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Incorporating Te Ao Maori in our Creative Work…


Ma Te Mohio Ka Marama – Through Awareness Comes Understanding

For graphic designers in New Zealand, when a client requests a ‘kiwi theme’, it’s only natural to reference Te Ao Māori, the Māori world. But, what if, without realising it, we misappropriate the culture? To feel more confident about incorporating Te Ao Māori into our creative work and to better understand the cultural significance of what we do, GSM13 talks to three Māori who specialise in bringing their culture into the world of design.


Johnson has a Ph.D in Māori Art & Design and is co-founder of Indigenous Design and Innovation Aotearoa. He is also a lecturer of Communication Design at AUT. Johnson’s PhD thesis is titled ‘Tarai Korero Toi—Articulating a Māori Design Language’. In his research, Johnson explored customary Māori arts in order to develop Tikanga (protocol) for contemporary Māori design practice. The Tikanga help maintain the integrity and intent of the Māori form and content and recognise the distinct crossover between culture and commerce.


Creative Director of Ariki Creative, Christchurch. Hori started learning Māori carving and art forms at high school and progressed to studying a Bachelor of Design at ARA, Christchurch. Becoming a graphic designer was, as he explains, ‘a way for me to merge my knowledge of Māori art and all it incorporates, that is, ancestry and traditional ways, with my technical design skills. Becoming a Māori designer means two things; firstly, my Whakapapa and secondly, the way I design in accordance to Māori protocol’.


Tuteri, M.A (Business Management— Marketing), Postgraduate Dip. (Business Marketing), B.A (Māori), Dip. Teaching (Kura Kaupapa Māori), is Director and Marketing Strategist at Waha, The Māori Creative Agency, Auckland. As an academic marketing strategist with a strong Māori upbringing, Tuteri believes the end output for design comes not from design itself but from a Māori Market Mix. This mix stems from a strong connection to language, customs, values, beliefs, religion and region of birth.

GSM: As a graphic designer, how can one design and create branding in a commercial environment while respecting the indigenous culture? For example, the use of Māori graphics or language.

JW: I think the answer to this is straightforward, but involves some commitment. In order to create a successful design or brand, in a way that respects an indigenous culture, you need to be genuinely engaged with that culture. With Māori graphics and language, this means going beyond hiring a Māori designer, artist or ‘cultural advisor’. You need to bring Māori culture into your
organisation with whatever tools you have. And you need to make a  genuine attempt to embed basic knowledge of te reo and tikanga Māori into your practice or company.

We live in Aotearoa, New Zealand. If you don’t realize it yet, Māori culture is part of the lives of all New Zealanders. You could choose to ignore it for another 250 years, or you can take a different path. In my experience, those who really bring Māori culture into their businesses never regret it. In this day and age it’s just no longer acceptable to think you can dip in and out of other people’s cultures to borrow or use things. Just because I’m a Māori designer doesn’t mean I’m confident I could design with other indigenous cultures forms or images. In fact, the opposite is true. I have a hard enough time  designing for one culture at the moment.

TR: From a non-designer’s perspective,  but being Māori—I see the design as the last element to the creative.  And I ‘fight’ with all designers, including Māori, all the time about this. WHY? Because they think design is everything. As an example, everything you see on our website  comes from the client, myself and what they want. As a result, in our company, our designer is given direction and not free rein.

GSM: From where do you draw inspiration?

HM: From the narrative—our stories and traditions which are told through art, rather than written in books. I draw inspiration from the traditional art and then add modern design and technique to get a good balance. But, that’s only part of it. There is definitely a process to this, which, as a designer, I need to be a part. I can’t just take an artwork and use it. I need to consult with tribal
elders for permission to use the art and also, how to use the art appropriately. It’s like intellectual property of the Iwi.

TR: We draw our inspirations from the ‘Kaupapa’ and everything linked to the Kaupapa—the reason, i.e., the project, organisation, place or region, product or service, depth of connection  to place and people, kaumātua/elders and mokopuna/ grandchildren. The creation comes from everything that needs to be considered from a Māori perspective. Making this simple in mainstream is
difficult. Making this simple and safe from a Māori point of view takes on another level of sophistication and another entire process.

GSM: How do you bridge the gap between Māori and Pākehā design to make the job commercially viable?

HM: It’s all about finding common ground. Basically, we are the same people, we just have different ways of viewing the world. It’s a matter of finding similarities in thought between the two cultures that everyone can relate to.

TR: Making Māori design work commercially firstly needs Māori consideration, then Māori process, followed closely with time and energy. As well as, a total layout of what the use of the brand or
design is going to be.

Johnso Witihera maori design

Johnson Witihera // Te Ara Wai: Pre-cast concrete noise walls, along State Highway 1 in Auckland mix traditional motifs with modern stylist treatments.

Johnson Witihera

GSM: What are some of the constraints of Māori design?

HM: Like any design work, it’s essential to tailor the design to the client. With Māori design there is the added requirement of finding a balance between the traditional and con temporary.
Consideration is key. It’s really important to consider the meaning around the symbol and fit it into a framework of what is appropriate. For example, the body is sacred— so if I’m designing a fashion item the model must be shown as a whole, it cannot be cut in half. Another example would be designing around the theme of death, perhaps a memorial—this certainl y cannot be
placed in proximity to food such as an advertisement on the following page of a magazine.

TR: When Māori, every design, or thought of design, needs to be integrated and will consequently have constraints. This goes back to what is the true Kaupapa for patterns, lo os, brands and tag
lines, including the brand name.

GSM: What can we do to protect the Māori culture?

JW: I think a better question is, how can we help Māori culture grow? If it is growing and thriving then we don’t need to protect it. The less ignorant people are of our shared past, the more likely they are to have empathy—not just with Māori, but also with Pākehā.

HM: Understand the process. We are borrowing these designs from our ancestors, so it’s important to ask permission to use them. Just like when we want to use material that has  a copyright. To do this, we go to our Iwi (tribe)—in our case this is Ngai Tahu. We also consult with our Hapu (sub tribe), Ngai Tuahuriri, as well as our whanau (families). By understanding the process we are able to add depth from the place of origin. And, understand the people. To do this we need to educate each other. Take Mt Aoraki. To Māori, Mt Aoraki is not a mountain but an ancestor and is due the respect it deserves. To climb or photograph Mt Aoraki we need to show respect by asking for permission to do so.

TR: At the end of the day, when it comes to anything Māori, it is about more than the design. It will always need a professional and connectible oversight. This will help to support and guide the end or desired outcome. More often than not, this protection will mean we achieve our end-result faster and will also employ > Brands by Waha Design // the appropriate support to do so.

Tuteri Rangihaeata maori design

Brands by Waha Design

GSM: How can Māori claim right of ownership and cultural control over aspects of their culture?

JW: Again, I think a better question might be, why is it important for Māori to maintain some type of tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) and autonomy over aspects of their culture? There are lots of complex answers to this, however, I think the main point is that no culture should be adversely affected by those of another dominant one. A poignant example of this for me is pronunciation of Māori words. I don’t think that everyone should get it right, but I think they should attempt to and acknowledge the correct pronunciations. When someone asserts that Taupō is said ‘towel-poe’, they are putting their culture (and discomfort) above that of Māori. If they are Pākeha, then they are using their position of power, being the dominant culture, to dictate how Māori culture should
be. That’s just not right.

HM: At Ariki Creative we are seeing a shift in what we do. With New Zealand becoming more global there is an increased need to create a unique identity which is easily recognisable by the rest of the world. Using our whakapapa is an obvious choice but only if we educate people to consult with the local Iwi first. As I’ve already mentioned, consultation is essential, as is a better  nderstanding of our culture and ultimately, our two cultures working together. A good example is today’s drive for sustainability by many companies. This concept actually dates prior  to the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Even way back then, we were searching for partnerships with tangata whenua to care for and protect our natural resources in the ethic of kaitiakitanga
(guardianship)—it’s all about working together.

Ariki Creative maori design

Ariki Creative // Te Hono Branding

GSM: How does misappropriation affect Māori culture? Socially, Spiritually, and Economically?

JW: On one level, I think misappropriation affects Māori (and all New Zealanders) in that it continues to perpetuate the idea that Māori need to stop being so sensitive. That seems to be the
message conveyed often by those who misappropriate the culture. Normally, I find that sensitivity towards Māori culture comes from love or compassion for the culture, as opposed to the idea that there are just ‘gate-keepers’ who don’t want Māori things to change.

Misappropriation in design, as with the example of spoken te reo, also adversely affects the culture in that it takes control away from Māori around how our culture is seen and represented. Some argue that Māori are able to use Pākehā images and forms however they want. The key difference, though, is that Pākehā are the dominant culture. Their use of things Māori projects ideas about Māori culture to a wider Pākehā (and Māori) audience in New Zealand.

HM: Personally, for me it’s all about Mana. The partnership between Māori and Pākehā must be honoured. We need to have mutual respect for one another and treat each other fairly. The exchange of ideas, styles and traditions is one of the joys of living in a modern multicultural society. By engaging with, and better understanding, Māori culture, history and Tikanga, by being mindful and respectful, we can be creative while at the same time creating a more accepting and interesting society.

This article was originally published in GSM13. To read this and other great articles purchase this issue here.