Aesthetic Theme and Compromise in Web Design

According to Jeremy Boggs, web design isn’t a process based on personal preference, endless reviews, and mix and match schemes. Web design is based upon principles of a central theme in aesthetics. In Boggs’ project, Gulag, he began with a desolate, snowy image that dictated the entirety of the design scheme. What followed were grey colors, and an atmosphere with a cold and sad feel. However, the aesthetics also serve to emphasize the content. Color and text schemes should shine spotlights on important information, and in mockup hierarchy the layer with content should be stressed. Some common problems Boggs has run into include overuse of favorite colors or fonts that don’t fit the theme, and both a lack and overabundance of collaboration and review. One of Boggs’ more interesting approaches is to use pencils and crayons to quickly test color schemes and design before applying them in a more time-consuming manner.

Brian Miller’s approach to web design is one of compromise. Transferring from print to the web isn’t always a smooth transition. One such problem Miller raises is color. In print, color is definite, but given the difference in monitors and graphics cards, what one user sees may not be the same experience for another. This difference in lighting and technology effectively makes color matching nearly impossible. Another issue raised in web design is the need for paging. A benefit of printing is the uniformity of page length. Without paging in web design, a user can continue to scroll with no sense of progress and can feel lost. Images on the web, as opposed to print, are subject to download time and can strain a user’s patience if the amount of digital images are too great (especially with mobile media). An interesting point made by Miller is that design is a plan, and web design is a back-up plan. Having a preference for your first choice is great for a start, but your first choice, when transferred to the web, can end rather badly for the design as a whole. Ultimately, and most interesting to me, Miller argues that when implementing web design, it’s best to not make a decision, or rather to have the decision made for you. When you make a choice, it opens that choice up to criticism. Though decisions have to be made, when a web designer is confined by a company or individual’s prior aesthetic commitments it only makes the job easier.

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Digital Tool Review: Audacity

Why Audacity?

Audacity is an open-source, cross-platform recording device that is free for download and applicable for multiple academic purposes. Though Audacity is the program I’m reviewing, I don’t recommend audacity over any other sound recording program. Below is an image of the Audacity interface, and below that is an image of the Garage Band interface:

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If you look closely, you will notice that for all basic purposes these interfaces have the same capabilities. They can record, stop, pause, fast forward, rewind, manually edit by cutting and pasting, and can export files in multiple formats. Garage Band does come with many sound effects and filters built in, but for most academic purposes, these are unnecessary. In short, I champion Audacity not for it’s superior recording capabilities but for it’s accessibility.

Audacity for the educator

As a teacher, a sound recording device can serve multiple ends. The time it takes to arrange for guest speakers can be difficult given that many of these individuals may not be available during the hours a class is held. With such an accessible device, an educator could collect numerous interviews and save them for the future to apply to lecture at his or her convenience. In addition to the convenience of gathering guest speakers, a tech-savvy educator could introduce their students to alternative ways of reaching people with their views and information. An entire class could be taught via podcast, which is both fun, convenient, and fresh for students so used to conventional lecture.

Audacity for the student

Many students can attest to the difficulty of taking notes and retaining information simultaneously. With the help of a sound recording device a student can pay closer attention to the concepts their professor drives home and still have a free note-taker for review. In addition to this purpose, students can assist each other when they are unable to make it to class. Sending an mp3 file to a friend with an illness helps them get the most out of their unfortunate circumstances. Finally, in the case mentioned for the educator, a guest speaker who a student may only have access to for one day can be stored forever for future use.

Audacity for the researcher

What I would argue is the most useful purpose of Audacity (and all sound recording devices) is the oral history report. When doing research, gathering textbooks and primary sources can be an overwhelming task. However, the best primary source a researcher can utilize is person with first-hand experience in your topic. When writing a research paper the traditional way, a tremendous amount of original thought and wording is necessary for scholarly value. However, with the oral history report, the researcher must simply record and transcribe what was said. This process can be tedious, but the majority of the work is done verbally and requires far fewer in-text citations.

Holding the Audience Hostage

Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte argues how Microsoft PowerPoint, though used frequently in many fields, lacks the integrity of even a piece of paper. In the case of PP, many flaws arise in creating an “authority” in the speaker. Slides that give bullets or individual lines piecemeal shut down dialogue and “holds the audience hostage”. Also, given the slides disappears with progress, it makes review, and thus retention, difficult for the audience. The use of bullets and slides force topics that are interrelated to seem disconnected, and the hierarchical “one-path” approach affects concepts that could be aided by revisiting previous information with a full circle (possibly interactive) design. Ultimately formatting takes priority over content in PP, as slides could be compared to academic “billboards”. Most images on a slide contain little to no academic content, and limit the amount of space for text. Overall, bullets are great for outlines, slides are great for images, but universal formats (images, videos, text, tables, charts, etc.) with interconnected flow will get a room talking over hostage-taking presentations.

After Beautiful Evidence, I turn to two other assigned readings: Visual Explanations and What Years Do Historians Write About? Though they are both interesting reads, they serve better as examples of alternative methods of displaying data.

The former is written by Tufte and shows excellent diversity of formats. There are charts, maps, photographs, and of course, text. Detail certainly wasn’t reduced by this diversity, as all the images added relevant information- certainly not wasting any space. This document would serve better in a teacher-student dynamic over a business meeting given the amount of detail. Tufte, however, argued in Beautiful Evidence that even in a setting that seems to prefer brevity, text should not be feared.

The latter, a blog by Ben Schmidt, is lacking in the diversity of Visual Examples, but makes up for it in approachability.  The text is very concise and friendly, and gives the reader breaks with an occasional chart. Along with diversity, Schmidt’s blog post lacks the rich detail of Tufte’s piece. A chart will show raw data, but a photograph or a map can reach readers on multiple levels that facts and figures can’t. It could be argued that such brevity is a positive in a time-strapped business meeting, and given the nature of the blog post’s content it may be difficult to diversify.

I feel that PP may in fact have many pitfalls that I failed to notice as a user. The lack of flow, isolating the audience, and granting too much authority to the speaker all reduce the productivity of a meeting.

Does Valley of the Shadow make you think?

Steve Krug, an accomplished usability consultant, outlines a set of rules for web design that appeal to a wide range of users in his book “Don’t Make Me Think”. The title nicely summarizes Krug’s approach to design- basically, if a user runs into a road block when using a digital resource “question marks” appear that compound over time. Though these question marks (that may accrue in the dozens) only account for a few milliseconds in total time, they “add to our cognitive workload” and “erode our confidence in the site and the organization behind it”. Each misstep on a website is a violation of trust against the user, and encourages them to abandon their task, or at least abandon the resource they’re using. Using Krug’s guidelines I will analyze a digital history website that was built between 1993 and 2007, “Valley of the Shadow”.

I begin my analysis with the home page. The page clearly identifies the mission of the site, and describes it’s use. Instead of what Krug calls, “happy talk”, a self congratulatory exposition about how great the site is, you can see a description of what specifically makes the site a good resource. The only flaw I see is that the button that allows you to enter the archive isn’t clearly clickable.

When entering the main directory, there are three main portions of information: the Eve of War, the War Years, and the Aftermath. Though the information in these images isn’t clearly clickable from a glance, the page is rather bare and certainly guides you towards clicking the image.

As I click the “Eve of War” image that reads “1860 Statistics” I’m brought to a page with three links, one for Augusta County Statistics, one for Franklin County Statistics, and another for comparison statistics. When I click on Augusta County statistics I see the framework for how the information will be given. The headings for all the topics are clearly stated and obviously links given the standard underlined blue hyperlink text, and descriptions are given to further ensure you’re moving towards what you want. The page layout is very bland and doesn’t seem to prioritize aesthetics. Given the scholarly nature of the site and the time when it was made, this is rather typical. However, this lackluster design approach, though emphasizing scholarship, doesn’t hold up to the 2014 standard. With web design becoming more commonplace and sophisticated, a lack of visual emphasis makes a site stand out in a bad way.

When I decided to explore the “War Years” portion, I find that the main header for the site that says “Valley of the Shadow” is only an image that doesn’t bring you back to the main directory. Instead, there is an image at the bottom of the page that serves the purpose of returning you to the directory. Though explicit in it’s purpose, the convention of having the link to return home at the top of the page seems forgone.

Next, I click on the “War Years” portion titled “Images”. I’m brought to a database that allows you to search images. The search engine is simple and follows basic conventions. The database contains over seven hundred images and offers searching tips that can help you find what you’re looking for. Upon entering “Antietam” under the battle field, and “Battlefield” under the subject type field, I’m brought to a rather interesting results page. Each result is accompanied by an image, a description of the image, the type of image, the source, and the image date. All of this detail ensures that the user can not only find what they’re looking for, but can document it adequately in a bibliography.

Overall, I’m rather impressed by Valley of the Shadow. The scholarly value of the site alone is admirable. I would gladly reference and incorporate Valley of the Shadow into a research paper, and given the amount of time put into making reference information available, it is obvious that this is the site’s primary intention. The downfalls of the site are minor. The aesthetic value of a scholarly site is sometimes not a priority even today, however no attention was given to this factor at all, which shows (probably unintended) laziness and gives the site a feeling of being incomplete. Additionally, this site fails at times to follow basic conventions of web design that may confuse avid internet users, but these failures are overall negligible, and given the time in which the site was made (1993-2007, a time encompassing two periods Krug dubbed “the Paleozoic era” and “the Wild West”) Valley of the Shadow could arguably hold up through to the current day.

Wikipedia and the Historian

Most students of the digital age can attest to the villification of Wikipedia by at least one high school teacher or college professor. False information being taken as fact is clearly the foremost concern of an educator regarding a tool that can be edited freely. However, through study of various voices on the subject, we come to see that perhaps wikipedia can teach students. Topics that can be searched such as the American Civil War, Indiana Jones, or Henry Kissinger are not what I’m referring to precisely. What Wikipedia can actually teach students are fundamental lessons in research, the collaborative nature of digital history, and of course- fraud.

As a teaching tool, Fred Gibbs of fredgibbs.net believes that Wikipedia serves students better to learn about research, than to use for research. Upon assigning his students to participate in an actual Wikipedia page discussion he found many shocking revelations about this often criticized medium. For one, he found that his students had little to no difficulty using Wikipedia despite giving them no instructions on the process; a tool that can be picked up by a novice so easily is certainly streamlined and effective. Many students were surprised to find that their additions were quickly edited (mostly grammar, punctuation, and “wikipedia syntax”). Students were forced to recognized the collaborative factor of history and research which is thoroughly highlighted in a free-to-edit site like wikipedia. The ease of cross-referencing in Wikipedia served to shine spotlights on weak sources that were employed by the students, as they quickly found that research in the scholarly world is a process of drafting and revision. Overall, those who participated in the assignment learned just as much about the process of researching and citing sources as they did about the specific topics they sought out.

In 2008, T. Mills Kelly, a professor at George Mason University, taught a course called “Lying About the Past”. The purpose of such a class was to inform students about the history of fraud. Whether for profit or mischief, attempts have been made long before the digital age to fabricate or falsify historical events. Mills Kelly holds the belief that fraud is easy in the digital age, and to illuminate this point to his students he had them perpetrate a hoax on the internet and watch the fireworks for ten days. The first attempt in 2008 was arguably a great success. Using wikipedia as the focal point for phony references and student-constructed primary sources, the internet was properly fooled by the class’ creative lies. However, when the attempt was made again in 2012, Mills Kelly’s students found themselves caught quite early. Though many reasons are given for the success and failure of the three separate attempts (one in 2008, and two in 2012), it is assumed that the website Reddit played a role. Though the attempt in 2008 escaped Redditors, the 2012 attempt to spin a web of lies about a serial killer fell flat. The belief held by Mills Kelly is that Wikipedia, though having a discussion “companion” site, creates slight disconnection between the article and the forum for debate, whereas Reddit connects information with discussion more fluidly. Additionally, Wikipedia’s small but dedicated community is notably rooted in trust, whereas the massive Reddit community is based more in sub-cultures of opinions that may clash at times, but offer multiple view points and more truth-seeking through debate. The key lesson learned from this is simple- trust cannot be given readily in scholarly research. Skepticism is a researcher’s best friend, as fraud thrives upon trust.

Introductory Post

Hello all! My name is Marshal Golden. I received my Associate of Arts degree from Anne Arundel Community College, and I’m currently working towards becoming a history teacher with the completion of my undergraduate studies. My greatest passion in life is training and competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. With my experience in the art and sport of BJJ, I hope to conduct thorough research into the history of not just Jiu Jitsu, but various other martial arts and combat sports.

My first impression of Digital History after just three classes is that digitizing primary sources can offer a variety of advantages. The ability to word search a large collection of historical documents with a short phrase or keyword grants an incredible advantage in terms of speed over the traditional researcher. Outside of the realm of convenience and time management, digital history tools can offer possibilities that only specialized professionals would otherwise have the ability to experience. With the scanning, or recreation of three-dimensional objects such as ancient pottery, or historical weaponry, individuals- whether scholarly or not, can rotate and closely examine a piece of history in a way that only privileged professionals could before.

With these advantages, there are of course detrimental factors that hinder the legitimacy of digital history. Though a seasoned collegiate student or researcher is often practiced in the art of identifying reputable sources, a pitfall for the inquisitive self-educator is the issue of quality. With the abundance of digital media, and the growth of self-publishing on the web, we see examples of false information being taken for fact by the uninitiated. Though this is certainly problematic, we can be optimistic in the fact that learning to identify valid sources can be taught quite easily, and there are a vast array of educational texts and videos on this topic that can be found for free online. An additional issue is one of inaccessibility. This is the most widespread issue facing digital history, as 2/3 of the world have no access to the internet. Though this certainly poses challenges to the short-term growth of all digital education, it is arguably not just a digital issue, but an educational issue. It may be true that access to computers is restricted by poverty, but often access to traditional research tools may be restricted in the third world. Given the overall lack of education for the majority of the world, access to an online database would certainly be more feasible than the spatial and material issues faced by an analog approach to educating the impoverished majority.

Despite disadvantages being apparent in this growing educational medium, I would argue that the benefits will come to outweigh the detriments. With further education on this topic, I hope to prove this premature hypothesis.