Between Two Worlds: What is a Māori designer?

I’m a designer. While I was trained in graphic design, I just say ‘designer’ because over the years I’ve worked on a diverse range of projects – from fashion and exhibition design, to web, video, sound and more. However, sometimes I’m also a Māori designer. So, why the different label? What’s the difference between a Māori designer and non-Māori designer?  In this post I’ll try to answer these pātai (questions), and give my account of what I think a Māori designer is.

In general, people probably think a Māori designer is either a designer with Māori ancestry, a designer who works with customary Māori imagery, or both. However, what I think is unique about Māori designers is the Māori world view – a view which shapes the design process.

For example, when I work on a Māori fashion project it’s not just aesthetics, or the design problem I need to think about. I consider Māori notions about te tinana (the human body), which parts of te tinana are more important than others, and what that means. From there I make decisions about which patterns are appropriate, what narratives I might draw inspiration from and what materials support the kaupapa (idea/theme). Take the creation of my Māori typeface, Whakarare. While the usual design constraints around usability and legibility still applied, there were a number of Māori-centric considerations including:

1. How might notions of tapu (sacredness) effect not only the design of the typeface but also the guidelines for its use?

2. Can a typeface have whakapapa (genealogy)?

3. Where might a typeface be used and applied?

A Māori world-view results in a Māori design process.  I think that this process is the critical difference between a Māori and non-Māori designer. It’s not something forced, though. It comes from having a grounding in tikanga (protocol) and te reo Māori, from being familiar with important cultural narratives, and from studying the patterns, forms, symbolism and meaning of customary Māori art. It is a combination of skill and knowledge, culture and craft, that makes a Māori designer.

And it is not enough to be proficient in just one area. I’m openly critical of Māori who use Māori motifs in design yet lack any understanding of the symbolic meaning. And I cringe every time I see poorly executed koru, a basic yet important component in most kōwhaiwhai-type patterns. Familiarity with te reo Māori and tikanga Māori doesn’t qualify anyone to give advice on Māori design either – knowing about a language or culture does not necessarily translate to understanding its customary art.

This account of the Māori designer might be seen as dogmatic, prescriptive, or even a little traditionalist. However, meaningful Māori design can only come from the meaningful application of pattern, form and imagery.

So do you need to be Māori to be a Māori designer, or to create Māori design? I say, no. Not if you employ a Māori design process and have the skills and mātauranga (knowledge) to support your mahi (work). Being Māori doesn’t make a Māori designer. Practicing in a mode of Māori thought does. And this mode of thought is available to anyone willing to enter into the Māori world.

This post by me originally featured on design assembly