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Dear David: design of the times

Is there such a thing as a New Zealand design story? Does it even matter?

Dubious Doug

Dear Doug,

Let’s answer the second question first: it matters if we make it matter, and we would want it to matter if it was to our advantage. So the real question is: ‘Would having a New Zealand design story be an advantage?’

To me, the answer is yes. I’ve talked before about the fact that I see a real business case for using our national culture and our ‘New Zealandness’ if we do it well. Our international customers want to see something different, surprising, unique. We have an ‘unfair advantage’, coming from New Zealand. We need to be proud of that and use it.

I recently had dinner with some Silicon Valley-based VCs and they again reiterated that country of origin is not a disadvantage, as long as they can get hold of the person when they want. However, they also indicated that New Zealand can ‘play to its strengths’ and use the very real positive perception they have of us to reinforce key attributes. Having a consolidated and consistent story is additive; every good story from New Zealand makes it that much easier for the next person.

These VCs (from some of the big name firms) also made another comment: currently, they don’t see us using our ‘unfair advantage’ nearly enough, and others are claiming what should be our mindshare in growing and important sectors like agritech, the future of food and other areas where New Zealand has a credible and natural leadership position.

This isn’t an insult to those already doing it (you can see in my recent book that I love to celebrate those already makingwaves), but a comment that we could collectively do more. Having a consolidated ‘design ethos’ (a story, an approach, a common narrative) would be a powerful way to do that.

Organisations like the NZ Story Group and NZ Tech are active in this area, and Tech Week is a great platform for us to use.

What, in your mind, would be a good example of great design from New Zealand?

Curious George

Dear George,

In my mind, “great design from New Zealand” means it’s great design and also uniquely and proudly ‘of’ New Zealand. That sounds like a truism, of course, but what I mean by that is the starting point has to be that your product or service has to have a world-class design ethos. It’s customer-centric and based on insights of the end user. And it’s also something that could only come from New Zealand, which speaks to our values and our story.

I’ve recently spent an extended period of time in the USA and, as part of that, I’ve been curious to understand what the American perspective is on New Zealand. Granted, my time was in main metropolitan areas on the whole, but I discovered some interesting and useful insights. Firstly, people are aware and knowledgeable about New Zealand. That may surprise some of you who think Americans can be largely inwardly focused. That would be understandable, frankly, given how myopic their media seems to be, but I found a large percentage of the people I interacted with to be intellectually curious, globally aware and with a fairly decent grasp of the essence of New Zealand – albeit maybe second or third hand.

Almost in order of consciousness, the kinds of things that they associated with New Zealand were beautiful scenery, adventurousness, humour (Flight of the Conchords and Hunt for the Wilderpeople featured heavily), the haka and Allbirds. Not a bad list!

It was a universally positive reaction and largely in line with the values and ethos of the story we like to tell ourselves. The one that surprised me – in a great way – was how many people admired and wore the merino shoes Allbirds. It was amazing. I wore their shoes for most of the time I was not in a snowstorm and what I love about them is what others love too: they are light, stylish, comfortable and don’t smell even if you wear them for many hours around the streets of New York. It’s like the people who made them knew exactly what I needed in a shoe – because they did. For me, Allbirds are the essence of good design ‘of’ New Zealand.


It was astounding how many people commented on them, asked about them, said they loved them. On a plane, one woman even reached down and stroked my shoes. I was at a lecture at a university in Boston and mentioned Allbirds as a great example of modern New Zealand innovation. Five of the class were wearing them at the time and another five said they had a pair at home – and this in a class of 30. It was phenomenal.

For me, Allbirds captures a great crossover in design – technological innovation (the design of the fabric), natural products (the wool and its great sustainability story) and a deep customer-centric way of thinking, marrying great industrial design with deep insights about human behaviour. It’s also ‘of New Zealand’ – clearly of the land, a radical idea (woollen shoes!) and with a sense of fun about them.

No wonder they are ‘the’ hot item for people in Silicon Valley and beyond.

By day (and the occasional night) David Downs is general manager, projects, at NZTE and last year, while battling cancer, he released a book with Dr Michelle Dickinson on New Zealand technology called No.8  Recharged. 
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