complexity to te reo Māori that means a word brings so much more than one tidy meaning. Words are concepts that need unpacking. We have to learn to go deeper. That starts with asking more questions and accepting the discomfort of admitting your knowledge or understanding comes up short.
When I started planning this essay, I was going to ask questions as research. I would ask some Māori design practitioners what they believed non-Māori should ask at the start of a project. But even with that approach, my discomfort set in. Was I outsourcing the effort? Was I putting the onus on Māori to educate me? Or was it the right way to address the topic, allowing myself to be a conduit for what they would have to say?
I didn’t resolve those questions immediately, because another essay in this Field Guide 2020 project presented its own answers. Kate McGuinness’s conversation with the founders of IDIA and ĀPŌPŌ, Field Guide 2020: Designing a new Aotearoa, is insightful, compelling and confronts some of what I’ve been grappling with head on. It also gave me a set of questions that neatly wrapped up what I had been looking for.
The Cultural Integrity Scorecard that IDIA have developed is incredibly valuable. It lays out 12 questions for designers, or anyone, to ask themselves about their work with aspects of Māori culture. It’s an invaluable first step towards doing things better and every designer and writer and agency should have it pinned to their wall.
Any helpful tool is only a starting point though. A useful ladder out of the deepest part of ignorance to get you to the place where you can have a conversation and listen. A ladder to the uncomfortable place where we accept we don’t know everything. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work on creative projects over the last few years that have slowly, incrementally, built my own understanding. I’ve had Māori clients, creatives and consultants patiently and generously offer up their knowledge and answer my questions. More importantly, they’ve helped me reach a point of knowing how much I don’t know.
The creative industries play a role in social change, embedding the cultural shifts. Are enough questions being asked? Is there enough listening happening? No, but the momentum is there. Despite resistance from some quarters, Aotearoa is set on a course towards accepting, acknowledging and understanding the bi-cultural nature of our identity. Te Tiriti o Waitangi gives us a framework for partnership. The huge amount of scholarship that has gone into decolonising accounts of our history, particularly around the conflicts over land, is reshaping the conversation. In the corporate world (to varying degrees of success), more and more businesses are trying to address how they intersect with Te Ao Māori. As designers, writers, creative practitioners, we should be part of this momentum. Not listening can’t cut it anymore.
When I still intended this essay to be about the questions non-Māori should ask and how we should approach Māori projects, I asked a friend for her input. Olivia Haddon works in the Māori Design for Auckland Council, and I found her response really valuable.
“Have a principles and values based approach to your process. Over the long term start with building an authentic and ongoing relationship with your Māori customer, audience, community, client, brief – and with Māori culture and language, artists, reo experts.
Start a journey of discovery of yourselves as pākeha and your relationship to Te tiriti and history in building this settler nation. Know yourselves and your bias.
Build a team and give back, take advice, discover and recognise the value of cultural expertise and engagement, collaborate and credit appropriately.
Never appropriate, never take, never guess or think you know, ask for feedback and review, and don’t think that you as a designer always know best.
Engage before you pick up a pen, use your tāringa. You are a conduit.”
I loved that final sentiment. If you are creating in this space, with a culture that is not your own, you are a conduit. You are not just speaking in your own voice; you’re carrying a Māori voice to your audience. For the work to speak authentically and do what we all hope our work will do – inform, inspire, move, instigate – you need to listen first. What you say should be coming from your ears.
As a designer or writer or any kind of creative practitioner, you have a creative voice. If you are working with or for Māori, learn to create space in your work for other voices in a collaborative and open way. It will make the work better. If that is uncomfortable and a new way of working for you? Good. Discomfort is how we grow.