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

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