Finding a distinctive voice Back to Discussion

Kātoitoi, he iti te rahi, he nui te kōrero.

April 19, 2021

Published by
Kate McGuinness

Karl Wixon (Ngāti Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Pākehā) from Arahia and Johnson McKay (Ngāti Kahungunu, Tainui Waikato, Ngāti Porou) of Fly, are two of the creative minds behind Kātoitoi’s name and branding. Kate McGuinness spoke to the creative pair about how this archive’s unique identity came to take flight.

How did you get involved in this pilot project?


Kātoitoi’s co-founder Louise is familiar with the work we do as I help run some workshops for Design Assembly. She wanted someone to come in and support by developing an identity that had a Māori story and aesthetic to it. She already had Karl involved as the cultural advisor, so I was brought in to help with the visual storytelling.

Karl and Johnson2


Designing futures and making shift happen is the best description for what I do.

I am really interested in the dialogues that push the boundaries of practice and thinking. After seeing Design Assembly, I liked what I saw, in terms of – here is a place that is genuinely interested in representing diversity of thinking and voice – a kaupapa that I have some warmth for.

That was my interest and willingness to get involved in this brand exercise with someone like Johnson, my expertise is not in the crafting, so to work with someone like Johnson McKay was a really good opportunity. When we had a conversation about Design Assembly and where it sits in terms of engagement with Māori, part of that was to think about Māori naming and Māori brand because it is the first visible touchpoint for people. People recognize something distinct and for a Māori audience there has to be something tangible, otherwise there’s nothing.

Karl and Johnson

Describe your collaborative approach.


Karl saw this as an opportunity to merge thinking and ideas. It was an open-minded collaboration, respecting each other’s skills to get it as good as it could possibly be.

Even though I was brought in to work on the visual expression, Karl wanted to work collaboratively. He said, “why don’t we just get together and wānanga?” He had done some preparatory work before we got together, and set up a matrix to identify values such as ‘curiosity’ and ‘amplify the New Zealand voice’ which had come out of the brief.


When you come in with a degree of like-mindedness, you meld to the relationship, find your respective strengths and remain open. If you know each other well enough, if you invest the time into open korero, the sensibility about process, where you sit and hope to achieve, shapes itself to an extent. We brought different strengths to it, but I wouldn’t delineate roles and process. My strength is more in the thought process and the cultural rigor around questions of cultural integrity and defensibility. I have had a number of years working in domains where I’ve had the privilege of working on things with a high level of rigor and awareness around brand perceptions, around use of Māori language, around Māori imagery and around cultural connection.

…Johnson had the honed mind, hand and skill around the craft of graphic design with Māori sensibility. We had complementary skills in that regard, but when you get into the space of working together, the boundaries dissolve and just become fluid.

How did the creative journey unfold?


The process involves trying to explore a range of cultural creative territories that fit with the Kaupapa and … asking, ‘what is this thing really all about?’ Making sure there is some depth and rigor of conversation about that. From that platform, it gives us the space and grace to explore some of our cultural creative territories that align with purpose or intent. For me, the first exercise is mapping that out, and then we take that into a wānanga space where the conversation becomes one of a deeper level to find points of alignment and resonance. ‘Kātoitoi’ came out of Johnson’s mouth in one of those territories.

How did the name Kātoitoi come to be?


I had this idea for the word Kātoitoi; it is the name of a bird, but because of that bird’s personality, it becomes a word to express its distinctive voice. We threw around the pros and cons of that word. Could people learn to say it? Could people remember how to spell it? All sorts of practical considerations. Karl is actually a budding natural photographer who already had these photos of a Kātoitoi bird. Because we had a matrix of ideas - curiosity, distinctiveness, being a small country with global impact – we looked at the personality traits of the bird that Karl understood, plus the name and whakataukī (proverb) of the bird that Karl had in mind for it,

“Kātoitoi, he iti te rahi, he nui te kōrero” – Kātoitoi - whilst it may be small, its voice is large.


We sort of blended it all together and fell into place smoothly.

The intention for the archive was that we could see a ‘moment in time’, as far as what our design community was thinking, feeling, reacting to, shaping and that would then inform a future aesthetic or design narrative that people could choose to build upon or reject. That is where the whole idea of the call and response, the bird sound is responding and sending forth its birdsong and energy into the world, which then engages and connects with other people. It’s a small bird with a loud voice so distinctive, that it’s well-heard.


…There is a deeper narrative, for me personally. My familiarity was less about the whakataukī but more about the actual bird – the manu. I was raised muttonbirding around Stewart Island, so my childhood, for at least two months of every year was spent sitting on an island where all you’ve got is the sea, the bush, the birds and your whānau. With all those manu, you tune into all the birds.

In terms of a New Zealand identity… that reality and culture of birds is completely woven through Māori culture… and it felt fitting to reference manu (birds) out of this vernacular of identity and positioning Aotearoa design.

Kātoitoi in terms of the other meaning of the word, ‘response’, is about a dialogue, not a monologue. This is about conversations, not projection of … it’s that sense of reciprocity, voice and response that is the other meaning of the word Kātoitoi. Again, that rose to the surface because these different dimensions of the name and the narrative that generates because of the bird, the whakataukī associated with it, the concept of projection and response, we’d say whakautu – that reciprocity, are all boiled into that little bird. This diminutive, little thing that has a very loud, shrill, busy, excited voice.

What did the branding for Kātoitoi need to achieve?


We wanted to do something that represented the impact of a small but distinctive voice. That became the echo, and reverberating energy graphic of the end brand. We wanted to tell that story. Our goal was to avoid building too many layers of visual noise into the word mark because the website itself would be celebrating work. If you have a distinctive logo then it can distract from the actual work. We wanted something strong, that could hold its own when placed alongside other visuals, but not drown out the larger body of work. We ended up with a sans serif font, clean lines, and round open letters – it's about having a clear voice.


How did you arrive at the aesthetic?


The background of this design is that everything that comes into the natural world is through the three stages of creation and creativity moves through these transitional phases. It starts off with Te Kore - that is the realm of potential, and that transitions into the realm of Te Pō – the realm of development and gestation that finally emanates in – Te Ao the natural world.

The concept begins with a thought or intention, then moves into development and research, and exploration, innovation, breaking rules, and emerges out the other side as a new conversation.

The Kātoitoi sound waves transition from black and white, transitioning from this Te Pō region into the light. We developed ideas concepts for the brand and how it might be expressed, then Studio South, extended it to develop the campaign and ten different output category graphics.

Kātoitoi Logotype IDML

How was the final logo crafted?

We presented the concept using a bold type without much noise. We felt that we didn’t want to incorporate Māori elements into the wordmark itself because there can be a reaction from people, that it might be a Māori kaupapa rather than a NZ kaupapa. The name and whakataukī celebrate Māori culture and that’s embedded into the brand itself so we didn’t need to make it a visual and a distraction.

Nicole Phillips (Kātoitoi co-founder) took our concepts, found an appropriate New Zealand typeface to match our idea (we collectively landed on Geograph designed by Kris Sowersby). Nicole then worked with Elliot Stansfield (Design Lead from Studio South) to craft the final wordmark.

What does this archive mean for you?


Kātoitoi aims to capture the transitional stages of our creative communities. New Zealand design is going through transitional phases. Fifty years ago we weren’t incorporating much Māori design; it wasn’t so much an indigenous voice but more colonial. We are now breaking through to a more New Zealand-centred voice. Who knows what it will be in fifty years time?

What are your hopes for the brand moving forward?


That it does what the name suggests – around the call and response. That it becomes a platform for dialogue to help designers grow as ‘Aotearoa designers’; that we find our own identity, place, and the dialogue is what contributes… that we test and interrogate each other, that we celebrate shifts, that we value positive exploration and interrogation.

…Having set up the Ngā Aho Awards, first as a judge then convenor, I felt a sense of richness and privilege that every year I sat and considered what was going into our design community. It was a window into our design practice and our shifts in maturing that weren’t visible to everyone. What becomes visible is award winning work without dialogue. It’s a beautiful showcase but there is very little contextualisation, the narrative is undervalued and the focus becomes visual presentation. There are few platforms for meaningful dialogue, which is to me where the value lies.

For Kātoitoi, giving people the ability to respond, provides a platform that doesn’t really exist anywhere other than what you already have in the sphere of your daily life. (It’s about being) able to engage in a wider conversation.


If you use Māori principles or ideas within a brand, then it makes sense in some way to make that brand contribute towards the Māori community. That is a reciprocation for the knowledge that Māori communities have preserved and now being used to inspire and unite us together as a nation.

My aspiration is to get a truly representative view of our design creative community, and that means for those on the fringes, more work needs to be done to bring them in.

Ngā mihi nui

Johnson McKay (Ngāti Kahungunu, Tainui Waikato, Ngāti Porou) owner and Creative Strategist at Fly.


Karl Wixon (Ngāti Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Pākehā) ‘Designing futures and making shift happen’ at Arahia


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

Creative NZ