What is a text? A text is not solely composed of words on a page. If we break down all of its elements, we can also include the title of the text, the copyright page, and the preface. We may even note the paper itself, the ink, or the binding. In literary studies, this is called the paratext, or what’s around the body of the text itself. The paratext provides context for the work, as well as necessary attributions and citations. Not only can it give the work credence and credibility, it also provides the reader with easier means to navigate the text with components like a table of contents, page numbers, and an index. In digital publishing, we might consider the comments section, links within articles, and even pop-up advertisements as elements of the paratext.
We can read digital humanities projects as texts, too. But often, crucial elements of the digital paratext—navigation, sidebars, typography, color choice, and so on—are overlooked in DH projects. Some of the richest digital scholarly work I’ve seen has been riddled with large blocks of unnavigable, jargon-filled descriptions in odd fonts, cascading navbars or sidebars that lead to 404 pages, and color schemes that seem to draw their inspiration from the earliest days of the internet. That scholars don’t always carefully pay attention to design makes some sense. After all, we humanists are not UX/UI designers.
Let’s start thinking of design choices as part of the paratext of our digital projects. And I don’t mean taking an extra moment to choose a nice font—we should place equal importance on the design as on the content itself. In print publishing, careful attention is given to typography, color, spacing, and ornamentation of the paratext. Things like font weight, style, and spacing, images, and extra lines or symbols are deliberate editorial decisions because these elements are intended to facilitate better reading experiences.
Here are a few design websites from which you might garner inspiration for your next digital humanities project:
Awwwards is an organization that displays the work and projects of web designers and developers.
Similar to awwwards, CSS Design Awards is an award platform that showcases the work of some of the best developers on the web.
Codrops is a collective of free and open source web design and development tutorials.
Designing legible paratext should be a fundamental step in digital scholarship. Scholars, especially those of us working in the digital humanities, have an ethical imperative to make our scholarship legible and comprehensible to an array of different publics. When we disregard design, we hinder accessibility to our research.
The paratext has a rich, storied history rooted in the history of print. What better way to celebrate this history than to give it a new, digital chapter?