Arohatia te Reo – cherishing the language with Maori typeface Whakarare.by Corinne Smith on 26/07/2012
Johnson Witehira is an independent designer and artist who specialises in kaupapa Maori graphic design and Maori design practices. He is currently completing a PhD through Te Putahi-a-toi (Maori Studies) at Massey and has just launched Maori Alphabet Blocks—in partnership with Uncle Goose and The Playing Mantis.
In honour of Maori Language week we asked Witehira to talk to us about designing his Te Reo typeface Whakarare.
What motivated you to create the Te Reo typeface Whakarare?
I first became interested in Maori type design simply because there didn’t appear to be any Maori typefaces, or typeface designers for that matter. As a Maori designer, I found this strange, but I also saw an opportunity to break some new ground. I also wanted to create a Maori typeface because when looking at a page of Maori text, whether it be in Helvetica, Times New Roman or any other typeface, nothing about that page visually tells you that you’re looking at something Maori.
After doing some research it was pretty obvious that Maori have a long history of interfacing with type; from the first-printed bibles and newspapers, to painted and carved type, and everything in between such as gang insignia, through to Shane Cotton paintings, and protest signs. Despite all this though, there doesn’t appear to have been any attempts by Maori to create usable typefaces for print. I don’t consider Joseph Churchward’s Churchward Maori to be a Maori typeface, because other than attaching koru to the end of sans serif font, there is nothing altogether Maori about the font. Partington’s Parihaka typeface is gorgeous; but again, this seems more of an attempt to digitise hand painted designs, rather than create a new Maori typeface that is intended for print in the real world.
What influenced your creative process and what were the challenges you faced?
Wanting to have a good crack at a Maori typeface, the first thing I did is hit the library for books on type design and soon found myself buying Karen Cheng’s ‘Designing Type’. It is very thorough and a little dry at times, but goes into great detail about the design of all characters and glyphs in type design. One statement from her book that continues to drive me in some ways was the following:
Type is the visual manifestation of language. It is instrumental in turning characters into words, and words into messages.
- Karen Cheng, 2005
The challenge for me is—if type is the visual manifestation of language, what is the visual manifestation of the Maori language?
Normally when working on design problems, I write down list of questions and try to answer them before going forward. For the Maori typeface I asked questions such as:
- Can a Maori typeface be based on Whakapapa?
- Does a Maori typeface need to have semblance with Maori visual culture to be recognisable; or are there Maori typographic preferences that can be imbedded in a typeface?
A bigger, but at the same time more simple question, is what is ‘Maoriness’, and how can ‘Maoriness’ be transposed into the working elements of a typeface?
The Whakarare typeface answers some of these questions in that it does have whakapapa through its reference to the carved pattern also known as whakarare. After researching Maori typography, I also came up with a list of what appeared to be Maori typographic preferences, or a ‘Maoriness’. This included high contrast stroke widths, a strong vertical stress, a preference for a very high x-height, and also the use all caps and small caps without letters extending below the base-line. Whether or not Maori typefaces need direct visual semblance to customary art forms will be challenged in the next typeface I plan to work on. This will be a modernised Maori Bodoni of sorts that looks at type from early Maori bibles and newspapers. For me, it’s important to start as far back as I can when it comes to Maori type design, because anything I craft after that period should have whakapapa to any earlier designs.
Creatives tend to shy away from publicly sharing their process, instead showing the polished final version. Witehira has kindly shared some visuals giving us a clearly insight into his creative process for the Whakarare typeface:
You can view more of Witehira’s work here. Next week we talk to Witehira about his thoughts on Maori design and Western design.