Let’s face it: we all have a slightly different opinion on what is beautiful and what is ugly. To some, freshly fallen snow is a reminder of the delicate elegance of the natural world. To others, the same event merely brings to mind the prospect of having to get out the snow shovel, start up the snowblower, or call the snow plow contractor. We all know what art we find attractive, what music makes us dance, and what stories we find compelling. What examples come to mind for you? I’d be willing to bet your top examples are different than mine, or at least in a different order. To a certain degree, the same is true for functionality. While most of us would agree that it is easier to travel thirty miles using a car than a bike, some would prefer a compact car while others would prefer an SUV. Some people might even get into debates over whether is better to drive a Ford, a Subaru, or a Volkswagen. Ultimately, human opinions are subjective. If that’s the case, then how should digital historians make decisions when designing a website, a digital collection, or digital exhibit?

Actually, by striking a balance between form and function, and following certain practices, digital historians can make websites that are visually appealing and navigable for the majority of visitors. Will there be those who disagree? Hey, there are those who would choose a bike to travel thirty miles (no offense to those who would – especially since you could probably outrun me!). The point is, there are areas of general agreement, even if you can’t satisfy all tastes. I think most of us would agree that a car needs a steering wheel, an engine, tires, and some brakes. As such, the following includes some aspects of web design that digital historians should keep in mind, adopted from Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History, as well as my own online experience.

Legibility

If you can’t read the content on a website, you’re probably going to look for another site. Choosing a font is just the first step. You’re going to want to choose a font that doesn’t strain the eyes. Keep in mind that even if you choose a wacky font, certain browsers and operating systems aren’t going to support that font. Additionally, it’s important to choose a font color that compliments the site’s background. You don’t want it to contrast too sharply, nor do you want the font to get lost in the background. Behind the body of the text, you don’t want images or distracting patterns either. For instance, the Roy  Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media chooses a dark gray, sans serif font. This font is set against a white background. While there is an image behind the title on the home page, the image is faded so that you can clearly read the title (and the image conveys what the site is all about). The same applies for each of the tabs on the website. A title appears at the top with a faded image behind it. The font is dark gray, sans serif, and set against a white background for the body of the text. There is not an overwhelming amount of text on each page. If you want more information, you can click on a hyperlink. Personally, I’d say the site conforms more to the functional than the aesthetically pleasing, but it is not unpleasant to look at, either.

See for yourself: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media

Color, Imagery, and Multimedia

What visitors read on your site is not the only thing that they will notice. Honestly, it’s probably not even the first thing they will notice, even if they are looking for something specific. Visitors are going to see the colors you choose, the images you place on a page, and any media that you have included. One website that seems to recognize this fact is the website for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. On the home page there are selectively chosen images and multimedia. The choice of a black and dark grey background provides contrast with the color choices of many other sites, while at the same time not being difficult to read. Indeed, the body of the text is is set against a white background. When one navigates to the various sections of the website, a similar pattern unfolds. Images are chosen selectively, multimedia enhances the content, and the website uses unique colors. It can at times be difficult to navigate your way through the site, so its design is more form than function.

See for yourself: NMAI, Washington, D.C.

Navigability

This brings us to another point. While it is important to be able to read and access site content, and that it is aesthetically pleasing, there needs to be a balance. Visitors to your site want to be able to find their way around. Some of the sites that understand this the best are news sites. For one thing, as a visitor, you might happen on a news site because you are skimming through headlines, or you might go to a news site because you want to see if they add further insight or analysis to a specific news story. When you arrive at a news site it might be your first time there, or it could be a site that you have bookmarked. It is a fiercely competitive field since there are many news sites, and the site will need to undergo constant updating as the news changes constantly. Because of this, visitors want to be able to find their way around the website. One site that gets this is the Washington Post’s website. Of course there are images, and sometimes multimedia, on the homepage, but the specific examples change depending on the news. Although backgrounds are plain, each article has plenty of images. More significantly for the point I am making, it is easy to find one’s way back from an article to the homepage, as well as to the various sections of the website. Like online news media, digital historians should keep navigability in mind when designing websites, digital collections, and digital exhibits.

See for yourself: Washington Post

What do you think: When it comes to website is form or function more important, or are they co-equal? What makes for an effective or ineffective websites? Do you have any tips for digital historians or web designers? Please comment.

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