The Role of Design in the Digital Humanities


Having spent most of the last decade in a book design studio I’m fascinated at the ways that an understanding of the historical traditions of printing, typography, and page layout can inform the means by which we structure and present narrative in digital media. Underlying these visual narratives are digital archives. As a librarian also, I recognize how the profession has excelled at establishing metadata standards and best practices for digitizing artifacts. Just as the production of books is largely a team effort (author, editor, proofreader, designer, printer, publisher), a new set of collaborators is emerging to produce digital works. Fundamental to digital humanities projects is bringing in the expertise of those who understand visual communications.

The highly insightful book Digital_Humanities (note the underscore) emphasizes the role of design in producing scholarship: “Digital Humanities implies a reinterpretation of the humanities as a generative enterprise: one in which students and faculty alike are making things as they study and perform research, generating not just texts (in the form of analysis, commentary, narration, critique) but also images, interactions, cross-media corpora, software, and platforms.” (Digital_Humanities, p10)

Design is one of those overarching terms needing a qualifier. It’s not always what you think it means. When we talk about design in the digital humanities we must include not just graphic design (which too often has been left out of many projects) but also information models, rhetorical patterns, interactive gestures, and systems architectures. These are all aspects of designing a scholarly resource whether that work be an archive of digitized material, an analytical tool, or a visual narrative.

It’s naive to assume that even graphic design is primarily about decorative ornaments, color palettes, or even minimalist grids. Design at the conceptual level (in all its variations) is the interrelated structure and presentation of content: “design can be also seen as a kind of editing: It is the means by which an argument takes shape and is given form.” (Digital_Humanities, p18)

Design of digital humanities projects goes hand-in-hand with developmental editing. While an author is an expert in a specified knowledge domain it’s a rare case that the scholar also possesses detailed experience in crafting digital narratives that best leverage the capabilities of the medium. Design is much more than knowing how to use tools. “In generative mode, these designers shape structural logics, rhetorical schemata, information hierarchies, experiential qualities, cultural positioning, and narrative strategies. When working analytically, their task is to visually interpret, remap or reframe, reveal patterns, deconstruct, reconstruct, situate, and critique.” (Digital_Humanities, p10)

An essential element of any digital humanities project is that the participating students gain exposure to these generative and analytical aspects of design. Ultimately, through design is how we view the world.

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