Category Archives: Reading Blog for History 697

Reading Blog 8 (History 697): Just How Active Should Interactive Be?

The search for a dialectical, interactive, historically focused  Web paradigm that enhances a user’s ability to experience history online still seems to have eluded us.  And by “us,” I mean those historians who believe in the necessity of the visual component to enhance our understanding and experience of history.  I agree fully with Joshua Brown’s contention that “[o]ur consciousness of the past is inextricably bound by pictures”; but I am equally sympathetic to his lamentation in the same 2004 article, “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace,” that “multimedia has failed to coalesce into a new form and still operates as a fragmented collection of different types of information.”  At the time Brown published this article, Edward Ayers’s remarkably innovative and groundbreaking Valley of the Shadows Web site was a mere 10 years old. Ayers and his colleagues had struggled to form a new type of  online “language” through multimedia that would allow users to interact with (albeit poorly) scanned images of primary-source documents assembled in a such a way that they — the users — could ascertain the nature of the historians’ argument in the absence of a stated thesis. In other words, Ayers and company were seemingly trying to make pseudo-historians of the interactive Web user, an effort that I still applaud. But Ayers’s efforts, in my estimation (and as as Brown further attested), fell flat — unfortunately. More than a decade later,  the Valley of the Shadows site is still up and running with virtual galleries (like The Lost Museum site) that allow users to move through the evidence (now no longer scanned but transcribed) in a sequence of his or her choosing. But the historian’s “heavy hand” must intercede at some point to distill in narrative form the essential aspects of the argument. Thus, we as historians cannot seem to escape the need to engage in what Brown termed the “resolutely textual” nature of the historical argument. I wish I had the answer to this conundrum, but I don’t.

Like Joshua Brown, I am a firm advocate of marrying up the textual with the visual in order to communicate a historical argument more effectively. In previous blogs, I explained how I struggled with two different publishers to include as many maps and photographs as possible into my two World War II-themed books and how the Web has helped to cast off the strictures of such cost-based limitations. But how can we interweave the textual and the visual in an interactive way on the Web that will bring a new experience to the historically interested user? I struggled with this problem as I planned my Final Project for the course. How could I marry my visual representations to my argument in a unique way?  First of all, I recognized that I could not escape the textually based nature of an argument presented in a traditional linear form.  The closest I could come to allowing a user to select the flow of the argument was by organizing the different parts of my text into discrete hyperlinks arranged at the top of my Web page.  Users could begin with the introduction or conclusion and then work through the argument thematically in a sequence of their choosing.  But I could not get away without embedding notes into the main body of the text to ensure that my analysis remained clearly grounded in primary- and secondary-source material. In effect, I was simply adapting a monograph-style format to a Web-based structure. Not much innovation there.

Where my Web-based argument took on a new dimension, though, was in how I planned to use images to illustrate the impact of my historical assertions. Since my analysis focused on the Army’s print-media campaign to sustain all soldiers’ motivation to fight and win, the visual impact of presenting images of the print products themselves would add a new dimension of insight into my argument. I selected high-quality digital images that I took of the many print sources I owned and sprinkled them strategically and carefully throughout each page of my Web site.  The positive effect exceeded my expectations; the illustrations added greatly to the substance of my argument. But the one problem nagging me was that a user could not interact with the images by enhancing them or manipulating them. I researched Zoomify and found that the technique of enlarging specific details of each cover of The Stars and Stripes, YANK: The Army Weekly, and Army Talks was not what I wanted for my users (but Zoomify is really cool for things like maps, so I’m keeping it handy for future Web projects!). I wanted my users to see enhanced — but complete — versions of these publications’ covers so that they could understand the collective effect and visual impact of how the Army made them appeal to the average soldier. I decided, for interactivity purposes , that I would try the gallery approach and include images that, when selected, would jump to a page with a larger (but not overly large) version of the publication so that the user could more fully appreciate the combined use of the headlines, photographs, and feature stories unique to each edition.  The downside was that I had to create separate HTML pages (12 in all!), each with the larger image that I linked to the smaller image located on the gallery page. The final effect was worth the effort, though.  My user audience now had two interactive features on the Web site: (1) sequencing choices using the navigation bar, and (2) the ability to view 12 enhanced versions of the publications referenced in my historical argument.  But was I offering enough interactive options to keep a user engaged? Hard to say. I’m a rank amateur at the Web-site trade, and I’m still learning. Perhaps audio and video clips from period news reports would further enhance the argument and a sense of the historical period that I’m describing. But those approaches are well beyond my abilities right now. Search features and surveys seem okay, but I’m not sure they would be useful for my Final Project Web site. The gallery seems to be my best option for the moment.

In sum, Joshua Brown’s 2004 assertion that we have yet to crack the code on a new Web-based “language” to communicate history more effectively on the Web still holds true today.  We’ve certainly made some great strides thanks to software enhancements over the years, but I’m having a difficult time envisioning a replacement to that medium with which we historians communicate our historical arguments most effectively — the book.  The ability to add many more illustrations, photographs, and other visual representations to enhance our Web-based historical arguments is a step in the right direction, and I’m excited to see what I can feature in future Web sites. But finding a new “Web language” that will take us to the next level seems daunting at best.  We can only keep trying to find it through experimentation. Onward!

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 7 (History 697): Maximizing Accessibility for All Comers

The readings for this week — from Joe Clark’s “How Do Disabled People Use Computers” to WebAim’s 10 accessibility tips to Mark Pilgrim’s “Dive into Accessibility” — all brought to the fore for me the importance of taking deliberate steps to make our historically focused Web sites accessible to all comers.  Joe Clark helped set the stage by defining the operative terms inherent in discussing various disabilities, and Mark Pilgrim’s personalized vignettes drove the nature of those disabilities home for me. But of the various disabilities discussed,  I was most struck by the remarkable challenges faced by blind people. During Clio-Wired I last semester, I sat next to a fellow PhD student who is blind, Andrew Salamone, and learned from him the obstacles he faced in making sense of online visualizations. His struggles with several of the digital tools we used further highlighted the significant challenges he and other visually impaired Web users face each day.  Although Andrew was able to do nearly all of the work in Clio-Wired I quite well, to include making effective use of several visually based digital tools such as Voyant, I witnessed his frustration at not being able to make sense of other tools that could have been accessible  if certain digital guideposts had been in place to help him . Those types of digital guideposts became much clearer to me after reading through “Dive into Accessibility,” WebAim’s 10 accessibility tips, and Paul Ryan Bohman’s unique CSS code that hides HTML needed for blind people from the visual users of the Web site.  In effect, they amounted to a word-based “breadcrumb trail” within and among the HTML that turned visualizations into word pictures for the blind.

After reading these various pieces, I opened the draft version of my Final Project Web site for Clio-Wired II and began examining my HTML code for ways to enhance accessibility for blind people. Bohman’s hidden HTML coding was a bit more involved than my novice coding skills permitted, so I went straight for WebAim’s 10 accessibility tips and began evaluating my site against those guidelines. A few of them did not apply, but I seized on three that I worked into my site immediately: adding captions to all images, adding basic landmarks, and making the title page into an “<h1>.”  First, I ensured that all of the images I used (mostly magazine or newspaper cover images from World War II publications) had a clear title and date so that a visually impaired user would know what I had placed alongside my text. What proved infeasible, though, was a lengthy word description of each image, which would have significantly altered the site’s visual and design impact. Next, I ensured that my main page began with an <h1> header and then cascaded downward with <h2> headers and so on. These headers would make clear the structure of the main page and each subsequent page to someone who had to navigate the site based on these guideposts. Lastly, I ensured that my navigation, body, and paragraph sections were all clearly marked  so that they fell under the appropriate headers. For the most part,  I simply needed to “clean up” and organize my HTML  and CSS code carefully and then validate it for errors. Lastly, I  reviewed my changes against WebAim’s 10 tips and felt satisfied that I had made some decent progress toward making my site reasonably accessible for visually impaired users.

After uploading my changes to my online Web page, I evaluated the site’s accessibility by plugging my URL into WebAim’s WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool ( The results were much better than I expected. For example, on my main (home) page, I had only three errors on a red alert bar, primarily because my alternative text for each of the page’s three images was insufficient.  Clearly, my captions were not suitable; but, if I expanded the captions’ text significantly in the HTML, I would alter the visual design of my page. In this case, Bohman’s hidden HTML would likely come in handy, so I will explore that possibility in greater detail later. I received one “green” feature (a kudo!) for having clearly labeled my navigation bar, but I also received one “yellow” alert for each of my navigation links, because my HTML mentions each one twice in the code. That redundancy might be useful to a visually impaired user, so I decided to leave it in place.  I also received one “blue” (or positive) alert on each of my headings (<h1>, etc.) for having identified each one clearly and making the structure clear. The last alert was a “red” word-bubble icon that, when clicked, told me that I had not identified the site’s language (English, French, etc.).  First, I need to figure out how to do it. More to follow!

Overall, the few simple adjustments I made to my code actually made my site reasonably accessible to someone who is visually impaired.  Naturally, my site does not use complicated logos or visualizations, and those areas (like my cover images) need the greatest attention.  My charter for the near future is to figure out how to “crack that code” (no pun intended!) and make my project site as accessible as possible.

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 6 (History 697): When Does Photograph Tinkering Cross the Line?

I am fascinated with the various techniques that Photoshop offers for restoring, colorizing, and aging photographs and images. The possibilities and variations seem endless. In many instances, the techniques are fairly simple, such as Cameron Moll’s guidelines for adding wear to images and photographs — all to create that ‘wicked worn look.’  But other techniques demonstrated in the tutorials on restoring and coloring photographs seem a bit more complex  and challenging. Up to this point, I’ve tinkered in Photoshop with cropping and coloring photographs and matting a cartoon-style poster image. My results have been mixed, principally because the functions of the various layers  are not always clear to me.  But, more importantly,  I find that the tutorials are often using earlier versions of Photoshop that don’t quite line up with the 2014 version that I’m using. The newer version seems to have made changes or, for the expert designers, “improvements” in the functionality of the software. For a novice like me, those differences all add up to some level of confusion. For me, overcoming that confusion becomes the real challenge.

Photoshop’s ability to alter images and photographs not only sparks my imagination at the seemingly  endless design and restoration possibilities, but it also gives me pause. At what point does tinkering with the integrity of a photograph cross the line? And by “line,” I mean the complete alteration of what the original photographer intended to capture, or what he or she ended up actually capturing, in the original photograph. My fear is that anyone, particularly historians, can go into Photoshop and alter an image significantly by erasing content, shifting the subjects’ positions or poses, replacing backgrounds, etc. And these things are happening now throughout the world for propaganda reasons. Just look at the images of missile tests thrust upon the world by Iran. We now know the Iranians altered those images significantly in order to create a false impression that hid the failures inherent in those launches.  Detecting altered images seems to be a more daunting task today as the software becomes more sophisticated and new techniques emerge, such as Cameron Moll’s ‘worn’ methods.  Who’s to say if that photograph of a flying saucer is real or “Photoshopped”?  I know imagery experts in the Department of Defense who tell me that altered digital photographs are becoming nearly impossible to detect. Or maybe there really are aliens visiting us! I think a couple of them may be working for me.

My concern  with the tinkering of photographs in the historical realm clearly concerns an ethical code that I believe is inviolable. To what degree should a historian alter or restore a photograph used to supplement a historical argument? At what point might such “image tinkering” be deemed revisionist? Granted, photographs begin decomposing and changing within seconds of the shutter’s click.  But I think that we historians take comfort today in the fact that most photographs taken before 1995 existed almost solely on film, which is much more difficult to alter significantly without detection. If we want to tinker with one of these film-based images, we must digitize it. But we can feel secure in the fact that the unaltered negative still exists as a frame of reference. But what about those post-1995 (my date is a bit arbitrary here) images that exist strictly in the digital medium? How will we ever know what the original looked like?  The scenario that plays over and over in my mind is this one: What if digital-image technology existed during World War II? Could a historian today who happens to be a Holocaust denier go into a nationally archived digital collection of World War II photographs and possibly alter some of them to support his or her revisionist inclinations? I know that this scenario seems far-fetched, but people have attempted to do similarly outlandish things to influence the historical record. A few years ago, Sandy Berger, a former member of the Clinton Administration,  pilfered from the National Archives several potentially incriminating documents in the name of his old boss, President Clinton.  Naturally, Berger was caught. But for every  “document thief” the archivists have caught, how many others have been successful? What would keep someone from possibly deleting or altering a digital image forever?

For me, the ethics of photograph alteration in the context of historical representation are clear: Do as little tinkering as possible. If someone colorizes an old black-and-white photograph as part of a business-related Web site, then I see no problem. The design principles behind creating an eye-catching Web design for most folks should be obvious. But tinkering with an old photograph by a historian who intends to use it in support of a historical argument requires much greater care and discretion. If the restoration or other tinkering helps to clarify the image’s original content, then so be it — as long as the historian overtly and clearly documents those alterations. Anything beyond that approach is, for me, strictly taboo. As historians, our ethics must remain above reproach, especially as we venture into the digital history realm, where sometimes not all is as it may seem.

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 5 (History 697): Image Power

Images are extremely powerful, especially clearly rendered, well-framed photographs.  My belief is that historians who make no attempt to marry up the written word with visual representations  of their period often fail in their craft. The written word can only take our mind’s eye so far; images fill gaps and excite our imaginations. As anyone can tell from my Typography site, photographs of actual events or period artifacts (such as front-page newspaper headlines or period magazine covers) are very important to my efforts to bring the interested reader / user into the fold. And, like Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golumbisky aver, content and image quality for photographs on Web sites mean everything (H&G, 136-138).  Simple, clearly represented subjects — in either color or black and white — can set a powerful tone not only for the Web site but also for the history the site represents.  I tinkered with using as a background image for my site a landing craft filled with GIs approaching Omaha Beach on the morning of 6 June 1944. I was unaware of what to expect; but, once I loaded the image, I was astonished to discover how powerful that photograph’s composition proved to be for the subject of my site. The image gave me (and hopefully my soon-to-be users) the feeling that I was on that landing craft with those men heading on a direct journey into history.  If not for the quality of that image, the composition skill of the photographer,  and the image’s immediately recognizable subject matter, the background would not have worked so well. And, frankly, it was dumb luck on my part — but I learned something new about Web-site design and the power of good, effective images from that “tinkering” exercise.

My desire to marry up imagery with historical narrative has had a long and frustrating history.  But I’m happy to say that both the Web and digital history more broadly have offered an effective solution. As the author of two books on World War II subjects, I selected for each book no fewer than 40 photographs for inclusion in each final published work.  In both cases, my publishers came back with the standard response: cut the photograph count in half.  Why? Money. Photographs were expensive to reproduce in hardcover books. Fewer photographs meant a bigger bottom line. In both instances, I fought with my editors to keep as many of the pictures as possible. These images were not run-of-the-mill, stock photographs but unpublished, never-before-seen images that I spent years locating and linking to my  historical analysis.  But my appeals to “good history” fell on deaf  ears. And, yes, these publishing houses were of the peer-reviewed, academic sort. Go figure.  More astonishingly,  they tried to get me to cut down heavily on the ultimate “infographic” for military historians — the map.  For my last book, I spent hundreds of man-hours creating a dozen maps that were anything but “window dressing” for the book.  They were critical to the narrative by “delivering content,” as Hagen and Golumbisky explain, in a way that words often cannot do (H&G, 160).

But today, the ability to do history on the Web opens up many, many possibilities in the visual realm, most notably the ability to supplement printed history tomes with more and more images made available on the Web at little to no cost.  Thanks to Clio-Wired II, I can actually build a somewhat respectable Web site; and, in the near future, I plan to construct a site for each of my books that will allow me to post those photographs (and some maps) that didn’t make the cut. Many members of my reading audience have contacted me through my Facebook page; therefore, I plan to add the Web links there in order to reach out to readers past and present with a plethora of images that can further enhance their understanding of the history I worked so hard to convey in my books.  In fact, some publishers are starting to establish such sites to coincide with their hard-copy publications.  These publishers seem to be using these sites to provide the reading public with more images, maps, and frequently omitted bibliographies. A good deal all around.

The ethics of using photographs and other images in the service of the historical narrative is also of particular importance to me. Granted, Hagen and Golumbisky state that the photographic ethics of “truth, accuracy, fairness[,] and balance” (H&G, 144) are not as important for images used in advertising.  Fair enough. But I think  you can still get into trouble if you take license with any image — no matter the purpose behind its use. As historians who are now moving into the Web’s digital arena, we need to play it “straight” in all instances. In other words, we have to balance strictly our desire to “advertise” our sites using good design imagery with the historical message we are trying to send.  In other words, the desire to entice users to our sites might come into conflict with our choices of proper photographic imagery.  The eye-catching image may not always be the best choice. If we are good historians, then we are trying to advance an argument with imagery and the written word. For some people, though, our arguments may seem “propagandized” and adorned with images that appear to advance one version to the exclusion of another. The potential result is the same situation that Errol Morris discusses in “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock” regarding Arthur Rothstein’s dust-bowl photograph of the cow’s skull.  The image is eye-catching, simple, and powerful — and it advanced a political point of view favorable to FDR’s administration. In other words, it became sheer propaganda.  As historians, we cannot afford such branding. More mundane, ‘un-staged’ photographs of dust-bowl life would have been more historically accurate but probably not as evocative. Where’s the balance? Do we want to attract readers to our subject matter at all costs? The scholarly message can get lost in the imagery if the imagery itself comes into question.  In other words, a bad picture can implode a brilliantly insightful, well-crafted historical narrative.  I know of one instance in which a misidentified, and somewhat misrepresented, photograph in an otherwise excellent history of a particular World War II battle caused the book’s credibility to collapse. The author is a friend, and the damage done by that judgment error still haunts him today. As historians, we must exercise extreme care in how we choose images for our Web sites and use them in the service of our historical arguments. I love good, crisp images, especially black-and-white photographs that are rich in detail.  But I recognize fully that, in some cases, I might have to choose the lesser quality image over the more “design-worthy” image simply because that lesser image is more accurate and better serves the greater historical good.

Images are important and powerful, and the Web allows us to use as many as we want with wild abandon. And, for that very reason, we must be extremely cautious and demonstrate a scrupulousness that is beyond reproach.  Our historical subjects — and our reading public — deserve that kind of exemplary conduct.

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 4 (History 697): Blinded by the Science and Art . . . of Color!

Like most people, I like exciting color combinations that are evocative, attractive, and interesting.  In fact, stark contrast, a key rule proffered by Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golombisky (H&G, 132), tends to be the most exciting aspect of experiencing various color schemes.  And, as Robin Williams points out, nothing makes more sense in developing contrast than to employ the “amazing color wheel” (Williams, 96).  But for me, finding the right color palette to evoke a specific time period has been challenging, particularly for the period reflecting my primary research area of interest — World War II (1941-1945).

Hagen’s and Golombisky’s brief guidelines for selecting colors that evoke historical periods are useful but, in many ways, quite obvious (H&G, 120-121). They don’t address methods for finding color schemes that evoke periods in which color imagery was not omnipresent. The low-hanging fruit always tends to be the 1950s (turquoise and pink) or the 1970s (orange and avocado — yucch!).   We know of these color schemes because, by the mid- to late-1950s, color film was emerging and slowly eclipsing black-and-white film.  But during World War II, for reasons of wartime necessity,  black and white had become the exclusive domain of film, newspapers, and magazines. Color film and photography, although extant between 1941 and 1945, required too many critical materials needed for the war effort. In fact, Life magazine, America’s preeminent photographic periodical of the day, only used black and white photographs on its covers and in its interior layouts. For the most part, color pictures appearing on magazine covers throughout the war had been “colorized” by hand, giving them a “washed-out” appearance that subdued the colors’ effects. The overall impact of this situation was to to make black, white, and various shades of gray the dominant colors of the time period.

This black-and-white dominance, however, does not bode well for a Web-site design that seeks to attract users while still evoking the time period. Some color has to come through. One of the oft-used colors that appeared throughout the period was a dull, subdued red, which sometimes founds its way into the typography of some newspaper headlines and in other print media, particularly in Army-produced print magazines like YANK and Army Talks.  Vivid, cobalt blue, which exemplified the earlier 1930s art-deco period, carried over somewhat into the war years. For those reasons, I’ve settled on combinations of blue, red, gray, black, and white to evoke the World War II period. I’m not sure how my final product will appear, but at least black, white, and gray, according to Hagen and Golombisky, fall into the category of “works-every-time-colors,” so I think I’m on firm ground (H&G, 123). I used all of these colors in my portfolio page (minus the red), and they seemed to work well.  I tried to use the “Check my Colours” app to validate the color contrast on my Portfolio page, but I could not get the app to work properly. I guess I’ll just have to go with my “gut” and the good ole color wheel. I look forward to the final result.

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 3 (History 697): Going with the Flow . . . of Layout!

Of all the principles and elements of Web design that thematically dominated this week’s readings,  three of them have always been extremely important to me: color, focal point, and flow (or movement). Rebecca Hagen, Kim Golombisky, and Ellen Lupton all provide critical guidelines to Web design and layout that, in addition to the three I have already mentioned, are indisputably essential to what I want to see in a Web site that will keep me interested for longer than two minutes. These three principles and / or elements are what guided me in developing my Portfolio page; but, as I quickly learned, knowing what you want and making it a reality on a Web site are two different things.

Color is an important design element for me, but I dislike in-your-face, gaudy colorization that assaults the senses.  I like bold, striking, and contrasting colors. In a historical Web site, I want to see (and replicate in my own work) color schemes that evoke the period under examination. Moreover, if the theme is war ( in my case World War II), the site’s colors must reflect the gravity of that event and a sense of respect for the lives lost and sacrifices made by many, many people.  In my case, dealing with the subject of D-Day and media representations of that event, I feel torn between enhancing through color what the contemporary audience of 1944 could not see at the time or instead creating a pastiche of what “was.”  The black-and-white visualizations of that day — and the dreariness captured in grainy photographs taken on the assault beaches — have made me consider more subdued colors, like varying shades of gray. But eye-catching contrast is important, especially in coloring the typography. For the moment, I’ve settled on a color akin to cobalt blue; but, as a design principle, it seems to clash with Jakob Nielsen’s guidelines for visualizing links.  I have to rethink that design approach, because I don’t want my typography color to become a roadblock to the site’s flow and movement.

Focal point is equally important to me. I prefer photographic focal points that, in one image, capture the essence of the Web site’s subject matter and time period. Again, I don’t want a lot of images sprinkled across the page unless the page is intended to be an image gallery. If the page shares a good amount of text with the photograph, then one image will suffice as the focal point. And, for me, that image must be the entry point into the layout, a point reinforced by Hagen and Golombisky (H&G, 51). I prefer the focal point to be on the left or centered at the very top, because that image becomes the starting point for what I consider to be the third critical aspect of a good Web site: flow and movement.

Perhaps I’m getting lazier as I get older, but I don’t feel like doing a lot of work in order to figure out where I should go on  Web page.  I prefer to be led along the page by my “nose hairs” (sorry!) so that I read and grasp the nature and meaning of the content without bouncing around the page trying to figure it out. I don’t like “busy” Web pages, because I’m never sure after scanning them if I’ve understood what the Web-site author wanted to communicate. I like getting my information in “chunks” (an  adult learning principle, incidentally) that are easily digestible and crystal clear. Knowing that I can read everything on the page clearly and in the order the designer wanted me to see it is important to me. For me, the ideal flow is (1) title (masthead); (2) site outline (links that give me a quick sense of the site’s scale); (3) focal point for entering the text, preferably starting from the left side (because we read from left to right); and (4) the text in left-justified, ragged-right form, either straight across the page or in no more than two columns.

Web pages designed and organized along these areas — color, focal point, and flow — tend to work best for me. But I will admit that the more I read about good design and layout, the more I learn — and the more my preferences are likely to change and evolve.  I can’t wait to put these principles and elements into practical use!

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 2 (History 697): Negotiating the Typographical Jungle

Until I read Ellen Lupton’s and Robin Williams’s “essentials” for typography, I had no idea how much thought and effort went into selecting the right font for any written medium, not just the Web.  In fact, I always thought that the drop-down menu in Word offering scores of unique fonts were simply there to give people a chance to be creative and to play around with their documents. I never realized how critical a selected font could be to communicating more effectively and, in some cases, more convincingly.  But I’m not fully sold on  the example Errol Morris used in his New York Times piece in which a Canadian student, Phil Renaud, believed that his grades improved solely because he changed his font choice for all subsequent submissions — unless the contrast between his two fonts was remarkable. In this sense, I am more likely to believe Morris’s contention that a font like Baskerville would receive a more favorable response from a reading audience than Comic Sans, principally due to the contrasting nature of the two fonts and the implied aura of seriousness versus frivolity.  But now that I have made that statement, I realize that I, too, have always understood the importance of the right font — albeit subconsciously.

In reflecting on past font choices for written products that I have produced for the  Army, for publication in journals, and for publication in books,  I realized that the right font did in fact make a difference. Back in the day, the Army hammered us into using Times New Roman as the “approved” Army font because it ostensibly saved paper and was easier to read.  Like most of us emerging Word users back in the early to mid-1990s, we just shrugged and followed the guidelines. But over time, many of the documents I encountered written in Times New Roman were just plain tough to read. My eyes became tired after reading a few pages, and I began to dread reading anything in that font.  Many of my colleagues felt the same way.  When I took over the Army’s Inspector General (IG) School in 2003, I made a unilateral decision to switch to a font that was easier to read and more inviting to the eye: Arial. Granted, Lupton, Williams, and company have all panned Arial as an unwelcome stepchild in the font world, mainly because it scores low on the Lupton scale (legibility, flexibility, readability, etc.) (Lupton, 20).  However, when my school began producing procedural guides in Arial for IGs to use in the field, we found that those IGs were actually using them.  I can claim with great certainty that the guides’ “readability” — as well as internal design features we employed that channel many of Robin Williams’s guidelines — made our Army IG system more productive and effective.  In other words, IGs stopped free-lancing their approaches to problem-solving and instead stuck to the procedural guidelines in the texts. Readability and design were significant factors in the feedback we received from our field IGs, but I never realized until now the true importance of selecting Arial for those guides.  I did it simply because of my own personal preference. And now I feel compelled to revisit my school’s use of Arial and to apply what I learn in Clio-Wired II  to enhance the effectiveness of my school’s doctrinal publications. Maybe another font will prove to be even better?

Selecting a font for readability is one thing; selecting a font to evoke a specific time period is another.  I want my Web site to capture the time period that encompasses my dissertation topic: media and memory on D-Day, 6 June 1944.  Searching the Web for fonts that will capture the period and the seriousness of the war have proved daunting for me. Many of the fonts aligned with the 1940s seem to evoke that art-deco, nightclub motif with a vertical stress, much like the example for “Modern” used as an example by Robin Williams (Williams, 177).  I thought that I finally hit the mark when I ran across Gotham, which is a slab-serif font that seemed to suggest bold power and authority. Yet the more I looked at it, the less it worked for me. And then I realized that, since my topic would focus on the media’s impact on America’s memory of D-Day, I should try and capture both the 1940s as an era and the way print was presented in the media during that time — or was at least produced by war correspondents in the field.  These war correspondents used portable typewriters for everything. For that matter, the Army produced all of its orders, combat journals, and the like in precisely the same way. So I stumbled upon a unique font that seemed to fit the bill: JohnDoe. This font looked precisely like the type produced by those portable typewriters of the 1940s and gave a feel for both the media and military side of the war. But for headings, I found one that, in keeping with Robin Williams’s design principles,  contrasts  perfectly with JohnDoe: Headliner. Headliner captures perfectly the bold headlines splashed across the mastheads of most major newspapers on D-Day, many of which proclaimed in super-large letters “Invasion On!”  At least for now, I feel that I have settled on two good candidates to evoke the period of D-Day on my Web site. The real test will be to see if they accord with the design and typography principles outlined in our readings. I can’t wait to test them out!

Steve Rusiecki

Reading Blog 1 (History 697): Planning for Web-Based “Curb Appeal”

This week’s readings communicated quite clearly to me two critical themes associated with Web design: research and planning.  The four principles of good graphic design that Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golombisky espoused in their book White Space is Not Your Enemy struck me as the very things that draw me into a Web site and keep me there for, say, longer than a minute or two (H&G, 6). By nature, I don’t like to sit and stare at a screen. I prefer to hold something in my hand that I can read, touch, or mark up from the comfort of a rocking chair — and without light being pushed into my eyeballs. But I will spend time on a Web site if the designers have done the things Hagen and Golombisky advocate:  grab my attention, control where I look, communicate some kind of information, and evoke some level of interest or emotion.  In other words, I appreciate Web-based “curb appeal.” Although I’m a Web-design novice (in the most extreme sense of that word),  I fully appreciate the effort invested in good sites that do all of those things well instead of overwhelming my senses with gobs of images and unrelated content. In the context of Web-based history, I want to see sites that capture the atmosphere of the historical period through things like period-based design and typography; for me, that’s the emotional appeal, because I feel drawn into that historical period visually. I once heard this desire for historical immersion labeled as “nostalgic fetishism,” which made me feel a little strange. Apparently, I’m a fetishist!

In addition to these four design principles, my preferred Web site also needs to demonstrate many — if not all — of the 10 guidelines put forth by the Stanford Web Credibility Project, particularly the feature that makes verifying the information’s accuracy patently obvious.  I don’t like to waste my time on a site that offers mere fluff or fantasy. For me, these aspects of a Web site — historical design and credibility — directly govern my response to that site, a response that fits nicely within the context of Donald A. Norman’s three levels of processing –  visceral, behavioral, and reflective. All three factors certainly govern my reaction to the design features that I prefer.  But one thing is certain: my “ideal” Web site cannot exist without someone investing time, energy, and brainpower into researching, planning, and creating it.

My own sense of what I want to see in a historical Web site will certainly be the guiding factor in the site I intend to design for the course. In fact, I would like to go a step beyond by using my Web design to produce what Johanna Drucker has termed “visual epistemology” — a way of creating knowledge through visual representations (her concept of data as interpretive, or capta, is particularly appealing to me) (Drucker, 8 and 128).  In my case, I plan to analyze in my dissertation how the radio and print media constructed a specific memory of D-Day, 6 June 1944, at the moment it was happening on the other side of the world. The physical layout, typography, and graphics used in those wartime newspapers speak volumes to me by their very structure and visual impact. I want to capture this same visual and design power in my own Web site by providing graphic representations of these newspapers as the core visual elements of my site. But I know that I have to conduct my research carefully, plan in detail, and adhere strictly to sound design principles (and copyright issues!). I’ve already tried to locate a wartime, early-1940s-era font to capture the period, but my current selection, Gotham, has me wondering if I’m on the right track.   It doesn’t quite evoke in me a sense of that time period.  And, more importantly, will a Web site about how newspapers “spoke” visually and subliminally (or “behaviorally,” in Norman-speak) to the American public in 1944 achieve the design principles that will “hook” someone and keep him or her interested and wanting more?  First, I have to figure out the mechanics of building a Web site (code, design, etc.) before jumping into the proverbial deep end.  I’m certainly excited at the prospect of what may result from my efforts, but I’m also a bit skeptical about the permanence of my efforts. The Web has always seemed to me like a life raft at sea that is only partially inflated. In other words, the Web is on soft, unstable ground.

Jill Lepore struck a nerve when she addressed the relative impermanence of anything on the Web. The most disturbing thing she illustrated was the fact that historical figures, or anyone for that matter, may go back in “Web time” and revise a Web page to avoid scandal or to misrepresent what someone once said. The Web’s impermanence has always bothered me. Web pages seem to come and go. The second of two books I published on World War II subjects with academic presses used one or two Web sites as footnoted sources. My editor cautioned me about using them at the time because they may not be around long.  He made certain that I printed the Web pages and kept them in my personal files as back-up. Boy, was he right. Within a month or two of my book’s publication in 2010, both Web sites that appeared in my notes section had disappeared. Poof! Not a trace. Some historians who read the book later sought me out requesting copies of what I had referenced on the Web.  Thank goodness for the hard copies. This experience has haunted me and, frankly, kept me from venturing into HTML and Web pages sooner. I was simply afraid to invest a lot of work into a Web site that, for reasons beyond my control, might disappear.  I certainly applaud Lepore for celebrating the efforts of Brewster Kahle and his  Internet Archives and Wayback Machine in an attempt to capture for the historical record all that resides on the Web. It’s a daunting venture — but a worthy one. But I can’t seem to shake that sense of impermanence that still haunts me about the Web.  Honestly, I feel relieved that my first two books were published in hardcover; at least I know they’ll still be on the shelves in a hundred years. I’m not so sure about the Kindle version, though. Or, for that matter, anything else that exists solely in a digital environment. My misgivings, however, won’t keep me away from my Web site. I’m ready for it!

Steve Rusiecki