In Kōrero with… Kātoitoi cofounders, Louise Kellerman and Nicole Arnett Phillips

3 years ago by

Growing an archive – by and for the community

Louise Kellerman and Nicole Arnett Phillips are the co-founders of Kātoitoi. Having collaborated for a number of years through Design Assembly, both saw a pressing need for Aotearoa to develop its own visual archive. Louise and Nicole did just that, sourcing the funds and gathering together a diverse and talented team of creatives to bring Kātoitoi to you. They speak to us about what sparked the initial idea, their Kātoitoi co-design process and the importance of bringing a wide range of voices to the project.
Nicole and Louise

Lou and Nicole, can you tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to work together?

Lou: I worked in the industry for a number of years before starting Design Assembly (DA) in 2008 with some evening events in Auckland. At that juncture in my career, I reflected on where my strengths were, what I wanted to do. It seemed like Design Assembly had some legs in terms of people wanting to connect as a community and online tools enabled that. My role at DA drilled into what I was good at – meeting and connecting with people. Over the next seven or eight years, I developed DA alongside having my two children and kept a design management practice, working for some clients and studios. Over the last four years, I have just focused on Design Assembly.
Although Nicole and I both studied a Bachelor of Graphic Design at AUT, I really met Nicole through TypographHer. I thought it would be good for her to run some typography workshops here in New Zealand so I brought her over from Australia.
When Nicole moved back to New Zealand, I was actually looking for a new content and marketing person and Nicole raised her hand. With Nicole’s background in design and writing, it seemed like a good fit.
Nicole: My background is in visual design. I have worked in New Zealand, the US, UK and Australia in the urban design, publishing, and fashion industries. I love the design disciplines; but halfway into my career, I was burnt out. Design for clients was my only creative outlet and I recognised that wasn’t going to be a sustainable option for me longterm.
In 2013 I created TypographHer as a way to experiment, research and produce outside of commercial constraints. I became more and more interested in the research and writing surrounding design practice and refocussed my career towards communications.
I had already been collaborating with Lou; teaching, running workshops, and producing content for DA. So, in late 2018 when she needed someone to assist with the writing and marketing it was a great opportunity to build on that existing collaboration and growing friendship. I began freelancing for DA 10-16 hours per week.

How did your collaboration evolve to you cofounding the archive?

Lou: In April of 2020, the idea for an archive came to us and it was big – so we decided to cofound and co-partner on the initiative and pilot through CreativeNZ funding. Nicole has a great attention to detail and as she said, she enjoys the rigor of research and analytical writing.
Nicole: I think our strengths and weaknesses complement one another. I admire Lou’s business acumen, ideation and emotional intelligence. I’m grateful to be in partnership with her on this.

What sparked the idea for an Aotearoa design archive?

Nicole: Design Assembly has always been good at co-design with our community. DA conducts annual surveys about what the Aotearoa design community wants and alongside this, Lou is constantly speaking with design leaders – asking what do you need?
One of the resounding messages that came out of the research and conversations had, were that people wanted more discourse and contextualisation of work beyond an inspirational showcase. Our audience wanted more insights from the designers, something robust and at a higher level than what was being produced elsewhere.
Whilst DA has been doing a great job of profiling NZ design work since 2008, the organisation only has a limited amount of funding that can be invested in the research and writing component. The industry was asking for it and we had a desire to do it. So we started to look at what was happening overseas, to the research-led, robust design archive projects happening and realised that our industry is at a scale and our practice is at a maturity to need and support a project like this.

Why hasn’t an archive existed until now?

Nicole: We knew it was big but we still underestimated it. We have invested a lot into the pilot. It’s difficult to do a project like this in an inclusive, diverse way without scale. There are libraries that collect examples of design, universities with digital repositories, and other curatorial projects, but when you endeavour to do this in an inclusive way, and engage the community broadly it is a lot of work. This leads to the question of how to monetise the hours that you put into it.

How did Kātoitoi evolve? Describe the journey from concept to fruition.

Lou: We knew that we wanted to pilot 2020 as a pivotal year. And this meant that we had to do it in a constrained timeframe! We also knew that we wanted to collaborate and co-design with Māori practitioners. It was important to establish a large team from the start, so that it truly was a community project. From mid-November 2020 our team met to workshop the brief and establish who would do what.
Johnson McKay and Karl Wixon worked to come up with the name Kātoitoi – an amazing gift – as it’s also a bird. From there, Johnson, Nicole and Elliot Stansfield from Studio South finalised the wordmark. The Studio South team rolled it out into a campaign, and Paul and Leo at New Territory produced the backend for the site.
I hadn’t worked on a website project in a long time but the team were 120% committed to it in terms of their enthusiasm and belief. Everyone went above and beyond in terms of their workload. We can’t help ourselves but move beyond our funded budget and this blew out the timeframes. Nicole designed the criteria for review and worked with the review team to aggregate what they had found. The final collection was distilled to 100 pieces.
Nicole: It’s important to note that all of these things were happening concurrently. It was complex orchestrating all of the different players, feeding and informing the project at the same time.
What you see on the website is only 10% of the work because have futureproofed the database. We have all the submissions data. There is some really rich insight with demographic, regional and production information, which can be a source for research going forward. As we move out of the pilot stage, if funding allows, the infrastructure has been done for the archive to grow.

What are the benefits of working with such a diverse team?

Lou: This is our best attempt at making it a project for the design community and not being precious about it. We are listening to other peoples’ perspectives so it’s an owned project from the beginning.
Nicole: We could not have achieved Kātoitoi through only Louise and my perspectives; we are only a small part of the community. Through diverse age, ability, culture, and gender representation – this is what makes the archive reflective and hopefully useful to people outside of our own demographic. New Zealand’s community needs a broader range of perspectives shaping the project. This is what makes our archive unique.

How does the process of archiving work?

Nicole: We looked at examples of curatorial approaches outside from the traditional archivist or gallerist who will select and curate. For Kātoitoi, it’s not us archiving. We tried to make it as democratic as possible. It was our Aotearoa design community – curating what was submitted; this was work shared by our community, selected by our community and discussed by our community.
Lou: Because this is a pilot, we are putting a stake in the ground for people to respond to. Potentially, the next step of Kātoitoi’s journey is to work with trained archivists and curators. Nicole has conducted a great deal of research and invested time in setting up an initial framework and I am sure that will be iterated in a collective, co-design, community manner.
Nicole: Yes! We have a database of archivists and curators in New Zealand on our wishlist and if we have enough momentum, trajectory and budget, in the future these are people we’d love to contribute to the archive, but still, the community lead democratic approach is critical to our kaupapa.

How did you establish a criteria for the review panel?

Nicole: We created a matrix that gave equal weighting to the project’s kaupapa as it did to its design craft, and we did this through the assessment criteria for the panellists, but also through the way the work is organised, navigated and viewed on the website. The critical underlying principle is – what is the work about? What is the intention of the work? What is the value of the work and what does the work say about us internally as designers or the audience for which this piece is designed.
In selecting panellists, our guiding principle was diversity. Just as multiple voices were important in shaping the project, so were multiple voices shaping the collection and feeding into the review responses. We chose people with a broad range of professional skills, from regions throughout New Zealand (Northland to Otago); we have a mixed-ability, age, gender and culturally diverse panel. It was about getting diversity so that we had representation across what the New Zealand design community looks like.

In terms of submission categories, what led the team to include kaupapa alongside output?

Lou: It was something established early on. There was synergy in working with Johnson McKay, who brought a Te Ao Maori perspective along with his professionalbackground. We worked together to find a solution and realised that output and kaupapa could sit alongside one another in terms of a path forward.

The Wananga section is a unique aspect of this archive. Tell us about it.

Lou: Kātoitoi means response and for us it was about contextualising the work. Having a review panel interpret and then to include essays that looked at different themes – that provides a rich resource, not just for today but hopefully also the future. The essays, visual responses, and peer reviews invite discussion from the community and all of that wananga helps us to better understand the work Aotearoa New Zealand design is producing.

How did you decide on the submission cost?

Nicole: Having a low barrier to entry was key because the core value of the archive was to be inclusive and accessible to everyone. We had several fee-free options, such as hardship, sponsored and gifted so people had the option to submit for free if the $30 or $60 fee was a barrier.

What insights can we gain from looking at the archive as a whole?

Lou:That is where the content comes in. People look through the archive as a whole for rising trends and peculiarities. That’s where the discourse plays an important part. It’s a snapshot of one year, so time will tell in terms of those rising themes. The intent and desire is to view Aotearoa through the lens of design in terms of what is important to our people, culture. This will tell a wider story about our country at one point in time.
Nicole: As a resource, it will only become more telling year on year as you start to draw comparisons between one body of work and another, and by mapping shifts as they evolve over time. In terms of this capsule, there were 215 pieces submitted and we have archived 100 pieces. Within those 100 pieces, I think that there is an interesting conversation about the reach and impact of Aotearoa design. We are ambitious and want to make ripples. Whether that is cultural, political, or societal– design has the power to affect change. There are themes around generosity and kindness; the ‘making better’ and doing things for the collective. Perhaps a reflection of COVID and Jacinda asking us all to be kind?! It’s definitely an underlying theme coming through. There’s also trends towards environmental stewardship running throughout the body of work. Even within this 2020 capsule, there are insights and learnings to be had.

How is Kātoitoi different from international design archives?

Lou: This is an archive for Aotearoa. The criteria allow for work by NZ designers or produced in NZ.
Nicole: It’s our people, community and culture that makes this difference.

What’s ahead for Kātoitoi?

Nicole: We are excited about where this project could go. From the start, Lou and I had a vision for what the archive could look like in ten years – but it’s not about what we want. The future of the project needs to be driven by the community and what they want, then balancing those aspirations against the realities of what it takes to facilitate and fund the mahi!
As cofounders, we see this project as being in service to our community. We want Aotearoa design to own and shape Kātoitoi. We would love to see a physical archive and exhibitions at Toi places, to host discussions about artefacts from different time periods, produce publications, and all of those things are what the community is asking for but that takes time and money, so we need to work out how viable that will be.
Our next step, once we finish the pilot, (and pause to breathe!) is to have an external person carry out a strategic review, seek feedback from our community and stakeholders, which will help inform the trajectory of the project.

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.

Tags : Creative New ZealandKate McGuinnessKātoitoikatoitoi.nzLouise KellermanNicole Arnett Phillips

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