This symbol of te reo Maori is small but significant

by Michael Barrett / 20 December, 2017
Photography Joe Hockley

Anzac Tasker.

Kōrero mai

It’s a high-stakes game, attempting to brand a language. But, with the small but significant object, Te Tohu, designer Anzac Tasker and his collaborators are managing to do the right thing for te reo Māori.

Good design simply works, or works simply, on many levels. The further you drill down, the more curiously appropriate it should get. And, if it’s really good, it might take on a life of its own, go beyond the ambition of the person who commissioned it, perhaps seep into the wider consciousness. The late great German designer Dieter Rams, a less-is-more guy, had a succinct way of putting this: “Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.”

Having a great brief helps too. This year, a team of designers from Auckland and Rotorua made the most of a brief from Air New Zealand to design an object, Te Tohu, that would designate crew members who are fluent speakers of te reo Māori on its flights.

This brief ended up in the hands of Anzac Tasker, a design director at Designworks, who had just returned from a four-year stint in Australia. Air New Zealand, he says, had pins to identify staff fluent in other languages but nothing for te reo, and it wanted to remedy the situation.

At first reading, Tasker says the brief seemed straightforward, but the pressure ratcheted up after he realised that this particular piece of design could potentially symbolise fluency in te reo Māori much further afield than just on the flight deck.

The concept of branding a language was interesting, he says. “Companies are branded, and cities and countries,” Tasker says. Languages? Well, not so much. With the ambition for greater reach came an increased weight of responsibility.

“If we got it wrong, we’d let the language down and let a part of New Zealand’s identity down,” Tasker says. “If we did an all right job, then people wouldn’t embrace it.”

For something so little, it says so much.

Tasker, arguably, couldn’t have been more right for the job. Although not a fluent speaker (yet: “it’s on the bucket list”), he grew up on Waiheke Island attending a bi-lingual kura until the end of primary school. After that, to a little later regret, he went “mainstream” and the language got left behind. Returning from Australia, he’d started taking te reo Māori lessons, registering surprise at the number of non-Māori and non-Kiwis also taking lessons, and dismay at the endangered status of the language.

This project presented an opportunity to “do right by the language”, he says, and getting it right meant embarking on a co-design process with the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute under the creative direction of tohunga whakairo [master carver], Clive Fugill.

“Te reo Māori was always a spoken language, so the potential for doing a typographic execution didn’t seem right,” Tasker says. “We needed to dive into the symbolism of what it was all about, so we headed down to Rotorua to meet Clive and his team.”

As soon as they got there they had a two-hour session and walked around the marae, discussing the finer points of waka design, the foundations and buildings of the marae, and other elements intrinsic to Māori design.

They were looking for a “little gem”, Tasker says, and they found it at the marae’s highest point.

“The apex of any marae is the tekoteko, and the focus of that figure is the face, and the focus of the face is the mouth,” he says. “From a conceptual point of view the purpose of the mouth is to sustain our bodies, water, food, breathe, but it is also a gateway for sharing knowledge and emotion. We imagine that that is why the mouth is central to a lot of Māori design – as a key mechanism to communicate but also for life.”

Once they tapped into the idea of the mouth, the next step was to refine the shape so that it could be used widely and to ensure that the form was safe from misinterpretation or any associations that might unintentionally cause offence.

“Sometimes the shape of the mouth is specific to a particular tribe, so going with more of a heart shape gave us more license,” Tasker says, and not being iwi-specific meant the symbol could speak for many.

“We were aware that for this to be successful it couldn’t just be owned by Māori. The language is open to anybody to learn, so this needed to be a universal symbol. We just happened to have the heart as the shape of the mouthpiece – that was a gift. Once we got down to the mouth, the concept was generated by collaboration and getting the right people to speak, having the right message, and being well informed.”

 

The design work began with pencil and paper, to “acknowledge the traditional way of designing with pen, or with our hands, rather than getting straight to the computer”, and from there the carvers began to shape the pounamu (bone and stone were also tested), abstracting the mouth into more of a heart shape.

“It’s not a big campaign-type of design,” says Tasker, as he eases the finished object out of a display cabinet in the foyer of Designworks HQ on Khartoum Place. “It’s a seed, a small seed, that needs to be sprinkled throughout the country.” Also on display are a number of fine-edged chisels whose size says volumes about the complexity of the carving process, and a series of Tasker’s hand-drawn tiki, the refinements to the design that took place in the carver’s studio as the process continued.

The diminutive brooch sits lightly in the palm of the hand, the teeth slightly recessed, the upper lip “given some lift” to exaggerate the heart shape. Like good design should, the form is open to interpretation. The obvious one is that the Te Tohu represents aroha for te reo Māori. The arrangement of the four teeth has also been described as a group hug in miniature.

At the end of the project, Tasker and his colleagues formally handed Te Tohu over to Te Taura Whiri I te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, for use across other professions, to police officers, doctors and bus drivers.

“If you see someone that’s wearing it, you don’t just say ‘hello’, it’s ‘tena koe’. And then you start to hear the language spoken at cafes, in restaurants, when people hop on the bus.”

It’s been introduced into whare wananga [educational centres] as a test for fluency (if you’re thinking of wearing one and you’re not fluent, think again – you might get called out) although as Tasker points out, “My nana speaks beautiful te reo Māori, so it would be rude to ask her to sit a test. It would be more appropriate to sit down and have a conversation with her.”

Earlier this year Te Tohu picked up the Ngā Aho Award for ‘Aotearoaness’ at the Best Awards run by the Designers’ Institute, an award for “responding to our indigenous culture, heritage and sense of place, as well as recognising the value of collaborative practice across cultures”.

“It’s funny,” Tasker says. “There was so much work, strategy and conversation to get to this result, but the depth and the meaning put into it gives it so much weight and substance. I think that’s why it resonated with the judges of the Best Awards; they could understand the importance and significance, the amount of research and mahi, all manifested into this tiny piece.”

What’s in a name? In te reo Māori, Tohu’s varied meanings include “instruct, advise, save the life of, guide, and preserve and conserve”.  In noun form it also means “a mark, symbol, token or qualification”. All are splendid definitions for this artful piece of pounamu, which, with its inversely proportional size and mana, is both memorable and meaningful.

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