Johnson Witehira's Whakarare Maori typeface

The most compelling typefaces are the ones that serve a purpose beyond the functionality or aesthetics of the letterforms themselves. For New Zealand-based graphic designer Johnson Witehira, that purpose was to create the first typeface designed specifically for the Māori community.

Witehira is of Tamahaki (Ngāti Hinekura), Ngā Puhi (Ngai-tū-te-auru), Ngāti Haua, and New Zealand European descent, and his undergraduate education in graphic design was taught from a predominantly Western perspective. During grad school, he researched augmented reality at exchange programs at the University of Nottingham and at Austria’s University of Upper Applied Sciences, in the futuristic-sounding Office of Tomorrow.

The idea for developing a Māori typeface came about after he returned to New Zealand to pursue his doctorate in Māori design at Massey University. In an essay co-written by Witehira and colleague Paola Trapani on the development of the typeface, he explains that Māori typography is “a means of cultural resistance through engagement with postcolonial discourse.” Witehira is particularly interested in typography because it concerns both design and the written language.

The wero (challenge) was to create the first by Māori-for-Māori typeface, a typeface that reaffirms Māori ideas about the world and stakes a claim to the printed page.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that Māori culture is based on an oral tradition, and therefore has no native writing system from which to base new letterforms on. Missionaries originally brought the Latin-Roman alphabet to New Zealand in the 1800s and linguist Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with the chief Hongi Hika to develop a systematized Māori written language using the Roman letterforms.

Trapani and Witehira write that, “Following the rapid urbanization of Māori from 1945 [to] 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.”

Johnson Witehira’s new work is called Half-blood, a playable, video-game style artwork that explores New Zealand’s colonization.

Because of the legacy of colonialism attached to the Roman alphabet, Witehira says, “A few other designers have looked at developing completely new forms. But for me, I felt that’s probably not the best way to work. Considering that many Māori are still struggling to learn and engage with our own cultural language, it’s best that we try and create some typefaces that can be ours, but that can’t be totally unfamiliar, either.” He instead restricted the character set to letters that only appear in the Māori alphabet, making sure to include macrons to indicate long vowels, a feature that’s often missing from Roman alphabets.

Using a design-based model of analysis, Witehira was able to articulate the visual systems found in traditional Māori art, particularly carving, and then applied them to the letterforms that would become his typeface titled Whakarare. Witehira says, “At the heart of Whakarare is an attempt to create something based on Māori design principles, rather than Māori aesthetics, and because of that I think it created something new.”

This distinction between design principles and aesthetics is in response to prior attempts by other designers trying to create typefaces that borrow bits and pieces of traditional Māori art, removing the forms from their original cultural contexts (Joseph Churchward’s typeface, Churchward Māori, is a prime example).

“What bothers me with some of the typefaces that have been created is they’re essentially taking sans serif fonts and attaching little items from Māori art onto parts of it. I found that to be not just ad hoc, but kind of culturally inappropriate. You know, taking significant cultural forms and thinking, ‘I’m gonna use these to create a letter.’ When in reality, our phonetic letters and sounds have nothing to do with those design elements.”

 

Though his Whakarare typeface is intended for a Māori audience, much of Witehira’s work seeks to combine traditional Māori forms and patterns with ideas from graphic design and a contemporary Western art practice. But does bringing a traditional vernacular into a globalized design system homogenize those cultural traditions? Witehira says, “The majority of Māori New Zealanders are of mixed heritage, myself included. So a lot of my projects, even though they have a Māori face, are deliberately created from a bicultural perspective. That’s a huge part of my practice, combining Western design and Western design theory with Māori aesthetics and Māori design theories.”

Beyond trying to push Māori design forward, it’s trying to evolve New Zealand design.

Witehira balances a career as an educator with a multidisciplinary practice that includes editorial design, product design, and packaging, as well as large-scale interactive installations, murals, and environmental graphics. He’s recently been commissioned to design for Auckland International Airport, one of his biggest projects to date. He says, “For the most part, there’s been a continued push in New Zealand to really bring Māori design into a lot of practices, particularly government agencies and their use of Māori cultural advisors. They really see the value in expressing New Zealand’s biculturalism. But also because New Zealand was founded on a bicultural treaty.”

He says that the next step forward is for companies and government agencies to hire cultural advisors that are not just of Māori heritage, but to hire Māori designers, “those who are familiar with the forms and aesthetics and the rules that go along with that.”

Assuming that a Māori cultural expert is going to help you with graphic design is like me assuming that any white person of European descent is going to know something about grid systems or the Bauhaus.

Despite the continued progress made by Māori designers, New Zealand design culture is still largely homogeneous. Witehira recalls a symposium he attended a few years ago in which a discussion arose around New Zealand’s unique design identity. Taken aback by the conversation’s failure to acknowledge Māori design, Witehira commented, “You’ve talked about culture all day, and I haven’t heard anyone mention the indigenous people in New Zealand. You’re trying to figure out what’s unique about New Zealand design? Maybe look around you. Because right now you’re looking to North America and to Europe for answers.” Witehira is motivated to use his design practice to “actually change the visual landscape of New Zealand, and to create one that’s bicultural, rather than monocultural.”