How To: Designing Digital History
Like it or not, the truth is that good design matters. Dan Cohen points out that digital history must be useful and used – useful because users can explore and learn from digital projects, and used because users utilize the resource and spread the word about the project. We’ve all probably stumbled upon poor websites with eye-straining backgrounds, flashing items, text and images spread everywhere, and a lack of a coherent layout or navigation (check out some of the pages featured on Web Pages that Suck).
The most basic element of web design is HTML, and making things look good on the user’s end may require some use of CSS, which defines how HTML elements are displayed in web browsers. In addition to understanding how web elements work, historians can also use the help of library sciences and computer sciences to assist them in web design (thank you!). Several open source tools are also available to help historians design their own projects.
FIrefox web browser: If you’re not using Firefox, you should be. For starters, Firefox is far more secure and is good at blocking spyware and mal-ware from installing on your computer. Users can also install extensions and plugins to Firefox to add and improve features on the web browser. (Some day maybe I’ll write up a post on all the plugins I use on my Firefox browser).
Photoshop: Or its open-source and free alternative, GIMP. Photoshop/GIMP is a graphics editing software package that allows users to author graphics, edit images, or convert image formats. Photoshop is far more powerful that GIMP, and GIMP isn’t necessarily a Photoshop clone. But for basic image work, GIMP is an excellent tool if one can’t afford the pricetag on or have access to Photoshop.
Oxygen XML Editor or XML Marker: eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is designed for sharing and structuring data on the web that allows users to define mark-up elements. For example, a newspaper article of mine looks like this (slightly abbreviated):
The document conforms to Text Encoding Initiative standards. Most importantly, XML defines the elements behind my newspaper article and preserves the original text. My editorial decisions for tagging elements has little impact on the text itself. My site makes the XML code freely available for users so they can download the source files and edit them and use them as they need.
Web Style Guide: The web style guide is an indispensable resource for learning about web design and thinking about design basics. This is another must-have resource as you design digital history projects.
Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Designing for the History Web”: Every beginning digital historian should read Digital History before starting their projects, but this chapter especially is important for thinking about project design and sustainability. I haven’t touched on sustainability in this post, which is a topic Brent and/or I will probably visit soon. If there’s no sustainability of a project, then pouring your energy into information architecture is meaningless. Nevertheless, this resource from two historians is excellent for thinking about good design.
The design process is just that – a process. There is no single framework that will apply to designing projects, and the design of a site is likely to undergo several transformations and redesigns. I like the current design of my digital project, which you can view here on our developmental server, though I doubt this is the final draft of my design – this is only what I’ve been able to put together in the last four months (note the construction is still on-going, so not everything works). I’m also experimenting with some Web 2.0 ideas that I would like to implement into my project so users can query, search, and manipulate material.
Don’t try and reinvent the wheel with digital history design. At this stage, I think the important thing is to get your digital scholarship on the web without wasting time and money on design. It might also be time to start taking advantage of prior digital scholarship and build off of projects that already exist. For instance, digital historians might find a new argument to make out of the material at the Valley of the Shadow.
The best way to learn this stuff, I’ve found, is to experiment through trial and error. Embrace the technology and don’t be afraid to dive in.
Do you have any other advice on design or useful tools? Leave a note in the comments or drop me an email.