iQ Interview Series: Cultural Design Considerations with Kuha‘o Zane 

May 24, 2023
By iQ Staff
iQ interview series with Kuha'o

Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! Revisit our Q&A with Native Hawaiian designer, Kuha‘o Zane, to learn more about celebrating culture through design. (Originally published on December 8, 2021.)

Kuha‘o Zane is COO at Sig Zane Designs, a clothing and accessories brand inspired by the culture of Hawai‘i. He shared with iQ 360 his insights on honoring and sharing culture through design, and details on his latest collaborations with Nike and the University of Oregon.

 

Tell us about your background and how you got into design.

Sig Zane with Kupuna

My parents are creative people and that has always had a positive influence on me. My dad Sig Zane is well known for his designs that honor nature and native culture. Initially, I thought about studying psychology. I had a really engaging psychology teacher at Hilo High, Mr. Chock. He had a way of making these old (mostly Caucasian) thinkers like [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Henry David] Thoreau seem relevant to me. During one class, he showed rock and roll posters from the 60s and asked us as a class what we noticed first, second and third, from a visual standpoint. I was amazed that most of the class saw the same things and answered similarly. It was around that time that I really fell for design.

 

How do you approach the design process?

Male Hula dancers.

A lot of it has to do with the narrative for me. Understanding clearly who the audience is, the client’s initial inquiry, then what the dream outcome would be. The narrative is the bridge that connects those things. My upbringing in Hula ‘Aiha‘a (a low-style dance with bent knees) and the surrounding arts have influenced my perspective. I approach design solutions in an indigenous way. We use a method called “Makawalu Design Process” and it’s our version of setting intent, organizing elements, assigning narrative and building towards a solution.

 

Tell us about your recent collaborations with the University of Oregon and Nike ACG.

Two young boys standing outside a Sig Zane store front.

I don’t think much has changed since the earlier days of our Hilo shop in terms of how we work. My dad would be sweeping the sidewalk and would spark a conversation with an aunty that might be on her Saturday walk to the farmers’ market. Later in the day or the following week, she would return to the shop and pick up a few items. We’ve heard multiple times that when our customers wear our products, they receive compliments and that is how interest is sparked.

Allowing our work to speak for itself and building on relationships that we cherish is how we have always worked and continue to work. Small town charm and interaction bring customers in, and our intent, process and story keep them coming back. The collaborations with Nike and the Oregon Ducks were no different.

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The Nike ACG opportunity came to us via word of mouth because of our relationship with the surf brand Hurley, which is owned by Nike. Their team was planning an R&D trip to Hawai‘i and asked me for recommendations. It was a sensitive time to visit with Mauna Kea erupting so I created an itinerary for them, which I called “Follow the Water,” that would allow them to experience Hawai‘i on a deeper level from the mountains to the ocean. The trip evolved into a shoe design, which celebrates our island’s unique landscape as a result of our water cycles.

Our collaboration with the Oregon Ducks also came through a Hawai‘i connection. They wanted to pay homage to their past and present Polynesian players and the journey they took in ancient times to find their place in the world. The artwork on the uniforms symbolizes the journey that each player takes to Oregon, whether it be from Oklahoma, Hawai‘i, South Carolina or Samoa, to be part of the Ducks family.

Both projects represented an exciting opportunity to continue our mission to share our cultural narrative with a global audience.

 

"How do we uplift and contribute without just taking and using?"

 

How much of culture is visual?

Woman sitting with an Ipu looking up at man dancing on grassy hillside.

That’s an interesting question. There are numerous elements to our culture that are visual, like Hula, for example. But the unique thing about Hula is that the visual choreography ties to specifically worded chants. The words of the chants are like a code that connects you to the context of our culture. I find that, increasingly, my job as a native Hawaiian designer is to create and map these connections to context. This design could exist as an aloha shirt or it could coalesce as a “cultural curriculum” to educate our tourism industry or corporate Hawai‘i.

 

How do you visually represent cultural values and stories in your designs?

Two smiling men in sunglasses and Sig Zane patterned shirts leaning on a fence with greenery behind them.

It’s all unique to the story and context that you’re trying to share. I think the best way is to submerge yourself in as much of the context as possible, set an intent (stay on the timeline) and let the solution evolve out of your intent. For us strictly on an aloha shirt level, we look at traditional representations of indigenous images and design and newer visual interpretations of the stories to embody our design.

 

How do you differentiate between honoring a culture and exploiting it?

Man in Sig Zane patterned hoodie crouching among large Kalo leaves.

This is a super important question. For anyone, including us, who is inspired by our culture and environment, we have to ask: what would “Reciprocity” look like? How do we uplift and contribute without just taking and using? What would contribute to continuing this cultural practice that inspired me? What would add life to the environment that this story lives in? Are there ways to instill residual reciprocity and equity in the communities that make Hawai‘i such a unique place? These are questions that run through my mind and both as a cultural practitioner of Hula ‘Aiha‘a and as a designer inspired to share our story. In our projects or any Hawai‘i-related project, how do we instill systems that can answer these questions on a generational level?

 

How do you ensure indigenous designs also resonate in different geographies and demographics?

Row of colorful Sig Zane patterned bags on a woven mat.

The study of design and aesthetics is such an interesting field. I feel that over time, employing the basics of design; balance, contrast, colors, shapes and flow there are definitely commonalities of what all humans like to see, similar to when we listen to music. But I really feel invigorated when I see unsung narratives, especially indigenous ones, woven into this design language for everyone to appreciate. This is pretty much what I try to do every day.

 

What advice do you have for companies trying to visually incorporate culture in their brand?

Woman fishing wearing a Sig Zane design wetsuit.

Reach out to people of that place who have a connection to the natural environment and experience it yourself if they offer the opportunity. Shifting from being an observer to a learner is integral in providing the experiences and knowledge that will guide you and provide insight for whatever it is you are creating.

 

How important is storytelling in reinforcing your brand?

Three women in Sig Zane patterned dresses smiling, holding handfuls of lychee outdoors.

We aren’t in the business of simply just cloth. We are in the business of celebrating, honoring and all the while preserving our culture. Storytelling is an integral part of how we do that.