Design is the Thing: Declension and the Web

Design matters.  Those who have published books our articles probably know what I’m talking about.  Seeing one’s work in manuscript form is a very different experience from seeing it as a finished product.  A good book designer does beautiful work, elevating one’s labors to a new level.

Unfortunately the current trend seems to be away from design.  E-books were the first wave and they did authors few favors.  Users could increase or reduce font size.  Pages all looked much the same.  Cover art was a lost art.  Thankfully, sales seem to show a drop in e-reader sales.

While there may be hope for print books, even as more and more people are publishing their thoughts online either in 140 character bursts or in more extended blogs, design is evidently a dying art.

Kristin L. Arola exposes the problem in her wonderful essay “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design”; Web 2.0 is all about templates.  Sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer users few design options.  Blogs such as this one only further illustrate the problem. Choose a few colors, select a handful of photographs and you’re done. Shucks, I couldn’t even set-up my header as I wanted without using Photoshop and some specialized fonts to alter the image.  These days, personas are ready-made, identities pre-defined.  You can have any website as long as its produced in one of three colors, the images are sized as specified, and you want to use a specific arrangement of columns and tabs.  Have fun storming the castle.

The trend has some pretty negative implications, especially for my digital museum-based course idea.

Here’s the big one.  Modern museums sink or swim based on their design.  They function through narrative and the narrative is largely defined by careful floor plans and innovative arrangements.

Back in the nineteenth century when museums first started to gain popularity, the general idea was to collect a bunch of stuff and to put it on display.  What you ended up with looked more or less like this:

Display cases filled with stuff.  Lots to see, no single story to tell.  There is nothing wrong with this type of museum.  Indeed, they can be a lot of fun to meander through when you’ve gotta get outta the house.

Modern museums work differently.  Spaces are carefully utilized.  Technologies are chosen to specific ends.  The items on display serve very specific purposes.  Very often, the narrative evolves through the design itself.  Consider one of my favorite museums, The Big Pit.

The museum tells the story of coal mining in southern Wales, making use of the site itself to help tell its story.

The fact that the site is now used only as a museum (Thank YOU Maggie Thatcher) means that the air is no longer filled with coal dust and that valley is not nearly as populace as it once was.  Even so, you cannot visit the site without getting some sense of the coal mining heritage of the area.  Going down into the pit itself certainly helps.  I know that I’ll never lecture about nineteenth-century child labor in the same way again.

Yet the exhibit functions not simply because of the physical location, it is also exceptionally well designed.  It is worth having a look at how that design works to tell the story.

As with most museums, there is plenty of text.  There’s a mix of long and short panels, a range of font choices and sizes.  Attention is paid to what the display looks like.  One need not think about this fact—they had probably better not—but the design decisions serve to make everything aesthetically pleasing.  The panels draw you in, even before you begin to read.

The real genius, however, is the utilization of physical features of the site to show visitors what life was like.   Consider the following displays.

The danger of coal mining is not simply the possibly of a shaft collapse, the dust is a far more insidious killer.  Cleanliness was a constant concern, both in the mine buildings and in the surrounding homes.  Museum designers used the existing showers and signage to drive this point home.

The appealing design continues.

Interactive displays are very popular in modern museums.  At the Big Pit, carefully placed video consols allow visitors to explore aspects of mine life in more depth (he, he… I made a funny…).

Several sections utilize collage to offer manny stories related to a common theme.  Here we learn about the closing of the mines.

Domestic life is a major theme.  Hanging laundry provides a simple screen upon which to cast images of village life.  The result is a haunting sense of times past, an organic feeling of life encapsulated in objects.

The miner’s life orbited around his locker.  In one of my favorite exhibits, each locker introduces the visitor to an individual miner.

While the Big Pit is particularly good, virtually all museums tell their stories through design.  Take the James Herriot Experience in Thirsk, Yorkshire.  Fans of the book and television series (and I’m one of the biggest fans of both) can experience both the show and the life lived by James, Tristan, Siegfried, Helen, Mrs. Hall, and the rest.

There’s even a (somewhat corny) chance to “be the vet”…

All of this makes me wonder about the potential of a website to function as a truly successful museum.  There is already the problem that I mentioned in my previous post about authenticity, but what of the lack of design potential engendered by Web 2.0?  While it may not be necessary for site users to deliver a calf (besides, few will have my remarkable abilities in large animal practice), it is certainly a requirement that material be presented in a manner that helps to tell the story on offer.

Obviously websites can (and many do) illustrate superb design.  Consider The Why Files, a science website published by the University of Wisconsin.  The site explores “the science behind the news,” picking stories from the headlines and then exploring the scientific background, whether that be in the social or natural sciences.

From inception, the site merged brilliant writing with top-flight design.  The following images are both special Halloween issues, but each has its visual identity that mirrors the stories told.

Each of the above stories utilizes an image map for navigation, as well as a standardized linear navigation scheme in the lower left and right portions of the screen.

And yet, The Why Files is an online magazine, not a museum.  Each story is designed in much the same way as a print publication. Although the web does make possible the integration of sound, video, and animation, the fact is that museums work differently.

My own course idea was inspired by the Maine Memory Network, a site that also pays considerable attention to design and it looks brilliant as a result.

The problem is that it ends up looking more like a magazine and less like a museum.

Ultimately, I’m left with two significant questions.

1) Can I really expect to generate a “museum” on the web given the need for authenticity (previous post) and the extensive demands of effective museum design?

2) Given the limits of Web 2.0, is it even possible to produce a truly varied and creative magazine when so many templates seem to function more to limit expression than to encourage it?  One could imagine producing a website especially for the class, however that would demand extensive coding experience—probably both in terms of display language and in database design.  It is entirely unrealistic to integrate such requirements into a course that is primarily about historical thought.

Once again, I’m left with more doubts and questions than answers.

At Home He’s A Tourist

It is no accident that Lucy Honeychurch begins A Room With A View with her Baedeker in hand, only to be without it at the end.  To start, she is a slave to convention.  By the end, she makes her own way.  One imagines that E.M. Forster used the notion of the mindless tourist wandering a beaten path to help signal his heroine’s progress toward self-actualization.  There is certainly nothing new in the notion that tourists are one thing, travellers another.  This is a distinction born of the English class system and it harkens back to the very beginnings of modern tourism.

Lucy Honeychurch consumes "what ought to be seen."

Lucia Knoles, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, evidently likes the distinction because she uses it as a metaphor to describe what one hopes to accomplish in a classroom: we do not want to guide mindless tourists on a beaten track, we wish them to branch out on their own.  Students should be like Honeychurch.  They should find their intellectual George Emerson.

The thing is that Knoles and others are not fair to the lowly tourist.  Such a view is snobbish and is as unthinking as the tourists themselves are supposed to be.  As historian Rudy Koshar points out, tourism is about seeking “meaning beyond the marketplace.”  Tourists want “authenticity” in whatever they do.  They want to escape from the everyday and to find something real in their flight.

Visitors to the "Big Pit" encounter exhibits about the history of coal mining in Wales—an experience made real by the long history of mining at the site and by the opportunity to go underground themselves.

Obviously there are unthinking tourists, just as there are insipid students.   Diversity exists in every group.  But there is truth to be found on the beaten track as well as off.  Pedagogical witch hunters seeking to enforce the current wisdom would do well to remember this.

All this is not to condemn Knoles, whose article “Nobody Likes a Tourist (And Who Wants to be a Tour Guide?): A Reflection on the Value of Teaching With Technology” paints a promising picture of how to integrate technology into the classroom.

For Knoles, technology offers a path toward introducing students “to the truly adventurous nature of academic life” while allowing them “to experience the challenges and joys of genuine inquiry.”  But how?

In brief, the web allows for the addition of context.  It makes it possible to juxtapose different versions of a work and so to engage with an author’s creative process, to know her mind.  It makes it possible to use hypertext to take students down the rabbit hole of inquiry, following one link after another.  It gives professors the opportunity to let students work with primary sources.  Finally, it allows for real collaboration among students and for the creation of miniature academic communities of experts on a given topic, sharing information and ideas with ease.  While it is true that all of this takes time and considerable effort, argues Knoles, sometimes less is more.  Perhaps the coverage in a typical introductory course might be reduced, but the increased depth of learning more than offsets such a problem.

All of this is hugely relevant to me and is worthy of consideration.  Let me explain.

My task in the coming weeks is to develop a “digital humanities” course at an introductory college level.  [This blog is part of that assignment.]  I’ve already arrived at a broad outline of a class that will explore the history of youth culture from its roots during the interwar period to the present.  The idea is that students will create a digital museum, with either individual students or groups of students developing displays about discrete aspects of the story but with the overall collection providing site visitors with a sense of narrative.  In theory, this will help students develop research, writing, and critical thinking skills while also pushing them to think deeply about the decisions and thought processes that go into museum development.

Knoles certainly provides plenty of vindication for such a plan.  For example, the idea that students will find meaning by encountering actual sources for themselves bolsters the idea of the digital exhibit.

The problem is that I have doubts.

Above all, remember that tourists/museum goers seek authenticity.  Even when they hope to visit what Dean MacCannell brilliantly describes as the “little hyper-real celluloid animal deities, not dead, and not alive either” that inhabit Disneyland, they still want to enjoy the reality of that experience.  An ice cream eating bovine is simply no substitute for Clarabelle Cow.

Bessie McCow, an inhabitant of Oban, Scotland, is a lovely lass but she just cannot compete with her more famous cousin Clarabelle.

When one visits a museum, they almost never want to see reproductions or fakes.  They feel disappointed, angry, and let down when they find them.  Tourists want patina; they want what Walter Benjamin famously calls “aura.”

As Benjamin wrote, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.  Chemical analyses of the patina of a bronze can help to establish this, as does the proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.”  There is no patina on a digital photograph, an image of a manuscript is not the real thing.

A photograph cannot express the visceral reality of a fatal bullet hole that killed an unarmed Bloody Sunday protester during a violent clash with British troops on 30 January 1972.

When I think about my own experience in the archives, I remember the first time that I found a document with the actual signature of a major historical figure about whom I had long studied.  It was exciting.  I couldn’t help but smile, to show it to those around me in the archive.  This was somebody I had read about, lectured about, thought about for years.  Here was a little fragment of him.  It was real.

Is sitting in front of a computer really the same as sitting in an archive surrounded by original documents?

An online display simply cannot replicate a site filled with authentic objects where aura is everywhere.  Is this a problem?  A fatal flaw?  Will students get excited about pouring through digital files in the way that I was by my archival boxes?  Or will the experience be little different for them than their (sadly) regular trips to Wikipedia?  I fear the latter.

Knoles celebrates hypertext, the notion that there are numerous interconnections.  While I would not call it hypertext—a term that seems more buzzword than useful to me—I definitely want my students to find connections.  Indeed, environmental historian William Cronon sums up one of my favorite justifications for a liberal arts education in this way:

More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. . . .  listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community—is finally about connecting.  A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.

History is about connections, about following leads, about trying to piece things together.  It is a cornerstone of what I want students to walk away with.  But will the availability of hyperlinks actually instruct students in the way of connections?  Again, I am skeptical.

If the critique of tourists is that they mindlessly follow their Baedeker, how is this different from blandly clicking a link that is provided for them?  Research is about asking searching questions and then probing for answers by wandering down avenues that may or may not lead someplace worthwhile.  Web links are quite literally a beaten track.

Tourists follow their Baekdeker in Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Of course, others are every bit as excited by hypertext as is Knoles.  Robert Maloy, Michelle Poirier, Hilary K. Smith, and Sharon A. Edwards, all involved in a K-12 history and social science curriculum project at U-Mass, for example, are certainly jazzed by the range of materials that they can provide to teachers and students via their wiki.  “Hyperlinks are one of the most powerful components of wiki technology,” they write.  “Paper-based historical information cannot provide instantaneous movement to a range of documents and perspectives.”

This is true, but then, what if the pedagogical value comes from pushing students to engage in their own movement?  Historical enquiry is about getting up and moving, about figuring out which site/sight to visit and how to read it for oneself.  Placing a link on a page is to instill that link with a particular meaning simply by including it.  Context drives interpretation, it makes its own argument.

You will only know what is down the street if you actually walk there.

When Maloy et al emphasize “connections to widely recognized public information sources—governmental agencies, historical organizations, museums and libraries, and educational institutions” while minimizing access to Wikipedia or to profit-making dot-com sites that feature advertising for commercial purposes” they make choices for the student.  They define what the student will see and how s/he will see it.  They play Baedeker.

To an extent the same is true of these authors’ discussion of “whose history” should be covered.  Historians inherently act as guides.  They create narratives and interpretations.  They give specific order to information and so tell people how to read it.  College-level history should be about making students aware of this and about helping them to begin making their own connections, building their own tours.  Is it possible to use technology to escape such strictures?  Knoles argues yes, but she then contradicts herself by outlining a how-to guide for building a package tour.

There is one final irony in Knoles’ use of the old tourist/traveller trope.  Computers keep us at home, pulling us away from the eye opening, life altering, spirit affirming experience of travel.  They wed us to inauthenticity and invite us to experience it as authentic.  They make us armchair travelers protected from the realities of life outside of the box.  They make us tourists in our own homes.

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Journey Into the Valley of the Academicus

I had not intended to spend so much time among the Homo Academicus.  Yet, my ship wrecked, all means of escape seemingly cut off, I was stuck there.   They were hospitable enough, not anxious to drive me from their tribe, and so I stayed.  Eating their food (supplied by an outside tribe called the Sodexos).  Watching them.  Jotting down their behaviors in a little black notebook that I kept squirreled away in my old moth eaten messenger bag.

To the best of my knowledge, few observers have spent so much time among this peculiar people.  To be sure, the great explorer Pierre Bourdieu made a journey similar to mine, but that was many years before.  I recall that he found them a curious bunch, set in their ways, always forcing their young charges to leap through ceremonial hopes and coming of age rituals that might challenge the patience of those not of their kind.

What can be said of them now?

My jottings can hardly do them justice as their complexity is quite beyond my meager ability to express in words.  I can say that they are perhaps more prone to navel gazing and self-assessment than are other tribal peoples with whom I am acquainted.

Take for example Homo Conveniencestorius.  This group goes about its business without any great ceremony.  They distribute chips and soda and dust-encrusted hot dogs with nary a second thought.

Or Homo Truckerus.  Although one might imagine that long hours spent migrating from place to place would engender self-referential thought to an extent unknown among other groups, such behavior is seldom exhibited.

Homo Academicus is different.  These people relentlessly ask: “Who am I?  What do I do?  What is my family group?  What differentiates my family group from others?  What traits do I have in common and what differs between myself, my group?  Are those my feet?”  It is really quite dizzying.

In one instance, a would-be chieftain whom I shall call Unsworth, went so far as to express his interrogations in terms of “primitives.”  [The Academicus like to use such terminology.]  He claimed that all members of the Homo Academicus engage in “discovering, annotating, comparing, referring,” and a host of other behaviors.

My observations showed him to be quite right.  Indeed, he was not alone is seeking to define similarities.  A sub-tribe, the Harvardians of Cambridge, even issued a proclamation drawing attention to the many common features of this people.  It appears that they were anxious to make converts because in their case the goal was evidently to recruit new members.  The features, which they called “skills,” were said to be beneficial for all things—though such widespread applicability definitely caused doubt among more practically minded tribes such as the Homo Politicus, the Homo Reporterus, and the Homo Studentikus.

Yet there were those members of the tribe who seemed truly dubious of Unsworth, seeking instead to differentiate themselves from those around them.  The Historiani, the Literatti, and certainly the Philosophicalitus all claimed to think differently, to see the world around them in different ways, to ask different questions, to wonder at different things.  They often did this with reference to different “lenses.”  (I could not make heads or tails of this word, though it was just one of many they found useful.  For example, a number of members always wanted to “unpack” a “notion,” “gut” a book, or “massage” an idea.  The vagaries of local dialects cannot help but excite the observant traveller!)

I stood agape at it all.  Certainly there seemed to be inter-tribal political motivations behind such claims.  Each sub-group of the Academicus had turf to fight for, after all.  It was not so much that they sought mates as others might—although that was probably part of the underlying motivation—but rather that they were relentlessly interested in resources.

This too was a paradox, though not one that I can go into.  On one hand, the Academicus actually seemed to spurn material wealth, yet on the other hand they spoke of it endlessly, forever claiming to be overlooked, undervalued, unloved.

But the perplexing thing about the Homo Academicus were the conflicting interpretations of the message delivered by Unsworth and his ilk.  Even as the Academicus sought to divide themselves, they were almost equally prone to fits of fashion.  They liked to form alliances.  They enjoyed claiming that while different, they are really the same.  They stressed that their different skills, if combined, might offer real truth—for they were endlessly concerned with the search of truth (though some wondered if it was achievable or even if it exists at all).

As the months passed and I kept up my observations and note-taking, I witnessed the formation of a new alliance that the Academicus called “digital humanities.”  This curious term grew from the mutual affection its members had for various digital tools and software developed by the Homo Technicus, a neighboring people.

Of course, even as the alliance seemed to form, the relentless navel gazing took root.  They questioned what the alliance was, what it should do, how it should do it, and more.  There was an effort to draw in the idea that all “humanists,” for that is what they called themselves, are much the same.  Others were less sure.  It went on and on, a kind of dance, but for what purpose I could not tell.  Clearly, this sort of personality crisis is a defining trait.

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When my rescue finally came and I was able to escape back into the loving embrace of my homeland, I imagined that I could see the beginnings of new alliances and the breaking apart of the one that I had seen form.  For fashion really is the thing among the Academicus.  I imagine that they will not ignore their digital tools—much as knives continue to be used long after the Bronze and Iron Ages—but it does seem to me that perhaps the great dance in which they engaged during my stay might soon be surpassed by the hip new thing, held onto lovingly only by an aging elite who came of age during the heyday of the alliance.

Of course, I did not stay to find out if I surmised correctly.  There was only so much I could take.