To Learn is to Do

To learn is to do. So what did I learn this week?

As Becca mentioned before, and as’s James Williamson demonstrated with his posterboard sketch with a giant misspelled “outline”, I learned that “step away from the computer” is sound advice, and a necessary first step in web design. I started my assignment this week by slapping my text into an html doc and playing with colors. It didn’t take long to realize that this strategy of design-as-you-go was flawed. Without an overarching theme guiding my design, it could easily become a site highlighting Beth’s favorite colors and fonts, rather than a site showcasing the actual content. Lesson #1 learned: think before you build.

From lesson number one, follows a second lesson: many pieces make up the whole and each design element should work with the other to create a cohesive whole. The text that I used this week is an excerpt from a larger work on New York’s hardening racism at the turn of the century (in response to an increasing urban black population), focusing specifically on the development of the “coon song” in the 1890’s. I selected a slab serif font (museo-slab) to help convey time period and a display font that I thought played on the “theater” reference as coon songs were performance and part of a popular culture that reinforced racism. The header image is intended to reiterate this theme and, again, to convey time period. The color palette plays on this image. I learned then that successful web design relies on cooperation between various pieces, such as font, imagery, and color.

A final lesson: though website-building can be maddeningly frustrating (especially at this beginner stage), thoughtful and cohesive design can/should make our work speak louder in a world of perpetually competing sites. The text that I am using for my type assignment this week is almost identical to that which I posted last semester as part of my final Clio I project, where I used a WordPress template to create a pseudo-website. I was happy with this project then, but, relying on a template and no interjected code, this site rests solely on its content (presented in small and poorly-spaced font.) Certainly, solid content should be the foundation of any site; but in a sea of digital pages and short attention spans, a site needs more. Though it is virtually the same content, the page I created this week has a distinctive look and feel (I hope) created by use of font, color, and imagery. This page just says more, without actually having to say more.

Comment on Kirk’s blog and Ben’s blog

If You Build It, Make Them Come

I am one of those historians who believes that history can (and should) be written for broader audiences than university professors and specialized scholars. And, I’m sure a similar opinion informs many decisions to publish scholarship on the web. But, just because something exists on the web doesn’t mean people will read it, and in a space of infinite pages, they may never even find it. I appreciated then the readings this week; they highlighted a certain deliberateness- a certain order- about the web that is not often apparent to the user. For example, the semantic markup of a page may not make any visual difference and may seem irrelevant to the viewer who lands on that page, but, as James Williamson points out, “browsers, accessibility devices, and other user agents will notice the difference.” How we tag our pages matters, especially to search engines that are charged with sorting endless amounts of data; knowing how to identify and define page content can help us direct traffic to our sites.
Good coding might help users to land on our sites, but then what? What do users do once landed? Do they even stay? Duckett cites Google Analytics as a great tool for learning more about those who visit our sites and how our sites are used. Analytics can help us understand how users are finding our sites, but perhaps more interestingly, Analytics can tell us what users are looking at once they are there (or not looking at.) Granted there are many factors that might encourage a viewer to stay or leave a site- it may not have the information that they were looking for or maybe the background color is the wrong shade of blue for some- but we can likely draw some conclusions from Analytics trends. Data can show which pages users are visiting most frequently and what pages they are spending the most time on; this can help us determine what users of our site are interested in and influence how we author our sites moving forward. By the same note, “Exit Pages” data can help us determine which pages are discouraging viewers and ultimately leading them to other sources. As a historian who believes that history can be written to appeal to broader audiences, I think that tools such as Analytics might help to achieve such an end. And wouldn’t it be great, as a historian, to write something that people actually read? To build something that people actually used?

Comment on Sara’s post.

To Use Helvetica or Not? An Awareness of Font and Color in Design

As I watched Laura Franz transition between countless fonts and listened to her point out the idiosyncrasies and distinctive characteristics of each, that non-designer voice in the back of my head just kept asking “does it really matter?”  Is my decision to use the oh-so-controversial Helvetica font really going to deter users (or attract them, depending on which side of this argument you fall on) from my site?  Well, if you are Carlson, then maybe. But for the average user who is likely visiting for a dedicated purpose, probably not.

When I began to weave this tutorial with the other readings, I realized that I was missing the point.  The subtle differences between fonts can affect the way a page looks, but, more importantly, they can impact how a site feels.  For instance, a site on women in colonial America that uses Venetian or an Old-Style font might feel more authentic (?) than application of a modern font (I agree with the two designers in the film Helvetica that argued for the difficulty of describing fonts qualitatively.)  Color choices, similarly, can convey more than is written on the page, and designers should be “tactical about employing color persuasively” (WSINYE, 114.) A muted color palette might be the better choice for a site on Depression-era politics but might be less impactful for a site on the flower-children of the 1960s. As historians, an awareness of design conventions and digital tools can help us to to visually situate our arguments in time and space.

Poor choices in design – in font and color- may not necessarily detract from a site (though this certainly may be the case), but it is possible that thoughtful choices might strengthen our arguments and enhance user or viewer experience.  Indeed, changing the font or applying a new color palette does not change the content of a site.  But, making these decisions with thoughtful intention can add a dimension to our work that is not available in the print world.

Comment on Becca’s Post

The Potential of New and Different

Starting my semester with Duckett’s chapter on text and all of its coding properties did nothing to ease my anxiety about what lies ahead in this class. But then I remembered Norman’s assertion that happy people are “more tolerant of minor difficulties” so I paused for some Arrested Development and M&M’s and carried on, presumably more tolerant and indeed happier.

I imagine it is hard for anyone to read about margins and cutlines and feel enthused; I imagine enthusiasm wanes even faster when you add coding to this reading list. So, by the time I opened my final reading for this week (“Acts of Translation”), I could only feel relief that it was almost over.  But then, on the verge of blissful completion, I came to Elish’s discussion of the SFMOMA Artscope Project. Clicking on the link, I immediately felt the impact of good design.  After reading something on design conventions last semester, I remember pondering whether good design (aesthetically-speaking) actually made any difference to the task-oriented and deliberate users of the web. After viewing the SFMOFA site, it appears that it just may.  Granted this site goes way beyond design conventions of the “works-every-time” layout and the coding outlined by Duckett, but, we all begin at a “What is Design” chapter or a Clio Wired course, and from there, we build.

The SFMOFA site is a well-designed site. But, beyond this, it is significant because it reminds us of the “expressive potential of digital form.” One of the greatest difficulties for historians who attempt to cross into the digital realm (or maybe just me) is understanding that digital media is indeed new and different and that it allows us to do history in new and different ways. I understand this in theory- that digital history can (and should be) more than a digitization of sources and uploaded research- but the practice of digital history is a little less clear. How can we use this new media to do history better?  Though it may make for less than thrilling reading, learning design conventions and basic coding just might help us to realize and to “take advantage of what is different, new, and possible.

Week 2 Comment on Amanda Regan’s post