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.