Building a nest for Kātoitoi Back to Discussion

11 May, 2021

Published by
Kate McGuinness

Paul Phanoulas and Leo Sonnekus of Auckland web-design studio New Territory have been busy building a place for the Kātoitoi digital archive to thrive. We share a kōrero with Paul and Leo, to learn more about their approach to such a unique brief and the complex layers of architecture behind the website.

Paul and Leo, tell us about your creative backgrounds.

Leo Sonnekus (Web Developer):

I studied UX/UI design and Creative Technologies at AUT. Whilst I was doing interface design and programming, I really got into web development, simply by being curious. I have worked at a few other agencies around Auckland and now I’m the technical lead on this project.

Paul Phanoulas (Director):

I went to art school to ‘learn how to paint properly’ but gave up on that to study a graphic design degree. A lot of my work was around future speculation, so I naturally taught myself how to code. Working on projects that lived online was a creative output for me and when I left university, I started New Territory (NT), which soon focused on websites.

We are not a big team here, less than ten people, so we try to be more bespoke for our clients. We like to show what is new and current and try to broaden the horizons of what the project looks like or what the client’s operation looks like. Even some well-established clients have come to us with an expectation of what the website will look like and then throughout the process, they change that expectation around, so that is quite a fulfilling element. I think Kātoitoi is an example of that. Originally it was meant to be a simple online recording, but we pushed for user engagement, and the layers within it all in the hope it grows toward something larger in the future.

Paul and Leo NT photo

How did you come to be involved in developing the archive?

Paul: We’ve had a working partnership with Studio South for the past three or four years so when Design Assembly said they wanted to build an online archive, South called on us to help.

Louise Kellerman initially ran us through the project and asked – what can we turn this into? We felt the archive needed to be current. Not only is Kātoitoi designed for New Zealanders to navigate but it’s also a flagship for what Aotearoa design looks like overseas.

For a unique project such as this, where do you start?

Leo: Building a good infrastructure to start off with was important. We spent a lot of time building the back end and databases. It’s hard because you don’t have much to show for it or validate it, particularly at the start. We were only a quarter of the way through, and we’d already done a lot of querying and testing. This was a production-heavy backend.

Paul: Normally builds get more complex as they develop, not complex from the start. The initial website construction had to be as robust as possible as we needed to onboard submissions long before the main site was built. The design was also being worked through as we were still building. Studio South were finalising the front end and user experience, so it was like a tug-of war – ‘hey we’ve got a new feature’, and ‘now we got to build it!’.

Forming an archive involves looking ahead to the future. How did you work with the ‘future unknowns’ when designing this platform?

Leo: Having a few different environments and versioning to hash things out is common and good practice. There will be features that need to be integrated and features that might be added along the line, thorough things like software updates and different types of requests.

Paul: The structure of the website is probably 80% under the hood. In the same way that a museum has a display but it will also have a storage warehouse, allowing for future referencing, display or archive. For Kātoitoi, the databasing and information that isn’t even represented on the front end is still being stored for futureproofing.

What was the main challenge for this project?

Paul: One of the challenges from a product management perspective, was for the scope of this product within an accelerated timeline. To be ready for first submissions we had to get the archive build done in a month.

What did you enjoy most about the Kātoitoi build?

Leo: There are little things, like the birdsong or the dark mode toggle. But every part of this project was interesting for me. It was a real honour, to work on. It is a high calibre of work with a lot of moving parts. There is a difference between creating a beautiful ecommerce store versus something that is truly for the community. There were a lot of technical obstacles or caveats, but they are part of the road map of building a complex site.

What suggestions did you make or change the original brief?

Paul: Our main contribution early on was trying to separate the layers of the project. Originally, there was discussion about the archive but then the group wanted an aspect that had more of an editorial focus, and another aspect to showcase work. We suggested an integration of layers where the archive can live, but also allow for korero, so there are two different databases that exist. There is the actual work and then the korero that sits around it. We were pushing for the data to be utilised as much as possible. We were taking in work from all of these different people, so why not build up a directory with that same information?

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How did the idea of ‘kaupapa’ categories come about?

Paul: During a team Kātoitoi workshop with Karl and Johnson, we were trying to figure out a way to integrate submission categories, e.g. do we go with the tangible output of the project or on the aspiration? Part of Johnson’s Māori lens focused on the meaning and impact of work. Ultimately submissions did not have to be exclusive, they could be layered, so whilst you could filter by tangible output but you could also filter by aspiration. It would become part of an information management system, that you can filter by one or both.

It’s refreshing to get that cross-section. For example, when you go onto Environmental Stewardship there are works that are community-focused but there is also work more commercially-inclined, or more digital projects. You’re getting this cross-section that I don’t think you would be able to find in another format because you would just be categorising by the output.

That process of filtering means that every time you visit the site, it feels more like a journey, different every time.

Paul: Yes, on the homepage, all the projects below are randomised so they’re not organised by anyone in particular. We felt that was a nice way to democratise the archive and to treat all projects equally. A website makes that easy to do – you can shuffle just like that rather than have someone’s opinion come into play.

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Why is an archive important for Aotearoa?

Paul: If I think back to university, there was only international work to fall behind and I always felt that was a shame. So, I was hoping that future students would have something local to use as part of their discourse. As well as that, we really wanted something to be the flag for NZ design to fall behind, which I don’t believe exists at the moment. There is a natural comparison to an awards process which we saw due to the size of the projects. Since the launch we received questions – how is this different to awards? We felt this was a shame – an awards process is quite different to an archive. A competition overtone is not actually that healthy in terms of having something that is a chronology of NZ design. Personally, I want to see an actual archive, with lots of different work as a representation of the time, not just award winners.

Leo: To me, the most important thing for design and innovation is accessibility. Having access to resources is one thing, but creative output by other talents and creative minds is equally important for young persons who wouldn’t necessarily have access to it. Like Paul said, learning about good design in a field like this, means that you always study cases from somewhere else, but I think there is a lot of really good work being produced here in New Zealand. To have access – and not just looking at photos, in a conversational way, with big names and young creatives. For me, I spend most of my time coding and looking at the data, so I am familiar with most of the work in the archive. For me, looking at a submission from a small coastal town alongside work from a big Auckland studio of around 300 employees felt good. At the end of the day, design is important to people and that’s why I do it. It enables us to make something and it’s a lot of fun.

Paul: Something that does well to encourage people (to submit) is that separation of output to kaupapa. I know myself, having submitted studio work to awards programmes, we know our work will be compared to large studios and though we can’t compete against a half million-dollar project, we can compare in terms of how a project engages with our community or politics. New Territory does a lot of charity work, so we can submit a project on its virtues rather than its shareholding impact.

What are your hopes for Kātoitoi? 

Paul: My aspiration is that is grows – whether it becomes an archiving or academic tool, or used at something like Te Papa. I hope that it anchors into design discourse. It’s built to handle this.

Thanks to Creative New Zealand who funded the 2020 Kātoitoi pilot. This interview sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 12 weeks supported by CNZ.