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.
There are some parts of the world where the locals possibly think we speak Elvish in New Zealand. For years, Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogies imprinted the stunning landscape of Aotearoa onto the world’s consciousness. But while those films gave half our country’s creative sector jobs, they carried little of our actual identity into the world. Beyond the hills and rivers and mountains they showcased, the most authentically Kiwi part of the whole sextet of films are the weed-smoking jokes.
This isn’t an essay on adapting Tolkien, however. It’s about voice and culture, in the context of design and advertising. I bring up the Rings films because of something one of my interviewees, Han Law, told me: “I read something that said, if culture is a house, then language is the key to the front door”.
Being the massive closet nerd that I am, my mind leapt straight to the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf and friends are trying to enter the Mines of Moria. After hours of trying to hack the password, Gandalf realises he has mistranslated the Elvish instruction “Say ‘Friend’ and enter” as “Speak, friend and enter”. He says the Elvish word for friend, the doors unlock and open. A simple key, lost in translation.
Language as the key that unlocks culture is an intriguing idea. For the Field Guide 2020 I have been looking at voice. Who speaks, who is heard, in Aotearoa New Zealand design and the creative industries. And it got me thinking about the new New Zealanders, and the role language plays in unlocking the door to their own sense of belonging. I decided to interview a few people and see if I could draw a conclusion from the answers.
In many of my creative projects, I start out with an idea of where I think I’m going, but end up somewhere else. Unsurprisingly, that happened again with this piece. I sent a set of questions to a few New Zealand-based creatives originally from elsewhere. I wanted to know how the language our design and advertising speaks works for them. Does it exclude or include them? Does it connect with them, or connect them to here? The answers I got back were insightful, astute and filled with enough surprises to make me alter the direction I was heading. Rather than an argument for change, it became more of a celebration of discovery.
First, I spoke to some of the team at Method, who I’ve been working on a project with over the last couple of months. They have a diverse crew and I sent my questions to Lahiru De Silva (3D and Motion Designer), and Roshan Nowshad (Technical Artist). Both are fairly new to New Zealand.
Lahiru, originally from Sri Lanka, has been in New Zealand for 2 years after 10 years in Singapore. He says he is “slowly getting there” in terms of feeling like a New Zealander, influenced by his daily interactions on work projects and “the people you meet at the coffee shop”. I asked about whether colloquial language and references in advertising or other designed experiences were a challenge to understand. Lahiru’s answer was one of the first to nudge my original idea off course. “Yes, most of the advertising here is with cultural references,” according to Lahiru. “First I was like WHATTTT! but then, slowly, I’m getting it. It’s fun understanding all this and getting to know the culture.” Work projects have also helped him learn and connect, especially one based at Commercial Bay which gave him insights into the local geography and history.
His workmate Roshan came to New Zealand from Coimbatore, India, around 3 years ago. Roshan is philosophical about countries and identity. “After leaving India, it made me realise…the feeling of being part of a country doesn’t make sense. I see everyone as one, like one species on Planet Earth.” While he acknowledges that he comes up against cultural references that he’s not used to, it’s usually a reason to investigate and understand the background to a particular piece of advertising or design. The creative work that really gave him a strong sense of connection to here, though, was a wood carving workshop, where he made his own traditional Māori instruments, the purerehua and pūtōrino.
The answers these two gave me suggested that there is something satisfying in the experience of unlocking understanding, like the pleasure of solving a puzzle.
Next, I spoke to Malaysian New Zealanders Siew Wee H’ng and Han Law. Many Design Assembly readers will know their work as K Road animation studio Pixelpush. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with them on a couple of projects and I rate both their work and the way they approach it.
Wee has been in New Zealand since 2015, Han since 2009. Both learned English to some degree at school. Their answers to my questions were nuanced and thoughtful, and I appreciate the time they put into answering them.
Siew Wee talked about speaking English but not “thinking English” until she came to New Zealand. She still feels she’s not been here long enough to call herself a New Zealander, and hasn’t had the chance to represent herself as one. Like many people, being asked “where are you from?” makes her feel less like she is from here.
I asked whether she comes up against unfamiliar references in language, her response was less about content and more about delivery: “Less so the language – I think the tone of voice is really something that I’m unfamiliar with. There’s a fair amount of passive-aggressiveness and sarcasm in a lot of the messaging”. She also gets frustrated that language ability is equated with professional competence. “There’s a lot of expectation on language efficiency compared to work efficiency, even though most of our work is visual and design-driven”.
The piece of creative work that has given her the most sense of connection to Aotearoa was one that transcended language: Atamira Dance Company’s Pango. “It’s the perfect example of how individuals can express attitude and mindset through body language…how we can use other senses to receive messaging.”
“Language can bring people together. It can also create gaps or distances between people”, she added. “It shouldn’t be seen as the one and only measuring tool in communication. Be open to accept, stay curious and learn!”
For Siew Wee’s business partner Han, the stages of relating to increasingly deeper expressions of New Zealand creativity have been crucial to building a sense of belonging.
“It took me quite a long time to identify myself as a New Zealander. At first, I thought it was about giving up my identity as a Malaysian” says Han, “and every time I visited ‘home’ I felt I was becoming less a Malaysian and more a Neither/Nor. But slowly I realised that it wasn’t an I/O – it’s a blend.”
One thing Han said really intrigued me – and is possibly something I would have found harder to see as an ‘insider’. Early on, he’d noticed that his feeling of unfamiliarity was often shared, not just by newcomers into this young and diverse country, but also existing New Zealanders from different backgrounds. “They seemed to be learning so much from each other all the time; for example Pākehā friends learning Te Reo pronunciations or revisiting the Treaty of Waitangi.” As someone new to the country, just starting to learn as well, he found this sense of perpetual learning very encouraging.
Like Roshan and Lahiru, early on Han found the use of cultural references and colloquialisms a challenge, but a positive one – a reason to absorb and learn a new culture. And he’s found that the difference that language makes to how he organises and presents thoughts is sometimes a useful point of difference, something unique he brings to the table.
He says his sense of connection to New Zealand has developed in three stages. Stage one, on arrival, was the more obvious Kiwiana and popular Kiwi culture, whether it was Whale Rider or Dick Frizzell’s Mickey to Tiki or the Kiwiana-laden Tasti ad of a few years ago. “It gave me an instant access point, bringing me ’up to speed’, building my impression and connection to New Zealand”.
Stage two came as time progressed, from gaining an appreciation of creativity with a more nuanced sense of connection – the art of Don Binney and Colin McCahon, or the type design of Kris Sowersby. And stage three? That’s happened more recently, as Han’s definition of New Zealand has evolved.
“I find the creative things I enjoy have simply become more diverse (or even plain at times): Atamira Dance Company, the design work of Shabnam Shiwan, spoken word poetry, a random pop-up community art thing at Silo Park or scrolling through my friend Matt Liggin’s Instagram feed to get a peep of his art and architecture projects (and photos of the surf).”
To a degree, Han credits being Malaysian with his ability to step into a new culture and thrive. “Many Malaysians find it easy (in my opinion) to swap between languages to suit the situation, the social context, or depending on who they are addressing so that the most effective conversation can be achieved. It’s having the ability to adapt to what is most appropriate for the situation.” He put it into culinary terms – it’s akin to knowing how to eat a steak with a knife and fork, noodles with chopsticks, banana leaf curry or a burger with your hands.
I keep going back to the quote Han shared with me: “If culture is a house, then language is the key to the front door.” Maybe my initial angle for this essay, which came from worrying about voice being a tool for exclusion, failed to recognise that there is something important in the process of gaining inclusion?
I admit that a lot of Kiwiana sits awkwardly with me, so it was really interesting to hear that it could serve as an entry point. It was good timing that, a few weeks before I wrote this essay, McDonald’s updated its old Kiwiburger advertising jingle.
The old version was emblematic of the old Kiwiana that I’ve never particularly loved, a kind of one dimensional New Zealand-lite. When I saw there was a new version, sung by Anika Moa and Troy Kingi, I was braced for cultural cringe. But…I kinda liked it. Because in its own way, it was evolving the idea of New Zealand, of Aotearoa. It was presenting a new door to be unlocked that, while still a challenge to recent arrivals, was more relevant to what the country is now, not what it was.
At the start of this piece, I wanted to know how the language our design and advertising speaks works for new New Zealanders. Does it exclude or include them? I think I was asking the wrong question. We each, as individuals, are in a conversation with the culture that’s around us. We hear different voices in it, find meaning in different places, and add our own voice as a thread to be woven in.
Maybe New Zealand’s creative voice is actually a never-ending piece of cloth, rolling off a loom, being woven with new threads every day. It’s patterns and colours change, it wears and rips in places. And as we add to it, it becomes something new. Hopefully, it’s not an impenetrable curtain. Hopefully, it’s a welcome mat.