Influencing the bigger picture.
Creativity has immense potential to transform a culture, and designers are well-poised to incite collective action. Trained to identify problems, explore solutions and exercise the art of persuasion, visual communicators have the potential to be a catalyst for change.
In a heavily distracted world, it’s challenging to cut through the noise and extract the messages that matter most, but as the Kātoitoi 2020 collection shows, a number of Aotearoa designers are making the conscious choice to disrupt the status quo and let their voice be heard.
It can start with a story, an idea or a korero; and like the call of the small manu – the kātoitoi, if that story has a strong, distinctive voice, its noise will travel far. When amplified by a powerful tool like design, messages can take flight, creating a ripple effect that spreads far and wide. Designers show us how small actions can quickly take on a life of their own and when people listen and engage, interesting things can happen.
This essay examines how Aotearoa designers, from individuals to studios and larger agencies, are tackling political, cultural and social issues that touch us here and further afield. To further understand their design mark, we need to recognise the importance of creative agency, what it means to have the courage to act, and how creative voices can be amplified – gathering collective interest, with the goal of leading to tangible impact.
Designers with agency
Where there is collective strength, ideas can challenge existing models of power. In 2020, we observed a shift from the individual mindset to a more communal perspective, placing more emphasis on practitioners to question: what does this work mean for my community and the planet?
Through the growth of digital platforms and social media, communication design has taken on its own political life, though not always for the right reasons, it’s about how we use the tools. Users might still be up against targeted political advertising, but in a ‘democratic’ digital landscape, there is the opportunity to insert your voice and see what unfolds.
When we start to consider our intentionality, the tone of our message, and the tools we harness in our work, we see how passionate communication design can be used as a vehicle to incite discourse and create real impact.
There is a long history of the creative arts’ influence on social and political interaction. We need only look to music, theatre, and fine art with its long tradition of storytelling to see how these forms can bring large communities together and be a catalyst for real change. When design and self-expression work to counter historical ideologies and long held beliefs, we can see design that empowers, elicits support, and exercises real agency within a community.
It takes courage to disrupt
Isthmus Group’s design ‘Marine ecology ropes —Te Wānanga’ suggests a tangible solution to serious ecological issues by incorporating local indigenous knowledge. The plans incorporate ecology ropes and supporting waka floats, both, “…an integral part of the project and… a successful environmental and ecological initiative that will help improve the biodiversity and health of Tāmaki.” The collaborative project is an innovative initiative for Tāmaki Makarau, and by “…locating the Marine ecology ropes here, [it] draws attention to seawater quality issues in Tāmaki and asks the question around advocacy. One project will not fix the problem, but it can highlight it and demonstrate solutions.” As the design team demonstrates, action doesn’t necessarily mean simply identifying problems, but rather, exploring new opportunities, and for this project, working collaboratively with indigenous experts to better understand the issue.
Both Isthmus Group’s and Zhou’s projects highlight cultural perspectives and knowledge that have historically been overlooked. Their research and design output performs a social commentary about how western methods should make room for other world views – allowing for more diverse approaches to complex issues.
By nature, designers are sensitive types, there’s an awareness of human needs, a curiosity about other cultures, perspectives and understanding how others live. Through a shared visual language, designers have the agency to put commercial interest aside and use the tools at their disposal to empower themselves and others.
Using social media’s exponential reach, the tongue-in-cheek ‘Meddle in the New Zealand Election’ (from the non-partisan initiative ‘Every Kiwi Vote Counts’) campaign contributed to the highest turnout of overseas voters on record. “We found the real barrier was that they (oversees Kiwis) didn’t think their vote mattered…” the creators commented, “our challenge became to wake them up to their collective influence as a voting bloc – letting them know their vote mattered – and to provocatively invite them to get amongst the NZ election.” Despite a low budget, “Through “provocative context (spread of misinformation) we were able to mobilize more overseas Kiwi than ever before.”
Aotearoa can aim to design a world in which we all belong; where we can experience a healthier, more equitable future. Like the small kātoitoi shows, there is power in voice and expression, and as the 2020 archive shows, our designers are poised to amplify theirs.