The overall look and feel of Te Ara was the responsibility of an outside web-design company, Shift, whose lead designer, Brian Smith, played a major role. Smith was responsible for the distinctive colours which have become a trademark of the site and have remained in subsequent redesigns.
For the first four themes Brian Smith of Shift designed a distinctive palette of colours for each theme. He normally gave each colour a name derived from the natural world, but he devised the colours for The Bush while travelling home by train on the Wellington–Paraparaumu line. The colours for that theme were named for the railway stations on the route.
Helene Coulson, the first designer employed to work on Te Ara, developed the graphic house styles for all the content that the design team produced (maps, different graph types, alteration and optimisation guides, fonts and styles for diagrams). She also developed the production processes for the design team, which enabled the workflow to run smoothly.
The team soon expanded to two, then three, designers, each with their own skills, including illustration, web design, photography and graphic design.
Once the design capability increased, the in-house team began undertaking work that had originally been outsourced – from theme designs (creation of images that encapsulated the entire theme, and theme colour schemes) to the Te Ara home page, and finally the redesign of the entire site. While the original design and subsequent update of Te Ara was imagined by Shift, Te Ara’s 2011 redesign, including much of the back- and front-end development, was completed in-house.
All the thumbnail images on Te Ara are produced by hand – not using re-sizing software. This accounts for the vibrant images on Te Ara’s pages.
Te Ara books were published and designed by Auckland publisher David Bateman. The in-house design team provided high-resolution diagrams, often redesigned for print. E-books based on Te Ara content have also been published, with the team designing their covers.
The in-house team that was assembled to design Te Ara expanded to include developers. In 2017 the team worked on multiple design and web projects for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and other government departments. As the future of digital publishing broadened, so did the potential for interesting and innovative design.