Date20 May 2021
Published byMark Easterbrook
Take a long, slow breath. Let your mind go quiet. Let’s daydream for a minute...
...and find ourselves in 2071. Aotearoa (we have been named this since the 30s) has changed since the early days of the century. As a nation we are diverse, egalitarian, resilient and adaptive — and honest about our history. We are still not as wealthy as our trading partners, but our shift to the creative industries, green-tech and regenerative agriculture has lifted the economic tide and most people’s boats with it. There are still vulnerable people in our society but we have built a system that does a better job of finding and supporting them.
The outbreak of COVID-19 at the start of the 20s was a defining moment for us. While long since eradicated, the virus was the catalyst for a culture shift. It drove home where our strengths lay as a society and step by step, issue by issue, we began to untangle ourselves from harmful myths and buried histories, accelerating and intensifying our efforts to build a better society.
If we wanted to see ourselves at that defining moment, that social turning point, where would we look? Where would we find our cares and concerns, the things we valued and the things we wished to change? Researchers of the latter half of the 21st century have learned the hard way that the so-called ‘social’ media of the early 2000s is a cracked mirror, a distorted lens for viewing society. Instead, they find a truer reflection in artefacts of the time: the first year of design work collected in Kātoitoi, the Aotearoa Design Archive...
Will this really be us? It’s a lovely daydream, this nation we could be.
It’s more likely than not a fiction that will fall short of reality. But reviewing the submissions that sit under the Impact — Social Good kaupapa of Kātoitoi, I’d like to believe it’s possible that we are at least heading in the right direction.
Reviewing the work, here and now in 2021, it feels like we are in a time of profound change. It’s evident that the pandemic has created shifts in our culture, sparking innovation. We are seeing cultural determinism in action, as social drivers and the pressures of political, economic and technological change find themselves pointing in the same direction.
COVID-19’s presence permeates the submissions. Many of the projects deal directly with it. Others are influenced more obliquely. Some took shape in, or because of, lockdown. One thing COVID-19 demonstrated to us is that there is strength in our relative smallness and our interconnectedness. Our mythic two degrees of separation made it easier for the country to pursue a course of action, because information travels fast and relatively freely here.
That sense of interconnection is inescapable for me as I look through the submissions in the archive. I scroll through credits and collaborators and see name after name that’s familiar. Friends. People I’ve worked with or for. Practitioners I admire. An old boss’s son. My best friend’s flatmate from 25 years ago. Names that have crossed my path in places beyond design. We are a small country and we are all closer than we think.
The projects cover a myriad of social topics. The brief for every single one boils down to this: do some good in the world. What that good looks like tells us a lot about where New Zealand is heading. It also tells us a lot about where the rips are in our social fabric; some of these projects shouldn’t need to exist. They are a snapshot of Aotearoa now and the pressures, positive and negative, pressing on our society.
A disclaimer before I go any deeper into the work: Kātoitoi, in its pilot year, can only ever be a slice of the bigger reality. We have only the projects submitted as reference. But I still feel that we can treat the 30 submissions that form the Impact — Social Good as a representative sample that has a strong story to tell.
I’ve noticed some prominent threads. As a society, we are weaving te reo and te ao Māori into how we communicate to an increasingly prominent degree. Only one project among the 30 included in Kātoitoi, Mana Moana Digital Ocean, has an overtly Māori focus, yet multiple projects comfortably integrate Māori language and concepts. It is affirming to see that more and more government work, such as Springload’s Youth Service project, include te reo in an unselfconscious way. Innovation Unit’s Harakeke and Mai te whai-ao ki te ao mārama projects are unapologetic in leading with Māori names, rather than using te reo as a secondary tagline.
Another thread is the rise of a more informal visual and written vernacular for work with a social good imperative. This isn’t necessarily new, but the archive’s submissions show that a human, visually soft and welcoming approach is now the norm. One strong example, Sabrina David’s More than Words project, really captured me: it's simple, colourful imagery mirrors the project’s purpose, to put young people at ease and able to talk about life and its difficulties. The cards are inviting, warm and do not feel at all like a tool designed for social workers.
The highest profile example of this trend is The Spinoff’s COVID-19 work and their WHO partnership. Illustrator Toby Morris has an incredible ability to make the complex not just simple, but also engaging. His work with scientist Siouxie Wiles and the wider Spinoff team is a masterful example of communicating complexity to the widest possible audience in an informative and inclusive way.
The submissions also show where we are failing as a society, or at least falling short. Several projects show that too many New Zealanders feel isolated, disconnected and unable to have their voice heard. Clemenger BBDO’s excellent work with Voice of Racism reveals a current of nastiness that runs under the surface of our society. It’s a powerful and confronting way to educate. In a gentler but just as powerful way, Innovation Unit’s whole approach to Stories from everyday New Zealanders is a lesson in uncovering truths that need addressing.
There is an aspect to many of the projects in this kaupapa that reinforce what Kātoitoi is trying to champion: the important role of design in the process of a project, not just the visual output. Springload’s Austin Assessment project has a visually simplistic design, but is deeply thought-out and designed to deliver valuable data to researchers. RUSH’s COVID tracer app is a deceptively simple design that quietly and effectively navigates past a set of incredibly complex behavioural responses and social norms.
One final thread that deserves mentioning is inclusion. I make no secret of the fact that I’m all for a more diverse and inclusive Aotearoa, so it’s really heartening for me to see how many of the projects submitted for the archive have this as a driving force. McCarthy’s More Than All Right? Is a beautifully understated celebration of rainbow identities. Raven Wild fills a void for stories that reflect all the possibilities of gender identity. And across the submissions, a much broader and richer idea or what a New Zealander looks like is evident. Our design community is leading the way in reflecting a more accurate picture of us.
As I noted earlier, Kātoitoi is a skewed sample of work. This category, Impact — Social Good, will naturally lean into a certain picture of our culture and society. Another influence at play in the wider context of 2021 are the strident voices convinced society is being eroded by “wokeness” and “cancel culture”. I hope the projects in this category make them fume and grumble and lose sleep. But if we accept that our design community is ahead of the curve, and that the work being produced is a useful barometer of social change, I like the look of who we are becoming.
Perhaps my daydream nation of 2071 will never come to pass. The Mate Act Now project is an uncomfortable reminder that climate change doesn’t care about our feelings and our time to act is fast running out. But there are enough signs here — from the thoughtful consumerism of All Good Oat Milk and Round Theory Wines, to the socially responsible business approach of RUA Bioscience or even Spark’s Play project — to believe that just maybe, the balance is swinging in a positive direction.
The first year of an archive can only look at the reality of now, and the possibility of tomorrow. When someone sits down to review Kātoitoi and its Impact — Social Good kaupapa in 2071, I hope they look back on this first year and see that the seeds of something good were being spread.
The artwork to accompany this essay is by Joseph Carrington
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand
who funded the 2020 Kātoitoi pilot. This article and illustration, sits
within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and
artworks to be published over 12 weeks supported by CNZ.
Kātoitoi is about response, take your place in our national design conversation by commenting below.