Strategy, Ideas, Design and Development

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digital archive

This is... a new digital archive for the American Air Museum

For the last ten months I’ve been responsible for the design of a digital archive project dedicated to capturing forever the memories of people who may not be around for much longer. The site documents an important period of history for people to learn from. This article explains the thinking behind the design of the American Air Museum digital archive and provides some insight into why we are proud to have been a part of this particular project. 

Summary of the digital archive project

  • The importance of audience engagement
  • Working with vast and complex datasets
  • Creating a brand reflective of the subject matter
  • Designing iteratively
  • Developing a suitable user interface

Our audience for the digital archiving project

The American Air Museum (AAM) is part of IWM Duxford (part of Imperial War Museums) which is located near Cambridge. Rather than creating a website to support the physical space, our brief was to design a crowd-sourcing resource, a hub where people could record their memories and stories of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in Britain during the Second World War. 

Described by the AAM team as ‘an interactive archive’ we needed to populate the site using existing data sources. Following a public launch, enthusiasts then add to the existing content using their own information, in a similar way to how people maintain Wikipedia.

The people we considered the most while designing were the enthusiasts needed to maintain the site. We also considered teachers and local groups who we hope will use the archive for historical research. We communicated with representatives from these two audience types throughout the design process.

Narratives and numbers for the digital archives

One of the objectives of the site was to emphasise the volume of people involved and the journeys they had taken. We also wanted to show how many missions they made and how many planes were involved. While by no means a definitive list, from the twelve data sources supplied we managed to launch with records for:

  • 238,759 people
  • 18,268 aircraft
  • 426 places
  • 2,022 missions
  • 3,937 units
  • 5,301 media items
  • 171,412 people events
  • 8,581 aircraft events
  • 6,363 missions events
  • 74,899 locations

We then managed to generate around a million connections in the digital archive software between these different types of content. 

We also started to unearth the courageous and harrowing stories of the people we had records for and to explore the incredible photographic archive. We began to understand that while our design would need to promote the content, it would also need to be sympathetic to the subject matter. It would need to allow people to explore the content without be overwhelmed by it.


The design process for digital archives

The AAM website is the latest in a series of digital archiving projects created by Magnetic North. While it builds on learnings from previous work, it had its own unique challenges, the first being the subject matter.

With the help of the AAM staff - Carl, Lucy and Jenny - our first task was to gain a general understanding of the USAAF in Britain: the planes they flew, the places where they were based and the missions they were involved in. At this point we started to understand the scale of information we had to work with and represent. We also started to learn the important role played by the USAAF in the Second World War and began to uncover some of the incredible stories we would need to display.

As with Desert Island Discs, we had to design ways for people to find interesting and touching content. Like Arup Explorer, we needed to provide methods to unearth stories and follow meaningful connections. With the AAM website we worked with hundreds of thousands of records rather than the lesser amounts in other projects. We soon found that with volume comes complexity and to overcome these challenges we would need to work in new ways. 

As our technical team improved the process for extracting trustworthy information from the sources provided, we found we were learning more about the data on a daily basis. So we needed to be able to refine our design over time. For this reason we chose to use an iterative design approach based on an Agile project management method. Our time was split into a series of phases or sprints. Within each sprint, in collaboration with the AAM team, we agreed a set of design challenges to address and test, the success of which we reviewed at the end of each sprint and then planned out the next phase of work. 


Designing the digital archive user-interface

The design challenge was to represent this vast and complex information set in a way that was easy to understand and explore. The user-interface had to be simple, flexible and uncomplicated if we wanted our audience to embrace it. 

To aid understanding, we structured the site around six themes. Those being: ‘people’, ‘places’, ‘aircraft’, ‘units’, ‘missions’ and ‘media’. Units being the way people and aircraft were grouped together at a certain place to do a certain task. The media section, being the ‘Roger Freeman Collection’ an archive of 15,000 images, added to, over time, by users including their own images and video. 

Throughout the process we used prototypes to test elements of the user experience design. Paper prototypes helped us to create quick demonstrations of layout and structure. Browser-based prototypes, created using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, allowed us to test out functionality.

Where possible we used interface patterns that people would recognise and feel comfortable using. Free-text search, drop-down menus for filtering and standard pagination patterns are all employed in the site. For our ‘super-users’, we spent a lot of time incorporating military taxonomies into the ways content could be filtered. For example you can filter people by the type of unit they served in or aircraft by type. 

While most visitors to the site will only use the public pages, we made sure that the site was easy to use for those wishing to add to the archive. We spent a lot of time iterating the design of the features used by people to add and improve the content. This included a registration process, a notification system and a form for each of the six types of content. Again, we used paper prototypes to describe the differences between each. We developed a consistent approach to instructions and labeling. 

During the project we used insight from the enthusiasts to make the site work in a manner they were comfortable with. We questioned them about their present behaviours and preferred ways of working. We also asked them about problems they encounter when researching and documenting. Our hope is that the environment we have created for editors is an improvement on the systems they presently use with the advantage that their work has a permanent and public home.

The site could only have been developed using an iterative process. We released a version of the site and tested it at the end of each phase. We then improved and simplified the interface based on audience feedback and team discussions. Whenever possible we tried to design on the site itself, rather than creating high fidelity mock-ups. This relied on a good version control system, our brand book and communication between the team! There were times that we did come unstuck and broke things that had worked before. But as an approach it was a more satisfactory way of working for a site so vast and complex. 

Creating the digital archive visual design

While we wanted the digital archive interface to be simple and uncomplicated, we also wanted the site to have a memorable look. We began by developing a strong identity that is also recognisable as part of the IWM family. 

We took inspiration from the online and offline media created by the Imperial War Museums and developed a complementary palette and set of typographic principles. The palette is based on the red, white and blue from the IWM palette, and references the flags of the USA and Great Britain. Additionally we used some neutral greys to give the design a feeling of sophistication and earnestness.

For type, we used the same fonts as other IWM websites with some alternate sizes and weights to add more personality. We chose to use uppercase lettering to label buttons and for instructions.

We also refreshed the AAM logo, attempting to create a bold design that works alongside that of IWM, inspired by Air Force emblems, with the diagonal line created by the angle of the repeating letter A, echoing the angles used in the split blocks of the IWM brand mark. 

We have also used the angled graphic device to crop imagery in promoted content. For all buttons we use a simple pixel outline and an amount of whitespace around the label; a style that works well across different platforms.

We centered the layout on the amazing photography from the Roger Freeman Collection. We also created a set of placeholder images to represent pages not associated with an image. We hope that with time users will replace these with Freeman images or with their own photography. 

Instead of using the brand to create page templates, the principles were recorded in a brand book, an online resource describing the type, layout and user-interface patterns for the site. The brand book served as a reference point for everyone involved in the project development, helping us to maintain consistency across the site. Again the brand book went through several iterations as we refined the look and feel of the site. 

Launching the site

The site that went live last month contains as much of the information we could extract from the various sources in the time we had. We could have kept going but felt it was time to turn the project over to the public. 

Although it contains a huge amount of content and connections, it is only a starting point. We are presently watching in awe as others turn it into the leading resource on the USAAF in Britain during the Second World War. 

To date, the site has had huge amounts of interaction with over 20,000 visitors who have both modified the existing content and added new information.   



Adam Todd is the Creative Director at Magnetic North and led the experience design of the American Air Museum website. The site was designed by Magnetic North in collaboration with the team at the American Air Museum: Jenny Cousins, Lucy Maxwell and Carl Warner.  

The digital archive currently deals with over 500,000 entry records with over a million connections between them.