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Gingering up Te Ara

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.
  • Realising that Flash was a technology in trouble, he future-proofed us by simplifying the code and moving to JavaScript.

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.

Government and Nation launched

Did you know that when New Zealand’s first bank note was issued in 1934 it included a portrait of the Māori king, Tāwhiao, because no one could produce a suitable image of George V? Or that when the nation’s coat of arms was redesigned in 1956 Attorney General John Marshall sent it back to the designers with instructions to make the figure of Zealandia look more like the Hollywood star Grace Kelly?

These are just two of the fascinating stories to be found in Te Ara’s seventh major release, Government and Nation, which was launched by His Excellency Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, governor general, before an appreciative audience of 200 at Parliament last night. The theme editors for the new section were Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, distinguished political scientists from Victoria University of Wellington. They have worked for two-and-a-half years planning and overseeing the content. Contributors include a former prime minister, a former Supreme Court judge, a former clerk of the House of Representatives, and a score of political scientists, historians and Māori academics from the country’s top universities.

The governor general launching Government and Nation

The governor general launching Government and Nation

There are 98 entries, about 250,000 words and more than 2,000 images in Government and Nation. The material is organised in nine sub-themes:

Government and Nation is perhaps Te Ara’s most significant section yet, since it explores the very essence of who we are as a nation. We hope you enjoy it, learn heaps about this country and have a few laughs along the way.

History from the laptop

The New Zealand Official Yearbook had infographics before they were trendy

The New Zealand Official Yearbook had infographics before they were trendy

Those of us who scurry around trying to find out about New Zealand’s past have long depended on the official yearbooks appearing most years since 1893. The yearbooks, produced by the Department of Statistics (as Statistics New Zealand used to be known), were most obviously a collation of statistics about the economy and society of this country. If you wanted to know how many letters had been sent in 1953 or the value of exports of rabbit skins in 1921, then the yearbook was the place to go. And, in addition to numbers, every yearbook included fascinating essays on particular topics. The 1903 one, for instance, had a revealing essay entitled ‘Maori sociology’, which tells as much about the social attitudes of Pākehā as of the social reality of Māori. We learn such things as: ‘The Maori is naturally of a dignified demeanour and a born orator.’ That volume also contains a detailed description of the hot baths of Rotorua and an intriguing analysis of the mineral composition of the different springs. I always find that when I go to look something up, I get waylaid by more engrossing content.

All this is now available on the screen of our laptop. Last evening Statistics New Zealand launched their digital yearbook collection. All the yearbooks up to 2008 are available on the web. Every individual yearbook, although not the whole collection, is word-searchable. And, even more valuable, the tables can be copied and pasted into Microsoft Excel; so you can put together your own time series and manipulate the statistics.

The collection is accompanied by a little disclaimer: ‘Historic issues of the yearbooks may contain language or views which reflect the time in which they were written and may be considered inappropriate or offensive today.’ But it is the record of precisely such attitudes that are so useful to us historians. The collection will be a godsend not only for historians but also other researchers, such as epidemiologists, who will now be able to very easily put together a time series about the causes of death.

The digital yearbooks join two other magnificent digital historic sources:

  • Papers Past is a collection of historic newspapers from 1839 to 1945 produced by the National Library. It has been around for some years now but its collection has been growing all the time. The two most recent additions are the Maoriland Worker, that fundamental source of left-wing opinion in the years before and after the First World War, and the Press, one of Christchurch’s long-running institutions. This adds a valuable big-city perspective to the collection, which until recently has been stronger on the small towns than main centres. Papers Past provides word-searchability for most of the titles and this is a magnificent help for researchers. Last year when I attended a conference on New Zealand cultural history, most of the papers seemed to be based on discoveries from Papers Past. I confess that I delivered a paper on New Zealand memorials drawn heavily from a word search of the words ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’ in Papers Past.
  • AtoJs Online is a digitisation of the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, another production of the National Library. This collection has recently been extended from the first volume in 1858 all the way through to 1914. The AtoJs are the official papers presented to Parliament; so they contain very detailed reports from government departments, much official correspondence and many inquiries and reports on particular issues.

If, for example, having read the yearbook of 1903 you are interested in the Rotorua hot baths, then the AtoJs for 1905 includes the 1903 reports of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, with excellent descriptions of the hot baths and ‘the Maori features at Rotorua’. It is easy to find because again the content is word-searchable (across all volumes this time), and your word is highlighted in yellow. So, now having got information from the AtoJs and the yearbook, all you need to do is go back to Papers Past and word search ‘Rotorua baths’ for 1903. You will find no less than 411 stories to read.

There was once a time when historical research involved a good deal of shoe leather, plenty of patience and no shortage of cash. You traipsed from archive to archive, waited endlessly until the volume you wanted was produced, and then you had the monotonous task of searching for your subject page by page. The digital revolution has transformed all this. There are few places in the world where searching the fundamental historical sources has become so easy. If the result is not an outpouring of exciting new discoveries, then we will be disappointed.

Thank you Statistics New Zealand and the National Library for bringing about this revolution. Historians are deeply in your debt. It’s now up to us to make the most of it all.

Webstock 2012

The main thing I’m looking for at Webstock – New Zealand’s major web conference – each year is a look at what’s going on at the cutting-edge of the internet, and some ideas about what the future of the web holds. Then I want to be able to take these ideas back to work and think about what we can do on Te Ara and on other web projects at Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. But this year I didn’t get as much of that as I was hoping.

The speakers at Webstock are all polished presenters, who seem to have done their time at Toastmasters or other kinds of public-speaking courses. But sometimes I felt the presentations were a little too slick – a bit more style than substance, and I was really looking for something I could get my teeth into. On the first day especially I found I was tiring of hearing too much about the presenters’ personal life stories and not enough about the topic at hand. I learned more about one presenter’s introversion and her house-in-a-tree than I did about publishing for the iPad (which was what was promised in the blurb). There is no denying that it’s a very cool tree house, but I really wanted to see the final version of the iPad app she started talking about, but then seemed to forget.

While I’m on the subject of things that I didn’t like, I found myself getting quite angry during the last two sessions on Friday afternoon, where we were being preached to by millionaires about the importance of happiness. It’s not that I’m against happiness or anything, and I actually agreed with a lot of what they said. But it’s a bit hard to swallow when someone who has sold their media company for an enormous amount of money says that the recession is kinda a good thing because it makes us re-think things, when you know that a lot of other people, who had nothing to do with causing the recession, are really suffering.

Enough whining though – there were lots of things to learn and to think about. Some of my particular favourites were:

  • Lauren Beukes, a science-fiction novelist who talked about the power of fiction
  • Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), whose cartoons I have long admired on the net
  • Jessica Hische, a typographer and designer
  • Michael B Johnson, head of the Moving Pictures Group at Pixar, who talked about processes and culture at Pixar.

A few days afterwards, after everything that got crammed into my brain in two days had settled a little bit, I considered my main aim at Webstock – to gain some insights into the likely future of the web. Despite no one addressing this specifically, I realised that I had gleaned quite a bit from various speakers. So here are my predictions.

In the future the internet will be:

  • more gamified. Gamification is where people receive some kind of reward for completing tasks – turning something that isn’t a game into a game. All the presenters who talked about gamification were against it, and considered it manipulative and false motivation, but I still think it’s coming.
  • more algorithmic. One presenter suggested that the internet was really a more natural place for algorithms than people, and algorithms are very busy running our searches and apparently trading our shares on the internet. I expect more of this kind of automation.
  • more hand-made. Conversely, many of the bits of the internet that are still run by actual humans will be made with love and an artisan’s eye.
  • prettier, with nice typography. Since the invention of technology such as Typekit web designers have been able to use more fonts in their designs, rather than just the standard handful that everyone has on their computers.
  • the site of more protest and activism. This will be both on the internet – such as crashing or hacking internet sites in protest (such as occurred recently when Anonymous protested the Megaupload arrests), and off the internet – where the internet is used as a method of communication and organisation, as notably occurred, for example, in some Arab countries last year.
  • more mobile. We’ve been talking about it for a while, but now it’s really taking off – we’re taking the internet with us where ever we go, and that’s going to lead to new opportunities and new challenges for people working in and on the internet.

So, those of you who were at Webstock, you’ve had a week now to recover; what were your highlights and lowlights? What would you like to see more of? What did you learn? Let us know in the comments.

Dandelions, doors, ducks: Peter Campbell, 1937–2011

A fox walks past the South London house of Peter Campbell, in his last cover illustration for the London Review of Books. Image: London Review of Books

A fox walks past the South London house of Peter Campbell, in his last cover illustration for the London Review of Books. Image: London Review of Books

The 1997 New Zealand historical atlas is much like a pre-internet version of Te Ara, with its swarm of little graphics and sidebars expanding on the subject of each of its large-format double-page maps. From the perspective of how specific places have altered over time, the Atlas deals with many of the subjects covered in Te Ara – earliest Polynesian settlement, glaciers, the Waikato wars of the early 1860s, Presbyterians and the ‘demon drink’, and mid-20th-century life in small-town New Zealand.

Here at Te Ara we refer to the Atlas all the time, and some of us have worked on both projects, including Malcolm McKinnon, who was general editor of the Historical atlas and has overseen Te Ara’s Places theme, the section that covers every geographical region in New Zealand, and urban historian Ben Schrader, responsible for Te Ara’s city entries.

But many talented individuals contributed to the success of the Atlas and it is sad to have to record the passing of one of them. Peter Campbell was a New Zealand artist best known for his airy, elegant cover illustrations for the London Review of Books (LRB), the erudite fortnightly which provides authoritative commentary on history, politics and literary criticism. He worked on the LRB since its first issue in 1979, and the cover of the current issue bears his drawing of a fox walking past the South London house where he and his wife Winifred, also New Zealand-born, had lived since 1963.

In a tribute to Peter Campbell in the current issue its editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, says that he graduated from Victoria University in 1958 with a philosophy degree and an extra-curricular enthusiasm for book design, developed while working with the pyrotechnic poet, publisher, typographer and boxer Denis Glover. ‘Tramping trips at Christmas settled the New Zealand landscape in my mind,’ he wrote, and his homeland’s mountains, trees, architecture and fauna recurred in his writings and artwork throughout a life spent mainly in London. There he began working for the BBC on the richly illustrated books that accompanied major series such as Civilisation, The ascent of man and Life on earth. Once he began producing the covers for the LRB, his witty, meticulous style came to define the review. Mary-Kay Wilmers says, ‘More adjusted than most to his own wants and necessities, and so better able to accommodate other people’s, he was an exemplary person to work with.’ Campbell also wrote articles for the LRB on a bewildering variety of subjects – architecture and art history, dandelions, cycling, doors, ducks and his favourite places in the British Isles.

He played a critical part in the early development of the Historical atlas. ‘We called for design proposals in 1990–91,’ recalls Malcolm McKinnon. ‘Peter Campbell and Margaret Cochrane – a very accomplished typographer and graphic designer in her own right – submitted a proposal. Theirs was by far the best and we adopted it as our template. We made some changes, however, so they are not specifically credited with the design. But they are thanked in the preface to the Atlas, and that thanks was very heartfelt.’ It is gratifying to learn that an exhibition of Peter Campbell’s superb artwork will open in Wellington next year.

Te Ara salutes and farewells this panoptically curious, polymathic son of Aotearoa. E te tohunga mahi toi no ngā mea katoa – hoki atu ki a rātou kua whetūrangihia, moe mai ra, takoto mai ra, okioki e.