H697 Inaugural Post

A new semester, a new category of blog posts for a course. This spring, the course in question is H697: Creating History in New Media.

The readings for this week make the point that deign is an important aspect of the presentation of information. Norman uses science to prove to us that “attractive things work better,” explaining how emotion impacts our reasoning and creative processing. Happy people think creatively and find new solutions, unhappy people keep hitting the same button and have trouble coming up with alternatives. The authors of White Space is Not Your Enemy demonstrate how an effective design facilitates acquisition of information, and bad design interferes, or worse makes people bypass your information altogether.

Visual presentation is important. We all know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and yet most of us do, in fact, use cover design as a way to decide whether we even  pick the book up to give it a second glance, a read of the back cover. The study by Consumer Reports determined that, broadly speaking, the public assesses a website’s credibility based primarily on appearance.

There is, however, an interesting nugget of information hidden in the ConsumerReports. In second section, they break down results by website type. Nonprofit Web Sites had results which differed from the others “in provocative ways.” (( Page 73 )) The identity of the site operator and company motive mattered far more with nonprofits than any of the other site categories in the study. This does not mean design didn’t matter, on the contrary the percentage of comments indicating design importance are up there with identity. What it means, to me, is that we have to remember that the content and the design must complement each other, working in harmony and not opposition.

Hopefully, this idea is obvious, that the design should be informed by the content, and work intelligently with it. Yet there are times when people get so caught up in the latest technological possibility (oh, say, Flash), and forget to consider whether it works for their project.

To put it another way: my other background, besides history, is theatre. Ideally, the set, costumes, props, lights, and sound all work together to create a coherent art design for the show, even if they are designed by different people. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you get one dissonant element which throws off the whole feeling, not only of the design but of the play. I grew up with a very good local theatre which just could not do Shakespeare because every show had one design element which just didn’t work; for example, the dark-colored, mid-20th century styled Macbeth which was vaguely noir-until a messenger came onstage in a bright neon biking outfit. One bad choice can disrupt a host of good ones.

For history in new media, then, we need to be aware of our design. It should facilitate the concepts, hopefully evoke positive emotions in the user, and be internally consistent. Always remember to think twice about the neon bike shorts (metaphorically speaking).

Required Addendum: I commented on Sheri’s post Credibility, Creativity, and Competence in Digital History.