Clio Wired: Week 4 Reflection

This week’s readings get down to the nitty gritty of creating webpages, with concrete advice on what to do and what not to do.  The surprising, and frankly comforting, aspect of these readings is that the authors do not condone throwing away all tenets of good design from non-digital media.  In fact, Cohen and Rosensweig specifically point to print and book design as important examples for functional and appealing web design.  Legible print, manageable column width, attractive colors, judicious use of images, thematic unity, and even clear organization– these are all lessons that we do not have to create out of thin air, but which we can draw from our extensive experience with print media.   In fact, while Cohen and Rosensweig do extol the benefits of audio, video, high quality images, and the capabilities of hypertext, they caution against using all available technology just because you can.  Rather, use of technological capabilities should be as thoughtfully chosen as the words themselves.  Just as one would ask, “Do I need this rhetorical flourish, or would my writing be clearer without it?” one should also ask, “Do I need this Flash video, or would my site be cleaner/clearer/more accessible without it?”

Although the principles of good design were fairly universally shared between the authors this week, one major point of contention was the debate about long form writing on the web.  Cohen and Rosensweig come down on the side of appropriately used lengthy prose, emphasizing that giving in to the impulse for short “chunked” text further shortens internet-readers’ attention spans, creating a vicious cycle that does not allow serious scholarship to be presented on the web.  Steven Krug, in his sardonically titled book Don’t Make Me Think, purports to have a more realistic view of internet-users’ behavior.  For Krug, true internet use involves scanning and “satisficing”– clicking on the first thing that looks good, rather than taking the time to find the optimal information.  While I agree this is most likely the behavior used on commercial or business websites, I think that the emergence of scholarly writing on the web does in fact require long form essays, and that users who are serious about accessing this information will muster up the patience to read.

For the practicum this week, the principles of good design discussed by the authors were at the forefront of my mind.  I took a bit of an non-traditional approach for this practicum, not comparing two completely different sites, but actually comparing two iterations of one site.  I compared the relaunched website of The Phillips Collection with its old site, which I accessed through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.  Surprisingly, I liked the Phillips’s old website a lot more; I find their new site overcrowded, over-stimulating, and busy.  Here is a shot of the old site:

The Phillips Collection's former homepage

The Phillips Collection’s former homepage

For me, this site is ideal.  You can view the entire homepage without scrolling down, the navigation is simple and self-explanatory, there is easily accessible key information about the museum, and there is even a representative photo of what you will experience in the galleries.  The homepage’s minimalistic design with a subtle and limited color palate speaks to the museum’s mission of displaying modern art masterpieces, may of which emphasize color, line, and geometry.  To me, this site is “distinctive, natural, brand-appropriate, subtly memorable, and quietly but unmistakably engaging,” in the words of Jeffrey Zeldman.  In other words, it exudes “Phillips Collection.”

Unfortunately, while the new site offers more content, I do not believe it lives up to Zeldman’s tenets.  Unlike the old site, I feel that this new design is forgettable and does not uniquely identify the Phillips.  It has a large, corporate feel which does not evoke the Phillips’s clean, intimate museum space or the qualities of its art collection.  Moreover,  the homepage requires a lot of scrolling before you can access the information, and has dizzying juxtaposition of rotating images in the background and top banner:

The Phillips Collection new hompage

The Phillips Collection new homepage

As you can see, the banner takes up so much space that there is barely any informational content above the “fold.”  Once you scroll down, however, there are so many blocks of text and images that there is nowhere to rest your eye; it is difficult to concentrate and find the information you want.

Lower half of the new Phillips Collection homepage

Lower half of the new Phillips Collection homepage

This layout seems more applicable to a newspaper homepage, and is also probably difficult to use for the visually impaired using a screen reader, or for those with a slow internet connection.  This new website might be more flashy and up with the times, but I think good design and brand-awareness was sacrificed.  The designers of this new site seem to have used web capabilities just because they could–not because it enhanced the quality of the webpage.  The Phillips Collection is a wonderful institution, and it deserves to have a website that fits its intimate, artistic, and non-commercial personality.  While the information architecture of these two sites was not significantly different (the new site has more pages cascading off of sub-pages rather than the homepage, and has more pages in general), the design choices make all the difference.

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5 Comments

Filed under Reading and practicum reflection

5 responses to “Clio Wired: Week 4 Reflection

  1. The idea of comparing an old site versus a redesign is a really good one. It seems like site redesigns frequently involve the problems you identified with the Phillips Collection. I wonder if larger institutions are more likely to hire a web designer who might feel pressure to do “more” to justify their fee. I agree with the Zeldman article, too, that a clean and simple design is often the best. Whatever the reason, it seems like large institutions are reluctant to embrace this approach to web design.

  2. I’ve noted a change (for the worse) in the newer version of the Smithosnian’s Freer and Sackler website too. Although the website is prettier now, when you click on the “Search Collections” tag, the screen invariably freezes after the 2nd or 3rd page of thumbnails. This makes me wonder if the redesign team was so focused on the layout and overall look of front page that they neglected functionality-related details.

  3. Good point re: long form essays. I think a good site would mix both the “billboard” method for quick and easy access for users to find what they need, but for longer, scholarly essays for those who want to delve deeper into a subject.

    • Yes, it wouldn’t make sense to simply splash a long form essay on one’s homepage and call it a day. It would be much better to create an easily scanned homepage with clear navigation to bring users to more in-depth writing deeper in the site.

  4. I also thought it was a great idea to compare a new site and redesign. It’s an interesting way to see what the creators though did or didn’t work, and take that into consideration for your own project.

    Your point from the reading about taking cues from books and other written literature was one that stood out to me as well. I am beginning to feel that the digital history is just one long, slow evolution. At least this thinking made me feel like I’m not too far behind the curve!

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