Demonstrating the Scholarship of Design

Introduction

This post is the fourth installment of CIT’s new blog series, “Demonstrating the Scholarship of…,” in which we provide arguments and strategies for individual scholars to link their own particular suite of non-traditional means to traditional ends. This post articulates the mutual interdependence of design and digital humanities research, shares ideas for making this feedback loop more rewarding and efficient, and offers arguments for the potential of digital design, whether it is an object of study in itself or is applied to a particular DH activity, to strengthen your scholarship.

The use of “design” as a verb for an astonishing variety of DH-related activities—programming a new tools or platform, brainstorming a grant-funded initiative, crafting digital resources, planning classroom activities and assignments, critical making and game construction—reveals a rather fascinatingly constricted vocabulary for characterizing all the many things DH practitioners do. The focused repetition embedded in these diverse references paradoxically reflects the broad usage of the term in DH today, as it refers to anything from critical coding to game design to critical making to linked data to databases, anything from the 2009 conference on design and DH to efforts to ensure accessibility and critiques of Universal Design, and anything from social justice digital initiatives to the many alt-ac job advertisements seeking “digital humanities designers,” “research designers,” and “instructional designers.”

“Design” is thus a convenient catch-all that unites many of the unusual but still fundamentally scholarly endeavors that make an academic activity legible as a foray into DH. This fascinating rhetorical trope is eminently helpful in the context of evaluating digital scholarship or articulating the usefulness of DH projects because the language of design provides a handy vocabulary for advocating DH projects and scholars. As a result, even though the term may seem like a buzzword or a knee-jerk reaction resulting whenever we’re called upon to account for our time rendering our data shareable in any other way than publication in academic journals or monographs, it prevents a kind of DH Tower of Babel, in addition to allowing us to make use of existing research about how to articulate the significance of design and about how to maximize usability, accessibility, and user engagement.

These design activities, at whatever skill level—for example, the term may encompass simply writing CSS to change fonts and colors, reorganizing a spreadsheet, selecting a CMS for a digital exhibition, or crafting a custom template for a course website—require the judgment of a knowledgeable humanities scholar and embed this scholarly judgment so that users benefit from it. As a result, Trevor Owens’s prophesy that “purposefully thinking about the process of design could become a key part of humanities scholarship” is rapidly becoming a reality, or at least an important focal point in arguing for the scholarly value of digital humanities work.

Non-Traditional Means, Traditional Ends

By “design,” I refer to virtually any intentional representation. This definition enfolds any choice you make to develop and/or deliver your work. In the digital humanities, design labor can include creating your own website, creating gorgeous teaching materials, designing a digital edition, constructing elaborate presentations, and—of course—preparing data visualizations. A blog post, a journal article, or a digital tool or platform is equally a designed scholarly object. Even a carefully crafted CSV file or chunk of code is designed in the sense that informed and meaningful decisions were made regarding structure, order, and appearance. Designed objects, in other words, constitute an embedded theory in their very structures, even as they simultaneously convey hypotheses and summarize research results.

This broad approach to defining design harkens back to the modernist approach of Clive Bell, who identified “significant form” as the very essence of art. Though the immediate result of significant form in the digital humanities is often a sense of prettiness or novelty—Look at this cool data viz!—good design in the digital humanities is far more than a guarantor of visual attractiveness. Properly understood, the aesthetic that accretes from all of the decisions made while arranging ideas, data, text and images is, in itself, a powerful mode of argumentation. Good digital design both reflects and constitutes the scholarly content it represents, calling into question any simplistic opposition that alienates content from style. Even at the most basic, foundational level, these projects are typically related to so-called “traditional” humanities scholarship because they are informed by extant research, support ongoing research, and inspire new research.

For some projects, the design process may prompt a kind of intense revision or peer-review stage, while for others, it may clarify ambiguous aspects of the project or offer a perfect opportunity to materialize the abstract or previously undervalued aims that animated the research. For some projects, questions of design necessitate a new phase of research or analysis, or perhaps they provide a platform for sharing work beyond the scholarly community. For still others, design challenges may have inspired the entire venture to begin with. No matter which of these categories a digital project falls into, the key point to remember is that design is not an ancillary concern. It’s not an extra or optional element, a frivolous question of what’s pretty and what’s ugly, or an effort best left to a professional developer or web designer; instead, design constitutes a scholarly activity in and of itself.

Impact

To demonstrate the impact of design, be ready to articulate design as an iterative process and to recount the ways in which design decisions reinforced research insights, created new ones, and suggested directions for future research or for new tools, platforms, or templates. In other words, explain that design isn’t something that comes up just once during project development, and certainly not something that comes up suddenly, out of the blue, at the very end of the project. Rather, at each stage of a project, design should be addressed, and the design plan should evolve dynamically in response to every other major decision that affects the project’s purpose, content, and workflow.

This iterative process can be frustrating, as it (rightly) never seems finished, but you can use it to your advantage by paying attention to those moments when you make design decisions. Ask yourself why you are making a certain choice: what does it tell you about your research? About your results? About your data? About your audience? About the applications of your research? Design therefore forces you not just to clarify the principles and goals of your projects, but to think continually about how to apply them so that your users’ experiences are structured by these principles and goals.

Accordingly, take the time to record these decisions and your rationale for them. Use these insights to enrich your project statements, grant applications, documentation or tutorials, and your written research, not only to craft the design object in question. Where possible, connect these insights to current conversations in graphic or web design or in the digital humanities to spur new research in these fields (for example, you could join the community design Slack for the digital humanities). Alternatively, use these insights to open new conversations within your humanities field or subfield.

If you find yourself consumed by the design process, allow this energy to sweep you into researching book history or media archaeology. As Jeff Barry argues, this interest can in turn inform your design because “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.” In an argument that models the iterative process of design, Barry continues,

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.

For more information about this approach to design, explore the book Digital_Humanities, from which Barry adopts the principle of design as editing. At the beginning of Digital_Humanities, Burdick, Drucker, and Lunenfield, Presner, and Schnapp explain, “design can be also seen as a kind of editing: It is the means by which an argument takes shape and is given form.” This elegant analogy expresses the value of design as an iterative process in that it both reflects and strengthens your research.

Combating Counterarguments

  1. Design can be left to the professionals. Although professional web developers and graphic designers can undoubtedly produce more stunning design objects than many DHers, this does not mean that academics should not have input on design choices or that there are not enough simple tools out there for academics to make powerful design decisions. Whether the scholar works in an advisory capacity and directs a professional who is paid by institutional funds or is quickly learning CSS on her own to modify existing templates or create a simple edition or archive, it is the scholar’s disciplinary knowledge that is the cornerstone of the value of design in digital projects.
  2. Design is just about picking a font and some colors. Design is not superficial or “just about aesthetics,” but includes structural decisions about what to include and exclude, what order to present information in, and how to provide signals to users about how to use the resource. Good design shepherds users through a resource and makes research results easy to parse without unduly influencing the user’s interpretation of the data.
  3. Learning how to design websites is a waste of time. First of all, design means much more than learning how to put a website together. Second of all, websites are not the be-all and end-all of design. The inclusive definition of design as intentional representation encourages us to see important links between techniques of representation and the history and assumptions of our humanities disciplines and research processes.

Verbs and Phrases

You should cultivate a set of ready-at-hand, blurb-friendly ways of speaking about your embodiment of scholarship via digital design. Here are some to get you started:

Usability

Accessibility

Visual rhetoric

Dynamic design

User experience

Anticipatory design

Reach new audiences

Intentional representation

Significant form (Clive Bell)

Design as narrative (Jeff Barry)

Designed objects as embedded theory

New forms of scholarly communication

Not simply pretty or cool but persuasive

Design as editing (Digital_Humanities)

Not ancillary but scholarly in and of itself

Designing digital humanities (Johanna Drucker)

Transformation of data and ideas into new forms

 

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