In which our author remembers that design is important…

Reading Digital History was an interesting experience. The sections on design really challenged me to think about my own sense of style and design– something that I admit I’ve mostly left to the level of instinct and convenience ’til now.  When it comes to my activities online, I’ve usually gone for the simplest pre-fab design available– whatever doesn’t look too flashy, or too "the Internet circa 1998."  (If you want a good example of this sort of ugliness, check out Myspace, or any Geocities fan site that hasn’t been modified for ages… or, if you’re looking for a bit of ironic fun, the Paperrad art collective’s web page.)

Beyond that, the only thing I’ve really taken any sort of aesthetic "stand" of any sort on is my cartooning, and since my foot’s strongly in the primitivist camp on that one, I’ve just forced myself to draw what comes naturally, without really questioning what or why or wherefore.  Even when I was doing digital scans of my work and altering them for the little gallery show I was in this summer, I when about my Photoshopping much more quickly and thoughtlessly than did my friend I was showing with, a professional designer.  Other than when functionality is defeated by design, or when it’s just plain ugly (again, see Myspace…) I’ve never really questioned the underlying purposes that make for good design– the reasons some things work well, and others don’t. I’ve been satisfied to keep it simple, clean, and when at all possible, "natural."

So of course after reading the sections on design, when I logged back into Typepad, my first response was to spend 45 minutes tinkering with design elements that, in the end, make very little difference.  I went to a full justify on the columns, because I simply find full justifies to be more readable– probably because they hark back to "professional" printed texts… I’ve never seen why, in the age of the word processor, anyone would be content to leave a document left-justified.  It doesn’t look "done," to me, and the jagged edges on the right side distract my eye.  Frankly, I’m surprised that Six Apart made it the default on any of their pre-fab designs… 

I also switched the fonts over to TNR, just ’cause I roll that way.  I know that, according to Cohen & Rosenzweig, sans serif fonts are better for large blocks of text on-screen, but I just like serif fonts.  Especially TNR.  Again, it looks "professional," "printed."  (Plus, I keep on going back to the words of a friend of mine, a designer and a psych student, who found several studies that suggested that serif fonts are easier to read, because the little details– the tail on the "t," the crossy-thing on the "G"– in other words, the serifs– actually make it easier and quicker for the brain to recognize the letters… It’s a sort of over-determination that speeds up recognition…  Anyway, that’s what she told me, once, and it stuck with me.)

(Also, just because I’m not able not to do such things, I went and Wikipedia’d "serif…" it’s actually an interesting little article, if you feel like geeking out a bit further on the topic.)

At any rate, I’ve come to something I’m reasonably satisfied with.  Actually, that’s not completely true.  I want to get a hold of Photoshop and put together a .jpg that I can use for a title banner, rather than just this line of text– something a little more interesting to look at.  And also, I couldn’t find anything resembling an ecru or eggshell type color on any of the HTML color sheets that Google brought up… And I’d really like an off-white background, just ’cause it’s gentler, and because it kind of gives that parchment-y, "historical" feel, which is good for a history blog.  If anyone has knowledge of an off-white HTML color code, please– help a brother out.

And on the note of less-is-more design, I really have nothing critical to say about The Diary of Samuel Pepys. All I can really say is "wow."  It’s not much to look at, but it doesn’t have to be– and I love the idea of making a group project out of the hypertextualization of a text, creating annotations that work together to improve understanding. 

And the idea of "releasing" new entries on the date they were written is a great idea– more than the simple conceit it may have started as.  "Releasing" new entries in real-time (or, as you might properly call it, lag-time…) helps to create a community– it makes the community of reader-annotators only have to make a small investment of time, or at least fosters that illusion by breaking it up.  Hypertextualizing a text of any length is an arduous project, time-consuming even for a team of people paid to do so.  However, by making this project something that can be done repeatedly, at will, in small chunks, the person who put it up has created a volunteer army of historians and enthusiasts to work on the task.

I think it’s an amazing project, and I wish it was being done with the diary of someone who falls closer to my research areas, geographically or temporally. I’m half-tempted to steal the concept, and do it with one of the many Boston-area diarists or letter-writers– say, someone like William Tudor or Samuel Sewall.  Sewall would be especially interesting, just ’cause I remember being befuddled and confused by so many of the references made in his diaries, when I was doing my Boston Common research. 

Those old diaries can feel like they’re written in code, sometimes.