In kōrero with... Nick Kapica, Principal at Isthmus Back to Discussion

April 23, 2021

Published by
Nicole Phillips

Kia ora, this interview is the first in a series of Korero between Kātoitoi co-founder Nicole Arnett Phillips and our review panel. Nicole spoke with Nick Kapica a Principal at Isthmus an integrated design studio that removes the traditional boundaries between the disciplines of architecture, landscape, urban and graphic design.

Nick reviewed work in our Environmental – Kaupapa Taiao, Typography – Momotuhi, and Student – Ākonga categories.

His expertise are in place branding, community collaboration, wayfinding and environmental graphic design. Nick enjoys designing with people through an approach grounded in land, people and culture. He is motivated by participatory design and considers both lived experience and visitor experience.

Nick has been involved in design for over 30 years from typography to design thinking in both academia and industry with international award recognition. Having worked across a wide range of design projects in Europe and New Zealand. Nick is a problem solver, a connector and a communicator. Nick enjoys bringing different people together to build diverse interdisciplinary teams to understand complex problems and search for
unexpected solutions.

As a design researcher he explored two distinct yet related areas of design practice: visual communication design within spatial environments, and the use of spatial environments to enhance and affect users’ experiences within them. As brand design lead at Wellington City Council, he led a multidisciplinary team of visual communicators and spatial designers to create compelling brand experiences that worked across all media including the built environment. He was also responsible for pushing ‘design as a process’ deeper into the organisation.

He has lived and worked in London, Berlin and now calls Wellington home. He is a member of the Society of Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) and combines his typographic strengths with interest in people and cities by specialising in people-centred design, environmental graphic design, placemaking, and wayfinding.

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Kia ora Nick, could we start by talking about a couple of projects that stood out to you? (That could be within the typography, student or environmental categories you reviewed).

Yeah, I was looking at that earlier, and I was trying to decide on two projects that stood out. It was really quite hard, because different projects have stood out for different reasons. So, I think there’s five I’d like to mention but if you want to, we can just talk about two of them.

No, five’s great!

The first one is Mob Lobster who did the piece called Woven. I really just found it so refreshing. It seemed to fit into both categories, (Student and Environmental).

I love the way that they addressed people in culture, and social good, and really turned it into a kind of learning by doing experience, which was excellent.

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Another one that stood out was More than Words by Sabrina David. I just thought that one was a kind of example of how more design should be happening – the process – the way that it was an early problem identification, and there was user-testing, and it was prototyped, and it evolved through that. It’s something I’ve often campaigned for, both when I taught, and now obviously when I’m working in a studio here. I’m always pushing for low-fly outcomes, and testing, see what happens and develop from there. I think that project really did that nicely.


Another one that I really liked, and if I understood it, it’s just first-year communication design students from Otago Polytechnic, who did these lockdown zines. As far as an archive goes, in a moment in time, I think those are the kind of projects that need to be captured, because I could just almost hear the sort of stress that the lecturers were under, trying to think how they were going to deliver a program through Zoom, or whatever they were using, and all these first-year students that have suddenly signed up to something, and have no idea what they’re doing, and being thrown into a brief, and they’re trying to work stuff out, and they’re all trying to deal with their own kind of concerns about being in lockdown. I mean, now when we look back, I guess it was a minor detail compared to the rest of the world, but at the time, we didn’t know it was only going to be three months, or whatever it was.

So, I think those little zines have captured that beautifully, and I just think they need to be preserved somehow.

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I guess those three were all student projects. There was a lot more students ones, to be honest, that I looked at, in my sections, but there were two professional ones that were both in the environmental that stood out.

One was from Plato; the Metro buses. I really liked the process that led to the outcome, and the idea of the bus; it could be something super-pragmatic, and all it has to do is move people around, but actually, it’s playing a huge role in educating and informing people about a culture or place and in a very subtle way. You’ll get on the bus every day, and you might not know about it straight away, but over time, those stories that have been used to design the bus will become part of your day-to-day.

I think that’s really smart and difficult to navigate; I could imagine the clients and the differing demands from all the different people would pull that project in all different directions, all the time. So, I enjoyed that one.

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Then, the last one I’d like to mention is the Durham Lane supergraphics from Jasmax. It’s so hard to do those projects. I’ve done some. I’ve tried to do some with councils, and the barriers that you’re up against are enormous. So, the fact that they’ve come up with a solution that’s really good, and has somehow been accepted by whichever council was looking after it – it’s in Tauranga, isn’t it?

I can’t remember where it is, actually. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a brilliant example, and it’s got such a strong cultural narrative built into it but they’re just using contemporary road-marking techniques. I imagine the guys that painted it were just the line-writers that normally do STOP and whatever else safety wise they need to write on the road, and they must have got such a buzz out of making that, as well. I just think the whole story around it is awesome. So, those are my five top projects.

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I think they’re really strong choices, and absolutely have merit to be stand-out! So, the next thing that we wanted to dive into with you is any specific insights or learnings or trends or things that you felt emerged within the three categories.

What I noticed across all of the work I reviewed was there was an emphasis on understanding the user, and being aware, and responsible for culture and for place.

So, it was an unusual experience, to be honest, because I’ve looked at lots of design work over the years where it’s all about the designers, or it’s all about the idea, but not actually the user or the need or the place or the culture that it’s been designed for, really. So, that seemed to come through in the majority of submissions – certainly in the work that I found that I was marking quite high, and was getting good responses. That was a common theme.

Awesome! What did you think that you might have seen beforehand? Did you have any preconceptions or expectations from the work that were either re-affirmed or challenged?

I had literally no idea what to expect, because from the minute that you announced the idea, I was trying to imagine who would be interested in it, unsure who would participate and what they would share.

I immediately talked to people that I knew, and tried to explain what I thought you were trying to do in the early beginning. I got some blank looks, and people were confused, and I thought, oh this might not work; maybe a step too far for people to get their head around.

Then, as you promoted it more, and I think the communication became clearer, and you probably learned from feedback of what people understood or didn’t understand, you’ve ended up with a collection of work that’s so diverse. It’s not just from one niche part of the industry. It seems to have come from all little corners of it, our fringes so to speak, which I think is really good. I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, I was hoping it, but I kind of thought it might just be student work or cultural work that ends up being entered, or a small group that you’ve managed to infiltrate, and communicate to. Actually, the word seemed to go out pretty wide, which was really good.

Yeah, that’s really reassuring for us to hear, as well. We did receive a heavy load of student work, and as you’ve noted, a lot of students also entered their work into professional categories too. In future we’ll probably be a little bit more prescriptive in trying to keep student work in just the student category so that they’re assessed with that benchmark and standardisation in mind, but we really hoped to get diversity and inclusivity from a broad range of practice. So, we’re thrilled that we’ve achieved that and it’s really heartening that was something that struck you, as well.

Well, when I looked at Mob Lobster, Woven; that’s a student project, but at the time I looked at it, I didn’t realise it was a student project, and it stood up against the professional work.

I knew it was young – I could tell by the people that were in the video, and the characters that were in it, and the way it was described - you got a sense that it was a very young group, but I don’t think it would have been judged differently if I thought it was a student project. I think it’s quite good that they were bold enough to say, actually we think we stand up against the professional work. It’s a really good position.

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Yeah, (at time of this interview) I’m still working through the moderation, but we’ve seen a lot of that; some of the student work that submitted into the professional categories has scored as highly or higher than a lot of the professional work on its own merit because the calibre is so good.

The other thing with a student project is that you’re not going to have the annoying client that’s giving you buckets of reality that you’ve got to deal with, which I think changes how a lot of stuff turns out. Happens to everyone eventually, but I think, the things you asked people to assess and consider were quite smart, and the way people were asked to describe what the project, required some intellect and thought, you really got to the purpose of what each project is it trying to do.

Thank you Nick! That’s one of our goals with the archive; we put equal importance on the ideas and the heart and the kaupapa and the values as we do on the craft and execution and kind of design introduction. That’s something that was really important to us in setting it up. Lastly; a moment of delight. You’ve picked five projects already that would stand out to you, but was there something in particular, either from those projects or perhaps about reviewing the mahi that stood out?

Well, I think overall, I got this sense from all the designers that they were all concerned with delivering work that would improve the place that we inhabit. That manifests itself would be different obviously for different projects, but there was that general concern about doing stuff that improves where we are, and I think, for me it’s a really thing. It delighted me, I guess. The things that delighted me with all the individual projects - it was kind of refreshing to see them, and I suppose out of those five, if I had to think of one thing that really excited me the most - what would it be?

I think in a way, it’s either More than Words, or Woven.

Those two, I think really excited me, in that I guess it just felt really good that young designers were thinking like that. They weren’t thinking necessarily just about aesthetic and form. I remember when I came here to teach 11 years ago, I was kind of surprised by how aesthetic and form-based everything was. That seemed to be what people thought design was, and there seems to be 10 years later, I big shift, which is great. It’s about understanding people and culture, and place, and making things better. So, yeah I guess that’s what I was delighted about.

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What a thing to be delighted about, Nick! Before we wrap-up, is there anything else that you wanted to share or say about Kātoitoi?

I would take my hat off to Design Assembly, and to both of you and whoever else you’ve had making this happen. It’s much needed. It’s a bold thing to do - really challenging I can imagine. It’s really disrupting the status quo of how we think and talk about design here in New Zealand. I think for a small organisation like Design Assembly, this is a really bold move. I think it’s really good.

Thank you so much. It really does mean a lot. The archive has been a big undertaking, and we’re really excited.

I think Design Assembly anyway is a great thing. I think I met Louise when I moved here 11 years ago, and she was just sort of talking about, oh I’m going to do this thing – it’s Design Assembly. Oh yeah, that’s great – cool. Then, she’s been banging away at it every since, and that’s amazing. It’s really good.

Awesome. Louise will be so pleased to hear that! Well, thank you for your time, Nick. I’m incredibly grateful for your participation in the project, your insight and also for taking the time to chat with me today.

Oh, you're welcome. More than happy to help.

The portrait artwork to accompany this interview is by Bonnie Brown

Thanks to Creative New Zealand who funded the 2020 Kātoitoi pilot. This interview and illustration sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 12 weeks supported by CNZ.