Why Design?

Last weekend my colleague Whitney Trettien and I presented a paper, “Acts of Translation: Digital Humanities and the Archive Interface, at MIT’s Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission conference. In our presentation and paper, we argued for an increased awareness of the importance of design (the presentation and organization of visual information) in Digital Humanities projects. Through the discussion of projects such as NINES, the CHNM’s Object of History, and SFMOMA’s ArtScope, our goal was to show that design is far from “an accessorizing activity.” (See Johanna Drucker’s critique of the reigning attitude toward design Digital Humanities projects.) Indeed, design opens and forecloses interpretative possibilities and essentially influences the ways in which scholars and students can engage with material.

The process of writing this paper has been exhilarating on many levels. Digital Humanities requires a grounding in practical projects with scholars and material. But theory need not be divorced from practice. A constant dialogue must exist between, on the one hand, the material realities and insights gained working through practice, and on the other hand, the expanding potentials and critical perspective of theory. This paper was a chance to take a set back from our own projects at Hyperstudio and engage more broadly with theoretical concerns and other projects in the field. The work we have done for this paper will certainly influence how we conceive of and develop projects in the future.

Also, it was an interesting experience to apply the perspectives of art history and especially comparative media studies, the areas that constitute my own academic background, to the theorization of Digital Humanities. I think these approaches broaden the dialogue and scope of what Digital Humanities can be. This paper, written over the course of a few months through a series of intense discussions and writing sessions, was a truly collaborative process between Whitney and I, who have different academic backgrounds and approaches but shared intellectual commitments – much like the collaborations that occurring throughout the field of Digital Humanities.

Still, Whitney and I are both Masters Students in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department and believe in the importance of medium-specific considerations, the idea that different forms of media provide different affordances which must be taken into account. The ideas in our paper certainly stem from this kind of media studies perspective. In the case of digital media, the inherent structure requires acts of translation, from binary machine code to visible, linguistic symbol. As we write in our paper,

“This constituent role of mediation, and the necessary acts of translation that must occur between modes of representation, is crucial to consider as scholars turn increasingly to digital resources. UI design is, in one sense, the cumulative expression of the acts of translation required to transform physical artifacts to digital objects. Indeed, Mathew Kirschenbaum points out that the

“interface presents a number of interesting and unique problems for the Digital Humanist. Understandably driven by pragmatic and utilitarian needs, the interface is also where representation and its attendant ideologies are most conspicuous to our critical eyes. …. Too often put together as the final phase of a project under a tight deadline and an even tighter budget, the interface becomes the first and in most respects the exclusive experience of the project for its end users.” (Kirschenbaum online)

Our paper concludes by—and our main interest rests in—considering where Digital Humanities might grow and develop as a field:

This paper is intended to provide a provocation rather than a prescription, pointing to areas of possibility and potential growth as informed by a common goal of Digital Humanities: to provide compelling and useful access to humanist resources in digital form.

By speaking about visual epistemology and its expression through design as a constituent element of the experience and interaction enabled through Digital Humanities projects, we hope to illuminate what has too often been overlooked. Moreover, we hope to provide an entry point into discussing the affordances and expressive potential of digital media. To bring Drucker into the conversation once again, “we [Digital Humanists] have to show that digital approaches don’t simply provide objects of study in new formats, but shift the critical ground on which we conceptualize our activity.” (Drucker online) As Digital Humanities is forming itself as a discipline, we need to think less about digitization and more about the expressive potential of digital form. Digital documents are distinct from their physical counterparts. How can Digital Humanities go beyond a kind of mirror representation and take advantage of what is different, new and possible?

I think this paper was a beginning, a way to raise important questions and considerations as we create compelling and innovative projects — and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

One Response to “Why Design?”

  1. Rory Keohane Says:

    I agree that the expressive potential of the digital form as it relates to user interface design should be given greater consideration at earlier stages of projects in order to fully leverage the potential of the subject matter. If it remains an afterthought, it is a missed opportunity for the advancement of understanding comparative studies.

Leave a Reply