01 Feb

The common thread throughout the readings and in class tonight was communication.  Communicating with our audience, communicating with each other, and communicating clearly.  Historians traditionally communicate through books and articles.  Now we have the option, or maybe opportunity, to translate history from those books and articles to a digital format.  I think, as I begin the process, I need to really understand WHY I want to translate my work into the digital realm.  What makes the digital presentation better or more effective than the traditional format?  Is it merely accessibility?  Or are there other reasons?  I don’t have any answers now, but these are some of the questions I’ll try to answer over the course of the semester.  (I’ll also try to define my questions more clearly.)

The Polyglot Manifesto II holds that knowing more than one language enhances our understanding of our own language seems straighforward at first.  But what does it mean for historians?  Does understanding XML and CSS help us understand how to explain our work to a layperson?  Or is it the fact that we can make our work pretty?  I think it’s not so much that knowing the language of the Internet allows us to communicate better, but instead understanding design and aesthetics.  People are more willing to forgive design flaws if it’s pretty*, but there still needs to be good design to get to “pretty.”

Yet there is a major pitfall here, too.  If we believe that design and aesthetics will help us communicate, we run the risk of depending on design to cover a lack of historical rigor.  We still have to be historians and do the work.  To me the big concern is to find the right balance between design and academic competence.

It seems to me that what we’re going to learn this semester is how to translate our work from the familiar format of a paper to the less familiar terrain of the Internet.  But I still need to understand why it would be necessary or desirable.  And “I had to for class” just doesn’t cut it.

*According to Daniel Donald Norman’s “Attractive Things Work Better”, anyway.


Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Readings


11 responses to “Communication

  1. Stevie

    February 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    So, since I have your permission to post, even though I’m not in your class and really only have half an idea of what’s going on, I’m going to post.

    I think in order to understand the difficulties with making the transition to a digital medium, one must first understand why there is a disconnect between aesthetics and function to begin with. I didn’t completely read ‘Attractive Things Work Better’ (because I’m not in grad school and I don’t have to) but I did peruse it.

    Norman is obviously a right-brained individual. He thrives on creativity and aesthetics—basically to him, pretty is more important than function. A lot of people—and I think most historians tend to be included in this—are left-brained individuals. To them, logic, function, and the written word are more important.

    The transition from the written word to the digital realm must cater to both. Just because there are plenty of people that may forgive design flaws if it’s pretty, doesn’t mean everyone will (I know I wouldn’t). In order to achieve this balance, you (or anyone else trying to make this transition) will need to focus on which you find more important—which I hope is the history—and then add pretty stuff later, so it accentuates the history. This can be done in a variety of ways, depending on what your project is actually on, but you shouldn’t create “pretty” then try to fit some history in. It should be the other way around—at least for anyone that wants to be considered historically sound.

    • zaynawoman

      February 2, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      You make excellent points, but the biggest one to me is where “pretty” fits into the equation. It seems to me that form must follow function. I need to make sure the history and analysis come to the fore without 1) boring people into leaving the site and 2) having an ugly site. I don’t want to associate my name with a bad website, but I really don’t know (yet) how to get to a GOOD website that is historically sound.

  2. Lynn

    February 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    I agree with both of you. Let’s use the analogy of a person: you may see a person that you think is very attractive. You talk to them and realize that are a class-A jerk. As the minutes tick by, your opinion of them visually plummets and is overshadowed. On the other hand, a person you may have never even noticed can shine through their personality and become more attractive through their non-shallow attributes. In other words, if a website is really “pretty” but is difficult to to use, I will not take the time to figure it out. I want a website that is sound in historical information and function.
    For me, “pretty” design means a size font I can read, navigation I can figure out immediately, and a non-cluttered page. All that other stuff is just useless fluff. Unfortunately, for some people, useless fluff is what makes something “pretty.” (Just watch some reality television!)

    • zaynawoman

      February 2, 2011 at 8:13 pm

      @Lynn – That’s what I’m trying to get at – I privilege function over form, but at what point have I gone too far? I can make a functional website that’s just black text on a white background. Will you read it? Not likely. But if I take the same information and present it with a colored background and contrasting text, break it into sections, make a clickable table of contents, add images and links, that becomes a much more usable site. If I go too far, though, with too much division, too much clicking around to get to content, so many images the text becomes incoherent, it’s now so over-designed that it’s is nonfunctional. We’ve all seen and had to use sites falling all along the spectrum and we all know which balance of form versus function we prefer. I would prefer to not go as far as the reality TV version!

  3. Lisa C

    February 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    I suppose I looked at the Polyglot posts a bit differently, as a call to expand my notions about how to present history more dynamically, more interactively, ‘translating’ my research in a variety of ways and letting the reader decide how to access it. I’m a bit stodgy and my mind’s a little inflexible right now. But I have high hopes…

    I share your concern that placing your focus on aesthetics may indicate to a web audience that your scholarship has suffered, may be less reliable, or even that you’re “dumbing down” your topic. But I don’t want to just slap a research paper up online with some snazzy images and fancy borders, either. I really don’t think the web will replace books, but I definitely want to broaden my horizons and my audience.

  4. erika

    February 2, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    In ruminating on this on how form is sometimes more important than function, that is that design is more valued than content, I wonder if we’re not forgetting that as writers, we also value the feel of a well turned sentence, and have probably been distracted by the beauty of the words that the thinness of the argument occurs to us only later. That is to say it is easy to get caught up in pretty words and forget whether or not there is a “there” there when we read them. Consider this – -which would we rather read, a popular easily read and well edited volume, or one that is earnestly written, overly detailed, and ornate constructed? We’ve all read both, and I know I certainly prefer the former. Traditional writing, even tho’ its not as visual and interactive as digital venues, still requires well executed design if it is to be accessible. And thus while I’m not saying the future is the past and its all been done before, I do think these arguments about design over function and quality have to be tempered a bit.

  5. Clayton Farrington

    February 5, 2011 at 12:24 am

    Although I will give up my 300+ books when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers, unlike Lisa C, I think books are every bit as endangered as newspapers, and I do think the time is coming in which books will first be published in digital form. For newspapers, we know that the ‘paper’ part of it has been dwindling for years. The format and function of the newspaper, however, remains. Great works of history will still be published as the years march onward, but I foresee a time in which a footnote will simply not be enough for the average reader, particularly when the cited item in question is a video or an oral history. We all must migrate to the digital medium because our readers, not to mention our peers, will demand it.

    For a book as well as a web site, I think the determining factor in the form/functionality debate over viability is whether someone will return to it once they have perused it. It does not matter how much effort (and cool flash animation) as been injected into a site, if it only has one story to tell (regardless of how creatively it is told), I think it does not take advantage of the incredible possibilities the digital medium offers. To paraphrase Lynn, intuitiveness beats aesthetics any day.

  6. Carrie Tallichet

    February 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I think you bring up a point that we should all keep in mind as we continue to work on our websites – it is important for these sites to be attractive, but the form/design cannot carry the content. And I think you’re right to ask how will utilizing the web be fundamentally different from and an improvement on “analog” history? To an extent, clarity may come from greater familiarity – as we continue to learn about the tools available to us, we may gain more perspective on how to best adapt history to the digital world.


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