10 Questions with Chris McDowall and Tim Denee


Q1: We Are Here is off to print! Do you feel exhilaration or exhaustion?

TD: Both! There’s also some trepidation — for better or worse, it’s out of our hands now — and a little sadness that the project’s over. I’ve enjoyed working on it.

CM: My mind is exhilarated, but my body feels exhausted.


Q2: How long has it been since this was just a germ of an idea?

TD: I got involved in December 2014, so for me it’s been four and a half years.

CM: A long time! It started over five years ago as a conversation during a tea break at a conference at Victoria University. Later I pitched the project to Tim. The project changed shape many times over the years. None of the early maps and charts we made ended up in the final book. The earliest graphics we ended up using come from 2017. The majority of the works were created in the last 18 months. We could probably fill other whole book with experiments and abandoned drafts!


Q3: Proud of it?

TD: Very. From the beginning it was Chris’s project that he brought me in on, so I’ve felt privileged to be involved and amazed by his work. I definitely feel the end result is something to be proud of.

CM: Immensely.


Q4: The images are so arresting. Did you somehow just know that visualising this data would reveal astonishing, striking beauty?

TD: I was pretty confident we could create good work together, although it must be said that the road to this point is littered with many visualisations that were abandoned at one point or another. Which is to say, not every data visualisation was as striking or successful as the others, and there was a process of cutting back to those that were strongest and most coherent as a set.

CM: Thank you. That’s a very kind thing to say. I knew there were countless important stories buried in the nation’s spreadsheets and databases. The trick in presenting the data was striking a series of balances. We needed to create graphics that were accessible while also enable deeper readings. Rigorous without exhausting the reader. Beautiful but always ensuring that the data is the centrepiece. I hope we have come close to finding a balance.


Q5: In the back of the book you explain all the tools you used to create these amazing visuals. To a layperson what you’ve done here is totally mysterious, perhaps miraculous … alchemy in any event. But you weren’t flying blind, were you?

TD: Speaking as a designer, much of what Chris does is a kind of alchemy to me. But a lot of it is methodical investigation and experimentation, too — countless hours trying and failing before something just ... works. In a way, it is flying blind — having faith that there’s something compelling in a set of data, and that if you come at it at just the right angle then magic will occur. Something we talked about when conceptualising the book was the idea of it being a prism held up to the light; twisting it this way and that, catching and refracting the light just so. It’s patience and perseverance as much as alchemy.

CM: I had some experience with most of the tools and programming languages at the start of the project, but we learnt a lot. I often knew what I wanted something to look like, but there was no tool quite fit for the job. This meant I ended up writing lots of custom software to create specific maps and visualisations. One of the exciting things about this project is that we will release that programming code when the book comes out. It needs a bit of a tidy-up first though!


Q6: What’s one new thing you learnt about Aotearoa while working on the book?

CM: It’s a little bleak, but I didn’t appreciate the scale of introduced pests and predators. Rats and stoats are everywhere! Making those maps made me realise the huge amount of work it would take to achieve Predator Free 2050. It prompted me to join a trapping group in the Waitākere Ranges, where for the last year I’ve been helping with possum, rat and stoat control.

TD: Something that’s stuck with me is a point made by Ben Schrader in his essay, where he talks about out how modern settlements patterns have, over time, drifted back towards something very similar to historical pā locations. In other words, there’s a sort of inevitability to the way the environment and the climate shapes where people live. It’s part of a larger theme of the book — the interconnectedness between land, climate, environment, people, culture ... Also, we have over 6000 native beetle species and 5800 species of fungi. Pretty neat.


Q7: Judging from the number of people you thank, it’s pretty clear that We Are Here has been an ‘it takes a village’ project. To what degree?

CM: Oh my goodness. To a huge degree! There were subject experts who helped us access and interpret the data. Family and friends offered support and encouragement. There were also many people who had the patience to view draft maps, and offer their insights and responses. It was through these sessions that we learnt what maps worked and which ones left people cold.

TD: Massively. I think partly that speaks to the breadth of topics covered by the book; it wasn’t enough to consult with experts about one subject, but about eight diverse topics.


Q8: Have you each got a favourite visual?

CM: There are a few, but if I had to pick one it is the map of the Whanganui River and its tributaries. I can’t help but find visual parallels to the human circulatory system.

TD: Tough question! If I had to choose, I would say the ‘Aotearoa Song Map’ (and the ‘Musical Timeline’). I find both visually engaging, endlessly interesting, unique to Aotearoa, and not the kind of visualisation I’ve seen elsewhere. I think they speak to something special about this book.


Q9: What’s one that drove you both crazy?

CM: The Musical Timeline! It is also one of my favourite graphics, but it took so much work. If I add up all the hours of data collection, programming and design work, there are at least 150 hours in that spread alone! (I am so curious to read Tim’s answer.)

TD: Maybe ‘Where We Live and Work’. It’s the visualisation with the most number of pages in the book, and it’s one that we started very early in the process (three or four years ago) but that survived to the end. I’ve lost track of how many iterations we created — I know we sat down together for most of a weekend working on it, and still had to come back later for another pass. I’m not sure why it was so challenging. There’s a lot of fine detail, I suppose, and it’s trying to convey two things at once (where we live, and where we work).


Q10: Small question requiring big answer: so where are we?

CM: We are an increasingly diverse nation standing at a crossroads. There are many reasons for optimism, but there are perils ahead as well as unresolved issues that smoulder and burn. I hope we collectively pick the right paths.

TD: Something you do a lot when you’re designing is zoom out and zoom in again. Big picture, little picture — get a sense of the whole, then hone in on the details. We Are Here does the same thing — it zooms out to show the ways Aotearoa is unique and interesting, and then zooms in on the personal and quotidian. Where we are is both very simple (just here, just this) but also a unique part of the world at a unique point in its history.