GSM talks to Dr Johnson Witehira about Indigenous Design Methodologies – and discovers that; whilst having Māori working on ‘Indigenous’ work is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, having a fuller understanding of process – will result in a more meaningful output beyond simply achieving the ‘right’ aesthetic>
Design companies throughout New Zealand are scrambling to hire Māori designers. For some, this investment is merely superficial; having a Māori designer means they can win the work they couldn’t get before. Sometimes this is to the detriment of Māori design organisations. For others, though, there seems to be a genuine understanding that indigenous people should lead projects involving indigenous design.
However, is having an ‘indigenous’ designer on the team enough? Or are there other things to consider when working on projects involving indigenous peoples or their cultural heritage?
In our experience, successful indigenous design has more to do with people and processes than aesthetics.
Led by Indigenous Processes
In Aotearoa, we refer to design that is ‘by Māori for Māori’ as kaupapa Māori design. Kaupapa Māori design is led and created by Māori, framed by a Māori world view and shaped by tikanga Māori (modes of engagement). For Māori, it’s all about relationships and process. If the process isn’t tika, it doesn’t matter how good your logo looks.
So what are Māori design processes? While there are no hard and fast rules, there are some aspects to Māori culture which we see as being shared amongst our indigenous kin. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But some things to consider when engaging with Māori and indigenous people include:
He wā Māori refers to the Māori understanding of time and its use. For Māori, time is not treated as a commodity. Time is not money. Time is something that relates to the task at hand. It can stretch and bend and often does. So when indigenous people ‘seem’ to be slowing the project down, in reality, we are probably giving the project the appropriate time to be considered by our whānau, hapū, iwi and other essential parties.
indigenous tribal groups are often busy working on health, social, housing and educational projects. So when they don’t show enthusiasm for your ‘great design project’ chances are we’re just busy. We often hear, ‘we tried to call and email them, but we didn’t hear anything back’. However, Iwi should not be dismissed so quickly. Neither should they be expected to be grateful that you’ve reached out. This is the least you should be doing. We suggest going to them and meeting at their table to hear and understand their priorities, which leads us to
the third consideration.
being seen kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) is an essential concept in Māori culture. It’s about establishing genuine relationships and being present in a community—not only during the project but afterwards. Designers, like researchers, tend to drop in and out of indigenous communities when they want something—knowledge about a design or pattern, how to use it and why. Think about why you want to work in the space and what you can give back.
each culture has specific rules around exchange and value. Within Māori culture, manaaki is central to how cultural exchange works and what it means. The word manaaki literally means to uplift (aki) the esteem/ self-worth (mana) of those you are hosting. Referring to manaaki on the marae Tā Mason Durie beautifully wrote, ‘A marae encounter becomes robust when people leave feeling stronger than when they arrived’. This sentiment is at the heart of indigenous exchange.
These are just a few of the things we must consider when design projects are led by indigenous processes.
Informed by Indigenous Design Knowledge
Being informed by indigenous design knowledge means making sure you’ve got the right people on your team. Sure, having an indigenous advisor on your project is helpful. But it’s not always the solution. Do they know anything about design practice? Should they be advising on technical details? Even within the realm of Māori knowledge, there are some who specialise—and having a one-size-fits-all approach can be both lazy and unhelpful. Just ‘ticking a box’ doesn’t always make a project better.
Designed by Indigenous People
Having an indigenous designer on the team with the appropriate cultural support is essential. Indigenous people should be in charge of their own knowledge and forms and how they are used globally. This aligns with the Māori principles of mana motuhake and tinorangatiratanga (self-determination and authority).
Good indigenous design disrupts western ways of thinking. It can be uncomfortable. And what you end up with might not be what you expected. However, it’s not about you. It’s not about design awards. It’s about people and purpose:
- How is this useful?
- Does this help my community?
- Will my people like how we’re represented?
When we keep these questions in mind, we’ll always design something meaningful.
GSM would like to thank Dr Johnson Witehira (Tamahaki, Ngāti Hinekura, Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Tū-te-Auru) @Indigenous Design & Innovation Aotearoa (IDIA) + johnsonwitehira.studio for providing his valuable insights for Rākau Kōrero.