The Te Ara team today mourns the departure of our fabulous ginger-headed lead designer, Heath Sadlier, as he moves on to a new job in Auckland. In the eight years that he has been with us, Heath has transformed the look and feel of Te Ara, and he has grown from an unassuming new boy to a creative and much-loved leader whose inventive ideas many of us at first rejected, slowly accepted and eventually heartily applauded.
Eight years ago Heath was an unemployed recent-graduate of the Wanganui School of Design. In innocence of what the design needs of the encyclopedia might be, we had appointed only one designer, Helene Coulson, who herself had just graduated from the Wanganui school. Gradually it became obvious that design work on about 3,000 images, film clips, plus ambitious interactives, was too big a job for one designer. Helene suggested employing one of her Wanganui mates on a short-term contract. So Heath turned up; at first he was rather nervous, but was quick to listen and obediently follow instructions. The job was pretty boring – mainly optimising images – and the poor man had to share with another short-termer a cramped dark inside office which we accurately labelled ‘the fridge’.
About six months later we did manage to offer a long-term contract for a designer and Heath got the job. And that was when his skills became obvious. Some of his design work such as the interactive mercali scales for illustrating earthquakes sizes remain as popular today as when first unveiled. He took the lead in putting together a pattern-book of design interactives. Some of his developments became Te Ara standbys, such as the ‘thumb-tag maps’ where we were able to illustrate some of the nation’s lakes or memorials with clickable thumbnails. His film-editing experience led to some great clips – look at the virtuoso editing of our Warbirds over Wānaka film; and his ability to sequence stories shone through. Everyone loved the interactive which follows Alphonse Barrington’s epic journey at the head of Lake Wakatipu in 1864. Heath designed each day’s diary extract to be marked by a camp-fire, until May 6th when the diary records ‘Nothing to eat; cannot light a fire’ – so Heath’s fire splutters and dies.
After a year or so, Helene left, and we took a punt on this jovial fresh-faced ginger-head still in his mid-20s: Heath became lead designer. We knew the man could design, but what astonished us was the speed with which he became a manager. He immediately realised that his first task was to put together a happy team and this meant empowering people, giving them a clear sense of personal responsibility.
Then he turned his energies to design matters. There were a sequence of new developments:
- ‘Page-flows’ which allowed users to read a pamphlet page by page. Take a look at the Kauri Timber Company catalogue.
- ‘Zoomify’ which allowed users to explore a historical image in full-screen detail. I found myself lost for ages poring over this image of the New Zealanders on the beach at Guadalcanal.
- ‘Detail view,’ where the focus begins with the detail and then you can scan back to the full image.
- The presentation of film clips was greatly improved with higher resolution and full-screen delivery.
What was deeply impressive about all this was Heath’s superb combination of an acute design eye, an understanding of technological changes, and a total commitment to issues of historical integrity and copyright.
Now came the big challenge. While liking much of the initial design for Te Ara, Heath had quickly identified some of the problems which users faced. Previously we had considered the design for the site itself as a job for big outside web design firms, not our young inexperienced in-house designers. Heath had no such doubts and gently suggested that he begin working on a redesign. A bit nervously, we agreed. The nerves were unnecessary. Heath delivered a brilliantly worked-out project which has been a huge success. Realising that user needs were everything, Heath worked with a firm of user specialists to identify exactly the issues with the Te Ara design, and then set about solving them. The aim was clearer navigation, more intuitive signposts, better display of some of our hidden elements such as the short story, the browser and related entries. Yet he did not touch the things which worked, such as Te Ara’s branding, the palette of rich colours, the use of topic boxes. The result was a clean design that built on the past but created a contemporary feel. We have had almost universal approval, and it is no accident that since the redesign our visitor numbers have soared.
That was not all. Last year we prepared a set of ‘Roadside Stories’, which covered interesting historical tales along the major routes of the country. We recorded audio files, collected images and then wondered about how we communicated them to audiences. Heath took the lead in coming up with inventive solutions, such as making short films and presenting them on a new ministry Youtube channel. He also started to develop plans for the repackaging of Te Ara content as iBooks.
You would think such an all-round genius would be a terror to work with. No such luck – Heath has been a wonderful colleague. During work he was a great source of laughter and the meetings around his desk selecting colours and images for Te Ara stories (which might have been battles of will), became among the most enjoyable moments of this project. Heath was everyone’s confidante, a natural leader who took many small initiatives to bring individuals into the team. He took it upon himself to organise fortnightly social occasions which he sparked off inevitably with an hilarious animated gif.
Mate, it’s been a privilege to work with you; and Te Ara is hugely better as result of your passion and insight. The best of luck for the glorious future you deserve.