A small bird singing a song of us. Back to Discussion

April 16, 2021

Published by
Mark Easterbrook


The South Island robin, or kātoitoi, is a small and gregarious bird. It has long legs for its size and stands proud upon them. For wanderers in the South Island backcountry, the kātoitoi is often a regular trail companion, with its friendly inquisitiveness and its confident, clear and distinctive song. It’s also a metaphor. We are that small bird. The New Zealand design industry is out there on the trail, standing proud and singing a distinctive song of us.

Beyond the obvious symbolism of kātoitoi, the bird, there are layers of meaning to kātoitoi, the word, that connect it to the world of design. As a writer, one of the things I find beautiful about te reo Māori is how layered it is. Words can mean different things in different contexts. Allegory and metaphor are woven tightly into the fabric of the language. As well as a bird, kātoitoi is a verb meaning “to respond”, which speaks to the dialogue between designer and medium, between work and audience, between individual and the national.

I love this richness of language. Bird and dialogue. Call and response. The conjunction of meanings make Kātoitoi such an apt name for the Aotearoa Design Archive. A small bird, engaged in a spirited dialogue with the world.

What then is the Aotearoa Design Archive, when we delve into its layers? The vision for Kātoitoi is to curate work that reflects contemporary design practice, the economic, societal and cultural impact of design throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. The Archive examines emerging trends, shifting values, building professional archaeology of our people and practice. It is a deep dive into how design shapes us and how we shape design.

Importantly, the Aotearoa Design Archive has a different kaupapa to the competitive design awards our industry enters both here and overseas. Those awards absolutely have their place in the fabric of the industry. They are accolades to strive for, career milestones, a recognition of excellence in the disciplines of design. But they keep their parameters tight and are often a closed conversation. We enter, the judges judge, the results are announced.

With Kātoitoi, the kaupapa values dialogue. It encourages a back and forth conversation, interrogating why a piece of design has earned a place in the Archive. Bigger questions are posed. How does a design project contribute to our evolving sense of our national identity? What does it say, intentionally or serendipitously about where we are and where we are going? What will it tell later generations about the discussions we are having now? Is it a snapshot of this moment, right here, in our song of us?

It also has a long term vision. It looks back at the year that’s been, but also looks ahead to the future and the role it can play 5 or 10 or 50 years from now. An archive in its first year can only say so much, but it can become something irreplaceable over time. One shelf of books is where a library begins, and every song has its opening notes. The first year of the Aotearoa Design Archive will serve as the first notes of a Kātoitoi song that will ring out through the years.

I think it’s really exciting. Every designer and studio (and design-adjacent writer like me) lives with the tensions inherent in the work we do. Between disposability and timelessness. Between shallow fun and deep cultural relevance. We all work at different points on those continuums, sometimes in parallel. I believe the Archive will, over time, let us look at how all these kinds of work contribute to our design landscape. We will see the peaks and the valleys, the light and shade. We will see the strengths, but we will also see the weak points.

One way we hope the Archive will add real value to our design conversations is through the words of the designers and the reviewers, the call and response and ongoing korero that grows from it. The more we talk about the work and the world it exists in, rather than just within the narrow parameters of briefs and results, the more we will be able to articulate why design matters to Aotearoa. Not just to the industry and the adjacent, but to us as a society.

We have a new trail at our feet stretching out into the future. Somewhere ahead, there is a small bird singing a song of us. Let’s venture on together, and see where it will lead.

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.

Creative NZ