In 2013, Johnson Gordon Paul Witehira was a doctoral candidate at Massey University in New Zealand, where his studies focused on articulating a design language from a Māori perspective, world view and tradition. Based on his research into the rich history of Māori design and analysis of historical executions of non-native “Māori-inspired” works, Witehira developed the first by-Māori, for-Māori typeface. Whakarare, a display typeface comprised only of the letterforms found in the Māori alphabet, “reaffirms Māori ideas about the world and stakes a claim to the printed page” (Witehira and Trapani 2015, 5). 

To provide historical context – prior to the arrival of European missionaries in the early 19th century, te reo was the only language spoken on the island, and the Māori people did not have an indigenous writing system (Andersen 2017). Although the native people had a rich oral tradition and a sophisticated visual storytelling system, the first written expression of their language appeared as a modification of a Latin alphabet, in Roman characters. Adoption of English written and spoken language, as well as cultural and societal norms soon followed: during “the rapid urbanization of Māori between 1945 and 1985, Māori found themselves living in towns and cities whose architecture and language mirrored that of Britain rather than their own culture. With the introduction of the Roman alphabet and the written word, Māori oral methods of storing knowledge also quickly began to fade” (Witehira and Trapani 2015, 3).

Seeing this project as an opportunity to “interrogate the power dynamics between the colonized (indigenous Māori) and the colonizer (Pākehā settlers of nominally British descent)” (4) and to create a visualization of the Māori te roa, Witehira followed the Kaupapa Māori Research Method and Design Process, through which design problems are interrogated through a Māori worldview and ultimately produces a solution which answers two questions:

  1. What is the ‘value’ if any to Māori in solving the problem?
  2. What precedents exist within the culture for dealing with similar problems? (4)

In his thesis, Witehira examines one of the best-known and widely-used examples of “Māori-inspired” typefaces: Churchward Maori (Figure 1) by Joseph Churchward.

Fig. 1. Churchward Maori typeface, designed by Joseph Churchward
in 1987.

Churchward designed the typeface in the early 1980s, “a time of land marches in New Zealand by tangata whenua (people of the land, or native people) and protests against breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840” (Akeli 2010, 8). As mentioned above, this was also around the time te reo became one of New Zealand’s official languages. Churchward spent much of his life in New Zealand and intended the typeface to be a celebration of his adopted homeland.

Of Churchward’s typeface, Witehira writes:

“… the typeface appears to have a generic roman typeface as a base. From this point, Churchward has attached the koru form to the serif and other interconnecting elements. Thus, Churchward did not attempt to create a wholly new typeface; he simply attached Māori design elements to an existing model. … At no point did carvers or painters find it appropriate to transpose the koru form onto letterforms” (Witehira 2013, 184). 

The argument he makes is simply that regardless of Churchward’s intention to celebrate the native culture of New Zealand and talent as a graphic designer, his lack of context, background and research into Māori artistic practices and history ultimately yielded an artifact that not only didn’t resonate with Māori people – it’s borderline offensive. It makes one wonder – just who was Churchward Māori designed for?

By contrast, Witehira’s typeface is born out of a deep cultural understanding (Witehira is of Māori ancestry) and dedicated study to the visual traditions of the Māori people over his academic career. Throughout the process of designing Whakarare, Witehira identified a set of Māori typographic principles based in three key areas of knowledge: 

whakapapa Māori (Māori cosmogenealogical narratives, toi Māori (customary Māori art practice) and research into Māori typographic development. Whakapapa Māori (Māori cosmo-genealogy) is comprised of a number of narratives that inform the Māori worldview.

Having established a set of Māori typographic principles, Witehira went on to apply these concepts to the design of Whakarare typeface. In the early designs for Whakarare (figure 5, figure 6), design features include the use of an exaggerated xheight, broken rhythm through the cross bars and the use of high contrast letterforms” (Witehira and Trapani 2015, 7, 9).

Summarizing his thesis work and specifically the design of Whakare, Witehira states: 

“When designers have an awareness of Māori design conventions, they are able to make innovations that are still grounded in mātauranga Māori and tikanga Māori, just as nineteenth century carvers did in responding to Christianity and literacy. … This allows Māori designers to imbed their work within a Māori world view, ensuring the longevity and relevance of their work for Māori and the world” (Wihehira 2013, 191).

In a broader sense, the Kaupapa Māori Research Methodology asks questions that are pertinent to any designer working in any context, emphasis/phrasing my own: 

  1. Is there any value to a culture/demographic in me solving the problem from my own context, and
  2. What precedents exist within the culture/demographic for dealing with similar problems?

Works Cited:

Akeli, Safua. “Letter Man: Representing Graphic Designer Joseph Churchward.” Letter Man: Representing Graphic Designer Joseph Churchward. Wellington, New Zealand: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2010.

Andersen, Margaret. “How the First Typeface Designed for the Māori Community Is Changing the Way New Zealand Understands Its Own Cultural Identity.” Eye on Design, June 12, 2017.

Witehira, Johnson Gordon Paul. Tārai Kōrero Toi: Articulating a Māori Design Language: a Thesis Presented in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts at Massey University, Palmerston North, Aotearoa New Zealand. Palmerston North: Massey University, 2013.

Witehira, Johnson, Trapani, and Paola. “The Whakarare Typeface Project : When Culture-Specific Design Brings Elements of Universal Value.” Research Bank Home. Cumulus – International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media, November 1, 2015.

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