Decolonising Design in Aotearoa: From the Studio to the Archive and back again Back to Discussion


Published by
Kerry Ann Lee

Dear Young Designer,

I wonder if what you originally pictured yourself doing in design to be has radically shifted from when you first started? The premise seemed straight-forward: A client has a problem. You ride in on a white horse to remedy it with an award-winning solution, and zap! Everyone’s happy, money rains and life goes on. The end. The world is full of well-meaning designers chasing dream scenarios, yet when it comes to designing for diverse audiences, there’s still a struggle to find nuanced voices and representation in popular culture, literature, film, media and advertising. Ask your grandma.

More than once I’ve heard you use the term ‘imposter syndrome’ lately, also expressing your fear of being misunderstood. And I commiserate, knowing all too well the precarity of working in the space between cultural frames: the awkwardness of being wheeled into the end of a project to ‘add flavour’ or ‘perform your culture’ — having to explain that although you’re from here, that you don’t know how to speak Te reo Māori, Samoan or Mandarin well enough to design, market and sell goods and services to people who do, and feeling under-resourced and overwhelmed.


By sharing your frustration, you also hold onto a hope that your design might make the world a more equitable and empathetic place. You asked me what “decolonising design in Aotearoa” could look like. Creative resistance and solidarity comes in many forms, and has potential for whakawhanaungatanga — to facilitate reciprocal relationships between people, sites, systems and ecologies, and sustain our collective desires for the future. Designer and educator, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Rivera from Decolonial School at the California College of Arts encourages designers to centre Indigenous knowledge and perspectives to present “new possible futures that are non-oppressive and non-hierarchical.” Decolonising design methodologies can enhance dominant culture in its criticality and inclusivity.

Tired of cultural appropriation and reductive cliches, we desperately seek new and thoughtful strategies and articulations. What I could offer you here evokes what scholar Uzma Rizvi refers to as ‘Decolonising as care’ with a view to who and what’s happening around us. Recent events at Ihumātao, the Christchurch Attacks, Black Lives Matter, and Covid racism have shaken our postcolonial understandings of biculturalism, multiculturalism, historic injustices, visibility and representation. To centre Te Tiriti-based relationships between Mana Whenua and Pākehā / Tauiwi enables us to carefully and purposefully transform Eurocentric Design and Archive practices. Look at scholarship by Vā Moana / Pacific Spaces, Te Ipukarea Research Institute (behind the successful Te Aka Māori Dictionary) and Indigenous Design in Aotearoa (IDIA) who employ a Culture Centred Design (CCD) approach. Examples of contemporary design following these values and aspirations can also be found in the new Kātoitoi design archive.

TWOA Katoitoi4

Language and customs are lost, found and revitalised on these islands. At a zine-making workshop yesterday at Te Papa hosted by Migrant Zine Collective, a student told us that they were relearning Chinese as an adult to reconnect with her heritage after negative experiences with it growing up. It’s also Sāmoa Language Week, and my colleague has gifted us some Gagana Sāmoa terms, phrases and understandings. A range of resources are available for learning Te reo Māori. Aotearoa’s second-largest tertiary provider, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa centers Mātauranga Māori and offers free online courses. Their brand identity by Iceberg features the custom typeface ‘Uhi’ referencing a mark-making tool used in tā moko — Māori traditional tattooing.

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Kupu, developed by Colenso BBDO, is an app that translates photographic objects into Te reo. Grassroots approaches to designing Te reo learning tools are also useful. Vicktoria Johnson’s Tāmata Reo (Pangahono) features tactile, illustrated letterforms that inspire further hands-on exploration.

Tāmata Reo Pangahono 5

Whose stories are you telling out in the world, why and how does this happen? Archive entries from Auckland Arts Festival and Viva Magazine centre BIPOC creatives to show what is possible, while place-based branding projects like Tū Mai, He Puna Taimoana, Te Ūaka and Trust Tairāwhiti Tohu, conscious to avoid ‘recolonising’ through design, each detail bespoke engagement with local iwi. Centering indigenous knowledge systems in urban design, architecture and landscaping could revitalise sites and ecologies long overlooked. One such example is Ngā Ūranga ki Pito-one designed by Isthmus Group in partnership with Taranaki Whānui. This ambitious project — a shared coastal pathway for walking and cycling link between Wellington and Lower Hutt, activates Te Whanganui-a-tara foreshore as both a historically significant site and reimagined public space.

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Working cross-culturally is risky but remember that you are resourceful. What does it mean to be a ‘cultural knowledge-holder’ and what do you understand ‘cultural labour’ to mean for you? What does it look like (time, money, koha or exchange)? What are the limits of your experience and gaps in your knowledge, and what might your needs and expectations be from community collaborators in helping you realise this cross-cultural design work successfully?

VOR Platform Board

Who your work is for is crucial. The Voice of Racism campaign is deliberately stressful and confronting. The core content is raw, offensive and especially triggering for those who have directly or indirectly experienced racist abuse. Uncomfortable? Definitely. Useful? I dare say so. You see in this instance, BIPOC communities are not having to lead this kōrero, instead, reputable advocates (New Zealand Human Rights Commission working with Taika Waititi and Clemenger BBDO) magnify the ugly abuse which happens everyday in Aotearoa for popular audiences to consider, and challenge myths and ignorance around such issues.

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Design can challenge misrepresentation through nuanced personal narratives. Kimberley Zhou’s research-based publication project, STEREO(TYPE) shines a light on ‘ethnic lettering’ found in graphic design, specifically in and around the humble Chinese Takeaway. Zhou adopts an analytical approach through typographic and editorial design, also presenting her own experience growing up with the family business of the takeaway. The work is didactical and savvy, resonating with others with diasporic Cantonese heritage, but also customers of local Chinese and Asian-owned businesses.

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What does it mean to be ‘of this island’ and what are affinities between us?

Mana Moana Digital Ocean explores this through their online collection of multimedia and digital art. The work draws us back to the water’s edge to a place of awe and
wonder through Mātauranga Māori and Kaupapa Pasifika perspectives, “glowing like islands” in the digital ocean.

If you haven’t already, also check out the Pacific Arts Legacies Project by Pantograph Punch, Untold Pacific History by Radio New Zealand, The Spinoff’s The Single Object series and New Zealand Herald’s Land of the Long White Cloud web series. Who came before you? Who’s working right now in areas that are related and inspiring to your research? What format does it come (books, art, film, fashion, video)? Who consumes this media and who misses out (due to time, money, access, know-how)? Again, ask your grandma.

I was going to discuss specific challenges for BIPOC educators in design, but maybe another time. Some of our current Honours-level design students have been doing some interesting work. One student is researching into graphic methods to persuade migrant parents that studying art and design is a viable option, while another is asking how to celebrate culture and heritage without trauma. They’re encouraged to build a glossary of useful key terms and understandings to reference. Perhaps such a thing could be useful for commercial projects too?

Now that we have this archive please use it. Value those documented so far, but also the cultural work of those yet to be recognised and those nowhere near an archive (out in the community). Like I said before: that if you chose to study design, you will never be able look at the world the same again. How can you, knowing what you now know? Use your powers for good, be generous, critical, kind and stay hopeful. We will always need role models and allies and since you’re here too, you are very much part of this.

He waka eke noa.

Kerry Ann Lee

This essay by Kerry Ann Lee and accompanying illustration by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White is part of a commissioned series of essays, interviews and artworks commissioned by Creative New Zealand for our 2020 pilot of the Aotearoa Design Archive.

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