Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori

This Font For Te Reo Māori is Decolonising Design

Designer Johnson Witehira was sick of the attempts so he came up with his own for the traditionally oral language.
September 14, 2017, 12:28am

Johnson Witehira used to complain about the Māori font styles that other graphic designers created. "Most of the Maori typefaces that people were making, they were just shit," he says. "They just slapped a koru onto the end of a letter and called it Māori."

The artist and designer knew that something better could be made. A design that could more accurately represent Māori design.

Johnson Witehira

Johnson, who is of Tamahaki (Ngāti Hinekura), Ngā Puhi (Ngai-tū-te-auru), Ngāti Hauā, and New Zealand European descent, believed that designing a font for te reo that incorporated Māori visual history could help tangata whenua take back some sovereignty over their own language. "When you look at a page of written text in Māori language, normally it'll still be in Ariel, Helvetica, Times New Roman, but nothing about those shapes or forms communicates anything visually about the culture that the language belongs to," Johnson says. "I thought maybe that's a place for us to have some control over our knowledge or a little bit of ownership over our space on a printed page."

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Eventually, he took on the task of designing one himself.

Johnson's font, which incorporates elements of Māori carvings in its design, still uses the familiar Roman alphabet, but its stylisation was meticulously designed. He spent time researching how Māori have used type in the past, looking at text in anything from Bibles to gang patches to tattoos, and mapped out what elements of design appealed most to Māori. "From that, I derived these Māori aesthetics or these Māori principles that would play in these different letters I was seeing in different Māori uses of letterforms. Those aesthetics, that's what I used to generate what I was doing."

He didn't just want to make the font look Māori, he wanted it to capture the whakapapa of Māori visual history in the design, making it as authentic as possible. He isn't the first to have tried, but previous attempts "haven't been generated with any kind of Māori philosophy or Māori understanding of the world embedded in how they were created. They've just applied an aesthetic. Doing that doesn't really make it Māori, it just makes it look like something Māori, which is very different."

That point of difference comes from the cultural significance of each image. The koru, for example, has become synonymous with Māori culture and is widely used in representations of Māori design, but few who use it in the typeface world understand its meaning. "Most often those koru are the kowhaiwhai, the painting on the rafters inside marae, and by taking something really meaningful within a certain context and slapping it on the end of letters is just really lame. So, after complaining about it for ages I thought I'd better put my money where my mouth is and actually try and design a typeface," which Johnson soon realised was a lot more difficult than he first thought.

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One of the biggest challenges facing Johnson in visualising te reo Māori in a typeface comes from the language's origins. It wasn't until the early 1800s that anyone tried to put the language into text.

The Tahitian chief Tupaia was on board Cook's Endeavour when it sailed to Aotearoa in 1769. He recognised te reo Māori as similar to his own native tongue. With his help—and some marriages to Māori women producing bilingual children—Pākehā settlers decoded the language and began to write it down.

At the beginning, te reo looked very different and most attempts were inconsistent in how they translated Māori accents into the Roman alphabet. But in the 1820s, a man named Thomas Kendall was determined to get it right. He accompanied chief Hongi Hika and Hika's relative, Waikato, to London. Once there, they paid a visit to the linguist Samuel Lee, and the first official documentation of te reo Māori was recorded. Roughly 20 years later, in 1844, a full te reo Māori dictionary was published.

"Part of my philosophy as a designer [is] to try to design these Māori objects that connect to our rich visual culture and bring them into our daily lives and the spaces we live."

part of my philosophy as a designer, to try to design these Māori objects that connect to our rich visual culture and bring them into our daily lives and the spaces we live

During the 20th century, the number of te reo speakers plummeted as urban migration forced many Māori to the cities for work. English was regarded as the language of the future and schools began to punish students for speaking te reo during class. Despite efforts since the 1970s to resurrect the language, the number of te reo speakers in the Māori population has continued to decline, to just 21 percent of the Māori population and 3.7 percent of the general population, according to the last census.

Johnson's grandfather was fluent, but discouraged his children from learning the language as he believed it was a waste of time. Because of this, Johnson grew up without the Māori language in his whare, and didn't learn te reo until he was an adult.

Now, Johnson speaks te reo at a basic level. He attributes learning te reo to his interest in Māori design. He wanted to engage with it, but says he wanted to do it the right way, so he started learning te reo. "I think it gives you more of a grounding and sense of place."

And when it came to designing a Māori typeface, he couldn't have done it without knowledge of the language. "I wasn't brought up with Māori in my house," says Johnson, "so part of that typeface for me is part of my philosophy as a designer, to try to design these Māori objects that connect to our rich visual culture and bring them into our daily lives and the spaces we live."

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