February 25: Web Design

What do historians need to know about designing for the web? What are our points of reference, and how do they cross the boundaries of genre and audience?

Readings

Designing for the History Web” (all sections), in Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History

HTML Responsive Web Design,” w3schools.com

Tools

WordPress for web design and blogs

Flickr for usable images

Feature Image Citation: Portrait of Pocahontas, 1616, British Museum, London

23 thoughts on “February 25: Web Design

  1. Very interesting how Cohen and Rozensweig have written an extensive guide to Designing for the History Web, and yet I am unable to enlarge the map on the second page, thus rendering me unable to see the details on which they make their point…

    1. Agreed. And they even have a section on incorporating images that states that images that have small details should use thumbnails so that they can be enlarged. While they do have a link where you can view a larger version of the image, the link is broken!

      Which brings up another consideration for designing on the web: making sure all the links work/stay working.

    2. Falls under, “physician, heal thyself!”
      I think the problem here comes from 1) the overall old age of the book, plus 2) the book itself trying to straddle the line between traditional published monograph and electronic resource. It seems like it didn’t commit as fully to the possibilities of an electronic resource as it tried to keep its other foot in the traditional publishing world/model. Either that, or it is just really hard to migrate stuff forward 15 years later.

  2. Cohen/Rosenzweig push back on guidance to reduce the amount of blocks of text on websites for ease of use.

    “Unchallenged, the widespread agreement about the chunking of text may produce even less tolerance for long passages on the web as time goes by. Historians must combat this trend aggressively if we are to claim this medium as our own.”

    Do you agree?

    1. I think there definitely is less tolerance for long passages on the web, generally speaking. Social media has played a part in this I think. Twitter is all about small portions of text; lots of people only read headlines of articles instead of the entire article. I’m not sure how historians can combat this trend when other forms of information online are definitely skewing towards short passages. On the other hand, eReaders are more popular than ever – lots of people prefer these devices to hard copies of books (I think mostly because of storage issues). But these devices are inherently different than a website format – their aim is to mimic a book.

      I thought the way that Cohen and Rosenzweig formatted their book worked well. The chapters were also divided into sections so that each chapter wasn’t just this super long page of text. That made their work a lot easier to digest.

      I don’t know why, but for some reason I find myself skimming a lot more and skipping over large portions of text when I read things online vs when I’m reading a book. Anyone else do this?

      1. I agree with the way that Cohen and Rosenzweig split up their chapters into different sections was particularly effective. I also struggle with long portions of text online, but I found that the separation of chapters into manageable sections helped reduce a lot of cognitive load (for lack of a better term) when reading their work. The amount of text is fine, but I do think chunking it intentionally can only help readers.

        In that light, I think avoiding blocks of text can also serve as an accessibility feature. Informally, on social media, I’m seeing more “tl;dr” summaries: “too long; didn’t read.” “tl;dr” used to be a sort of cavalier insult — someone wrote too much and that’s bad, etc. Basically what C&R are advocating against. But I’ve seen that same acronym used more recently as an accessibility feature. So you’d have a block of text but then summarize it before or after in just a sentence or two with a tl;dr. The summary then serves to help orient people who might get lost in the wall of text (whether they have learning disabilities or are just having a busy day) and help them parse the (longer, more thorough and nuanced) text more effectively. I’ve only seen this in informal spaces, but I wonder if it would work for more formal attempts at digital history?

        1. I never thought of blocks of text themselves as an accessibility issue (as translation programs seem generally able to handle those well), so this is a helpful thought for us to consider.
          On the issue of skimming or online reading practices, we will get into that directly in next week’s material!

    2. I do think there’s been a marked decrease for large chunks of text–not just online but everywhere. If I give a primary source to my students without breaking down the chunks of texts a good bit and interspersing questions between blocks, most tend to get overwhelmed and shut down even if the source is not particularly difficult to read on a technical level! It’s not an age thing, either, I’ve noticed it get markedly worse between 2015 and now. I think this has a tone to do with social media, Twitter, and in particular the rise of smartphones which makes everything being oriented to be small enough to fit on a phone screen.

  3. I felt like so much of Cohen and Rozenswieg’s chapter was common sense – use fonts and colors that are easy to read, have a logical organizational structure, etc (some of their guidance was also applicable to print text). Because of this, the chapter felt very dated to me and something that someone may have wanted to reference in the earlier days of the internet. Did anyone else feel this way? On the flip side, we all have stumbled across poorly designed websites that are difficult to read even in 2021. So maybe this chapter isn’t actually common sense? I think as the internet gets older, and generations who have grown up using the internet for practically all of their lives begin to become the creators of web content, this type of guidance becomes obsolete. We’re getting to the point where a large portion of the population (at least in the US) have been lifelong users of the internet and from experience know what good web design is or isn’t.

    I certainly appreciated the section on accessibility, which is not necessarily common sense. We talk a lot about the accessibility that the internet offers to the humanities, and this is an important piece of that.

    1. I liked the section on accessibility as well. I thought it was great to bring up how ethically historians have a responsibility when entering the digital space to make their sites accessible. I do, however, wish that they had discussed other accessibility limitations like affordability (especially in cases with paid websites), or language barriers. Accessibility is often discussed as one thing – either this or that – but a discussion on general accessibility for all, I think would have strengthened this piece.

      1. Your points here about accessibility remind me more of the “cautions” Cohen and Rosenzweig considered regarding digital history in the earlier introductory chapter. It seems that they get into cost and access there. But interesting that there is little attempt to tie those themes into this chapter, or this particular section’s frame.

      2. I agree with this Joellen–and building off your point about affordability, what about access for those who do not have access to PCs connected to high-speed internet at home? Whether because they’re poor or just happen to live in a rural area without broadband? This would limit their access, too. The “digital divide”.

  4. Both Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Introduction as well as w3school’s website design blog underscore the difficulties of establishing visually appealing websites with strong academic content, evoking questions of appropriate digital formats and scholarly research methods. Why do most web searchers ignore visually unappealing academic websites? Should historians devote scholarly resources to the general public, whose short attention spans preclude viable academic research? Do the financial costs of website programming exceed the historical value of online research? Public history teacher Steve Burg’s blog post about online learning for the National Council on Public History, which emphasizes holistic learning in promoting innovative scholarship among general and academic audiences, may prove beneficial to historians designing their own digital websites as they address these issues.

  5. I appreciated the discussion of design in Cohen and Rosenzweig this week. Especially this quotation: “Good design, in this case, does not necessarily mean obvious design, or design that attracts attention to itself rather than the content of a book.” I thought the comparison to the design of a book was very apt — books are very highly designed, but we don’t usually think of them that way, because the design gets out of the way and doesn’t draw attention to itself. When I have served as a [costume] designer, I use the idea that a design ought to get out of the way. Design ought to communicate silently and support the content rather than stand out separately from it. Of course, design doesn’t only “get out of the way” of the content, although that’s a useful shorthand: the design does inevitably become part of the content itself, which can be incredibly effective if it’s done well.

    This speaks, then, to an intentionality of design. It’s easy to get into an editing program (especially something very user friendly like Wix or Squarespace) and get caught up in making things “pretty” without an eye to the content the design is meant to be supporting. Cohen and Rosenzweig say, “Put succinctly, our rallying cry on the web must therefore be: enable and inspire me to think about and grasp the past.” How can amateur web designers center this idea of intentionality to develop designs that subtly and carefully enhance content?

    1. This is a great point, Kate. I hadn’t thought of it this way. But, rather, in my notes I equated “design” to methodology or structure. Basically how an author chooses to construct their books flow-chronologically, by event, by person etc. As historians, this is a part of book reviews that is either scrutinized or revered when done poorly or done masterfully, and I caught a bit of that in this reading as well.

      1. I like the invocation of Wix or Squarespace here, which showcase at a simple glance the choices designers can make, and which arrived after Cohen/Rosenzweig’s time.
        And I also like the point here of how traditional book reviews do attend to a book’s “design” on a number of levels. Rarely scrutinizing font or color schemes though!

      2. On occasion, the authors also appeal to emotion rather than content: for example their analysis of the Korean War websites.

  6. In the introduction, Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss briefly if “good design matters at all…” I had a bit of a problem with this because it seemed as though a distinction between good v. bad and basic v. complex was necessary.

    I visited each of the websites that the authors mentioned – the Atomic Veterans History Project, and the Korean War Educator site – and just from a brief browsing the only fault I could find was that the former was a bit more generic. And that got me thinking about other comparable websites. Although not historical in the traditional sense, I considered Google and Bing, and just from their homepages, if we go by the authors logic, Google would suffer from poor design relative to Bing. (Everyone knows the basic design of the Google homepage where Bing – which offers a similar service – has a everchanging, discoverable photo in the background).

    But when we consider Bing and Google, how many people actually use Bing comparatively? I’d say few – but that could be my own bias. Therefor, I think what was missing here was an understanding that things can be complex and good, complex and bad, basic and good, and also basic and bad. But, also that having one does not guarantee the other. (Recently I have been trying to navigate very complex health websites, and those are definitely poorly designed especially in terms of accessibility).

    1. We can dig into a lot here. I wonder what others will think of the good/basic v. bad/complex parallels? An axis would be useful with the vertical set at good/bad, and the horizontal set at basic/complex. Then we could chart these things out.
      And the Google vs. Bing contrast really has me thinking. We live with those sites so much, and they do present differing models.

    2. That’s a great point, and in addition to Google, think of the Apple design aesthetic. It’s quite minimalistic and plain–you see nothing on the outside of an iPad box except a picture of the iPad and the Apple logo on the side–but it is very appealing nonetheless. Being simple doesn’t have to equal boring or bland. I think making it a choice between simple and appealing is a false one.

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