I Dream of Being the Da Vinci of Graphic Design…

…a boy can dream big, can’t he?! Although, I doubt I’ll ever be that good.

Still it’s important to remember that aesthetics are as important as argument. Why? Because design isn’t just about making something pretty, design has very real connection to functionality and credibility. This is particularly true when it comes to technology and digital media. Three of the pieces we looked at this week for class all dealt with this topic.

Acts of Translation: Digital Humanities and the Archive Interface I found to be the most interesting because the information was the most practical. Not only did the article look at how three websites functioned, but why they functioned and how design is a key element in that. Both Elish and Trettien did a good job reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of each site. Not surprisingly the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s ArtScope site received the most praise. I suspect that’s because as an art institution the importance of high-end design is readily accepted if not consciously understood. Elish and Trettien critiques gave me some ideas to think about while doing my own digital history project.

I also really liked the How Do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility? report. What really made me appreciate the report was that the researchers really explored why people feel some websites are more credible than others. Also they laid their terms out (i.e. defining what exactly the meant by “credibility” immediately made me like the report). Yet while I enjoyed the piece and felt that the information presented was definitely important for us as historians working in digital media to remember, I noticed that the study didn’t really include websites similar to what we will be creating. The closest type of site included in the study were non-profits, but none of the non-profit website were produced by cultural institutions or universities. And I think they only reason why I feel the non-profit category is close to digital history is because of my background in public history and museums. Nonetheless what they uncovered (while not surprising) was still applicable to our work. Two things in particular really struck me as important. First, people judge a site’s credibility largely on how it looks. Second, for non-profit sites writing tone and affiliations were really important (people actually care more about content than design when it comes to non-profits).

The third article Attractive Things Work Better said just that-people perceive well designed things to work better and prefer to use them. It also talked about how a happy mood increases the creative thought and better problem solving. And to prove all this Norman relied on scientific studies (although I thought some of the studies a little extraneous).

Yet why are all these articles significant for a digital historian? Because design matters, even though historians don’t want to believe it. We are, after all, trained to be analytical not creative. There have been several occasions when I have been critical of a historians writing ability while discussing their work in a class and have had the professor respond by saying that not everyone is a good writer. In other words we shouldn’t concern ourselves with a scholar’s writing ability, even though making an effective argument relies deeply on a reader understanding what is being said. The same is true in digital media. If a user has difficulty using your site, then it doesn’t matter how great the argument is because the user probably won’t see or understand your argument. Design (or visual cultural) is a language just like the written word. I think the lessons learned from these pieces can be applied to all aspects of the historical craft whether we articulate our analysis through digital or print media. What does everyone else think about this? Do historians (or other humanists) need to consider design in both digital and print media? For clarification, in the case of print media not only do I mean writing but also format and structure of the narrative. Also I do not believe that every historian will be or can be the Da Vinci of digital media or the Melville of written history, but I do believe that we all can be better writers and graphic designers.

I raised this same question after reading Megan’s blog as well.


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5 responses to “I Dream of Being the Da Vinci of Graphic Design…

  1. Geoff–great post! You raise great points about the applicability of these lessons to our lives as historians, and particularly for both of us (and many others in the class) as public and semi-digital historians. I especially found your comparison between quality of writing in an article and quality of design to be poignant–especially your statement about design being a language that we read. Since we can–and do, whether we know it or not–read design, then we should be able to understand how to write it!

  2. I agree that the choice of sites for non-profits in the ConsumerReports study wasn’t fantastic. And no education sites at all!

    I suspect that many historians are overwhelmed by the thought of trying to learn yet another language – in addition to theory, historiography, and the specialized language of their specialty.

  3. I still hesitate to call design a visual cultural language, because language implies a skill that can be learned and I would rather classify design as a talent or gift. Rather like the question: Is teaching an art or science? Meaning: is an effective and engaging teacher born that way or taught to be that way? Can one not endowed with an innate gift for discerning design features and pleasing aesthetics be effectively taught to follow the rules of visual culture? Or is our best hope to merely mimic those who do hold this talent? Certainly seeing examples of effective and engaging sites along with “expert” (and specific) critique helps limit design mistakes, but a one-size-fits-all approach also can not work for all types of history. Likewise, historians do not fit the one-size-fits-all model as we each have our strengths and weaknesses, which you point out.
    Based on what we’ve considered so far with the specific challenges and characteristics of digital media vs. print media, I would say that the path towards creating a digital project begins in the infancy of the research design as the structure of information flows differently with digital media applications than with paper-based narratives. Even if a research project develops into a finely crafted article or book, recreating that story in a digital format means starting back with the data and rebuilding up a storyboard based on different hierarchies of information, smaller chunks of material, and prioritized or privileging structures for information access. A paper reader can view an article from start to finish, skim, or flip through to hopscotch through paragraphs. This works if the paper follows a structure of beginning, middle, end (ever read the introduction and then the conclusion of a long book?). The digital website provides a more complex structure of navigation that requires headings or tabs to encourage readers to stop and click for more information. While a reader hopscotching through a paper might catch a phrase or heading or a string of words to encourage a stopping point and then can easily move forwards or backwards, the digital user uses a different skimming process with even smaller areas for access (link points or tabs).
    Because the information structure is radically different, I think the design of each medium of content presentation appeals to different styles of thinking and organizational structure. Since the audience will be attracted to different types of media (be it web site, book, oral presentation, or living history / hands-on) an historian eager to tap into multiple formats of learning styles should have knowledge of how the different learners process information.
    Since we are learning that digital learners use visual cues to accept or decline entry into web portals for information, being aware of the “attractive” cues helps us better bait the trap. As we see, the world of learning and teaching is changing everyday, and to meet the challenges and expectations of our new digital learners, historians (like other professions) should be prepared to explore new venues of engagement with the audience and adjust the presentation design and format accordingly. You are right to emphasize that design matters.

  4. Pingback: Credibility, Creativity, Competence (and Chocolate) in Digital History « The Journey to Enlightenment: Making the Leap to the Digital Age

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