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The ‘Wonders of Geology’

Image from 'The Wonders of Geology' (Collier) Mikaya/Tasa Graphic Arts

Breathtaking visuals, a concise text, and a narrated tour of some of the most spectacular natural sites in the United States make the Wonders of Geology a production to behold. The app is adapted from Michael Collier’s Over the Mountains (2007), one of a series of books he has published with Mikaya Press. Collier, a noted author, geologist, and photographer, took his first aerial photo in 1975, four years later earned his pilot’s license, and now owns his own Cessna 180. In his introduction to the app, the author notes “Aeriel photography is the pursuit of perfect light” and it’s clear that in this title that he has captured it many times over.

Collier narrates his illustrated tour of geological formations, taking viewers from Hawaii and New Hampshire to Alaska and Virginia. The first section of Wonders covers rocks (“the building blocks of geology”), plate tectonics, and erosion. Chapters on “Mountains of America,” and “Mountains Past and Future” follow introducing viewers to a wide range of geological provinces. Each section opens with a page or two of text followed by photos, animated diagrams (of an erupting volcano, colliding continents, etc.), and maps that illuminate explanations and definitions.

When Collier speaks about the various aspects of formations, lines or arrows appear on the images to help viewers identify them, or the author might suggest viewers zoom in on a specific area of the glacier or mountain ridge that he is discussing. He quotes John Muir and another naturalists who appreciated these “peaks and pinnacles, ridges and ramparts…this parade of geologic history.”

Image from 'Wonders of Geology' (Collier) Mikaya / Tasa Graphic Arts

The app is beautifully designed. A discreet tag indicates the location of each site and a menu can be accessed by tapping on the bottom of the screen. Pages flawlessly slide backward or forward.

While viewers can just sit back and enjoy the images and narration, this engaging presentation goes beyond the basics and will be a perfect resource for secondary (and older) students of earth science and geology.

I spoke with Elizabeth Mann, author of The Empire State Building and The Great Pyramid and an owner of Mikaya Press, about the company’s first venture into digital publishing.

Two years ago when we first spoke about apps, you were immersed in apps, “viewing hundreds of them,” as I recall. When and why did you decide to take the leap into digital?

I can’t believe it’s been two years since we started talking about apps!

But to answer your question, it’s hard to say exactly when we first started thinking about app development. As publishers, we’re always looking for better ways to illustrate the text in our books. It’s not just about making beautiful books, though I love that aspect. It’s more about expanding on the text, using visual elements that make it richer and more understandable. That’s why we commission original illustrations and diagrams, look for obscure archival photos and prints, use gatefolds and read-along maps—whatever we can create or find to make a better reading experience. I think there’s always been the if-only fantasy that with the right technology we could do even more, but it wasn’t until the iPad arrived that we could actually begin to entertain the fantasies.

Image from "Wonders of Geology' (Collier) Mikaya / Tasa Graphic Arts

We were working on a book called Over the Coasts in our geology series by Michael Collier. I’ve always loved Michael’s photography, but when I saw his pictures on the iPad I was blown away. They looked more luminous and gorgeous than they ever could in a book. That got us excited: what if you could zoom, what if you could have arrows pointing to important things in the photo, what if Michael could narrate, what if it could be like taking a geology field trip with a guide? I guess that might be when the possibility of turning a book into an app first became real to us. Little did we know what we were getting into!

Hmmm…sounds like you encountered some hurdles…so, what happened next?

In June of 2010 Michael was in NYC for a few days to work on Over the Coasts with us (us being me and my husband Stu Waldman). Book Expo was in town so we all took a morning and went to visit the exhibit hall, particularly the electronic book section. We talked to a number of developers, looked at some book apps, and by the time we left the Expo Michael was as psyched as we were.

We quickly agreed that we would use Over the Mountains for our first app. Michael went back to Arizona to think about what he might want to do in the app that he hadn’t done, or hadn’t been able to do, in the book. All Stu and I had to do was find a developer to code the thing. It seemed easy enough, but turned out to be nearly impossible.

What in particular seemed insurmountable?

Image from 'The Wonders of Geology' (Collier) Mikaya / Tasa Graphic Arts

We knew that we were asking a lot in terms of quality and control, but we never expected that it could cost so much. By October of 2010 we had contacted dozens of developers, interviewed several, and been forced to conclude that we simply couldn’t afford to make an app. We were all disappointed but agreed to try again in two or three years—surely technological advances would bring the price down eventually!

But soon after we made that decision, Michael called to say he had found a design company in the mountains outside of Taos, NM that specialized in geology books, had just started making geology apps of their own, and that they were eager to work on ours.

So, in January 2011, we flew through a blue cloudless sky in Michael’s little Cessna to Taos Airport for our first meeting with the folks at Tasa Graphics. We had looked at enough apps to know that developers often include shiny, gimmicky things that don’t necessarily improve the app. These bells and whistles often seem to cause app crashes, which we definitely didn’t want. Tasa took us through five different navigation and user interface prototypes to make sure we had a user interface that was simple, elegant, and useful.

What did producing an app require on the editorial side?

Image from 'The Wonders of Geology' (Collier) Mikaya / Tasa Graphic Arts

We found that the app format was demanding more of us editorially than we had expected. Stu, in a feat of yeoman editing, completely disassembled the book’s contents and reassembled it in a format that made more sense for an app user. More photos were added to better illustrate the geology Michael was describing. Tasa provided brilliant animated diagrams of geological processes. Lesley Ehlers, the designer who does all of Mikaya’s books, put all the pieces together. And Michael constantly tweaked, trimmed, and smoothed his narration until his recordings were as clear and concise as possible.

How long did this take?

It took more than eight months, but by October we were ready to apply to Apple for permission to sell it in their app store. We had some anxious moments while waiting for Apple to accept the app, wondering if we had made a huge mistake. There are tens of thousands of iPad apps out there. What if no one noticed ours, much less bought it?

When the app launched two weeks ago the doubts disappeared—people are noticing it and we’re really proud of it.

Looking back on the process, any thoughts?

On the one hand, it seems insane that we spent so many hours working on the app, much more time than any of us anticipated. On the other hand, it seems nearly miraculous that we did it at all, given that we knew absolutely nothing when we first entertained the idea.

Now I can’t wait to put all we’ve learned to use—we’re going to make my Brooklyn Bridge book (Mikaya, 1996) into an app.