Digital History: Website Design

As part of a class on Digital History, on several occasions I’ll be posting thoughts on a chapter of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web by Cohen and Rosenzweig. You can read this whole book for free at http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/. For more information about this series, see the Intro.

Digital History Chapter 4: Designing for the History Web

The theoretical discussion in this chapter concerns a tension between design and content for historical websites. Design makes a difference in terms of user expectations — I know I’ve clicked away from a lot of cheap-looking sites, assuming they don’t have good information. Of course design also makes a difference in ease of use. I’ve also clicked away from a lot of sites because I just couldn’t find what I needed, even though I knew it was probably there. So, you want it to be simple, but not too simple.

A history site’s purpose will also be different from an online store’s, for instance, because in a store you want to streamline a customer’s journey to making a purchase, whereas on a history site you’re trying to provide information, maybe get people to read long documents. I liked the illustration of a book: “Good design does not necessarily mean obvious design.” You may not ever notice a book’s design, because the physical object is designed to augment your reading experience or disappear entirely.

Unlike books, websites don’t have established conventions about how they should look to be usable. The chapter provides concrete tips for how to structure your site — how much margin space to leave, how to organize your directories, and other useful ideas. The authors are clear in warning that web sites actually have lower resolutions than print, that you have to consider the sizes of pictures and videos so people will be able to view them easily, and that you may not have complete control over your site after it’s published since different devices and browsers will display differently. In addition, you should consider how handicap-accessible your site will be. If it’s a government site or receives government funding then it may be subject to government regulations, but even if not, it’s a good practice to make sure you have text alternatives for any interactive features, transcripts and/or subtitles for any videos, and captions for pictures in case someone is using a program that’s reading the page aloud.

When I launched this blog, I realized how many factors there are to consider in design. Content may be the most important thing, but colors, placements, fonts, picture sizes, headers and logos, and media formats all affect how users perceive your content and whether they can use it at all, and that’s on a pre-formatted and pre-designed WordPress blog! Designing a new site from the ground up means taking all these things into account, and more. Your site’s design should follow from the site’s purpose. A primarily static site displaying pictures of vases from 1810 may have very different requirements from an interactive teaching tool about the Mongol hordes.

What’s your experience with history websites? Have you tried to build one, or noticed any design features that are awesome or unhelpful?


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