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Put a koru on it?

Last month Rebecca attended the Design Assembly workshop ‘Applying Design Thinking to creating Māori Graphic Design’, led by Johnson McKay. It’s big topic that requires more than a half-day workshop to master. We are by no means experts on this, but now have some more insight into incorporating Māori design in our projects. Here’s what she learnt:

Māori design is an approach rather than an aesthetic

  • Slapping a motif on the bottom of the page is not good enough.
  • If you want a genuine partnership then all parties need to be involved from the beginning, so the brief can be built around all parties’ goals.
  • Consider the project’s intention, who is the audience? This isn’t a new concept for us. We don’t use a visual style in a project because it looks cool, we use design in a way that makes sense for the project and audience.

What is Māori design?

Is it something that we already have a definition for or is it something that we are developing?

  • If Māori design should be ‘traditional’, does that mean it cannot innovate?
  • Māori design (like all design) is a living, growing form – what we think of as ‘traditional’ Māori design is actually surprisingly new, for example whare whakairo would be considered ‘traditional’ but are a relatively modern style of building influenced by settlers’ churches.
  • Can Māori borrow from other cultures (yes, carving styles changed and became more detailed with the introduction of steel tools by European settlers) and can other cultures borrow from Māori (yes, why shouldn’t this exchange go both ways)?
Is this authentic?

Some questions to consider

Questions considered by IPONZ Māori Advisory Committee when determining if intellectual property is likely to cause offence to Māori – these could provide an ‘official’ benchmark.

  • Does it offend Māori?
  • Is it derived from Māori traditional knowledge? (Is it taonga? Does it have an ancestral connection?)
  • Would producing this be contrary to Māori values? (What is its purpose?)

Everything outside of this is up for grabs – have fun, innovate, make it awesome!

A quick litmus test

It could be helpful to use the concepts of tapu and noa as a broad guide, especially when considering if something would be considered traditional knowledge or not:

  • Carvings are tapu, their creation is governed by tikanga and they often tell a specific story about an ancestor (ie taonga).
  • Tukutuku and painting are used to illustrate broad concepts, they are of this world, anyone can participate in their creation.

Does it elevate and protect?

  • Does the design convey something to the audience that will elevate + protect Māori culture?
  • It pays to think about the project’s intention/context – something that protects may not elevate, and vice versa. For example, using a more simplified/generic pattern to promote Māori culture to a predominantly Pākehā audience is elevating but not protecting – yet is that a bad thing? Is it achieving what it set out to do?

Parting thoughts

Ultimately there are no one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, it depends on what the project’s aim is, who the audience is, and what your intention is. Authentic Māori design is not adding koru as an afterthought, a Māori design kaupapa should be incorporated from the very start of the project.