Blog Post

Design for Digital Humanists: Another Resolution

There’s been a bit of discussion on the HASTAC blogs via Alex Leavitt and Melody Dworak about learning coding for digital humanities projects, and more generally about what skills and goals are necessary to make your DH projects into a reality. Here’s another resolution for you to consider as you work on projects this year: Learn graphic design.

As Alex Leavitt pointed out, coding is an increasingly important skill for digital humanities projects, but an awareness of graphic design is also essential to the success of your projects. Here are three reasons you should add learning the principles of graphic design to your scholarly to-do list:
  • It’s a design world. Quality design is a fundamental expectation on the modern web because it aids usability and understanding. Startup companies like Fab, CodeAcademy, Milk, and Kiip are examples of some of the many design-oriented, or designer founded, companies leading the charge in a new golden age of design entrepreneurship. These companies reflect the steadily growing importance of design when sharing your work with any audience. See also: The Golden Age of Design in Startups
  • Coding without design is like a candle without a fire. Design compliments coding proficiency with vision. The coding skills you can learn give you the ability to make something, but you still need something to make. Even if you do have an idea for what you want to make, you still need to figure out exactly what it’s going to look like and how it works. Design answers these questions. This isn’t to say that coding isn’t important; I will be taking a web design course myself this spring. Coding is the infinitely useful tool you need to make something, but design is the mindset that determines what gets made. From the Universal Traveler: “Design is a process of making dreams come true.”
  • Design is a way of thinking that clarifies purpose. Design is sometimes described as problem solving, sometimes as the making of artifacts, and sometimes as a user experience, but ultimately design means a way of working, thinking, and imagining that creates a unified effect of purpose in the final output. Everything in a quality design (graphic, web, or otherwise) supports the primary purpose of the design. In a digital humanities project, that means you’ll learn how to think in a way that not only helps you come up with ideas, but also helps you determine which ones are the best ideas.

Luckily, if you want to learn graphic design to make your projects more successful, there’s Method of Action. Method of Action is similar to CodeAcademy in that it is a free online educational website, but it focuses on learning the fundamentals of graphic design in 50 free missions rather than coding. It describes itself as “design for programmers,” so it is responding to the need for coders to also be designers, and it’s perfect for those of you who are tackling coding but also want to gain an eye and hand for design.

It’s also a perfect example of the new education focused startups that are changing the way we learn. The fact that it is well-designed itself is further proof the importance of graphic design in new digital projects. Interestingly, Method of Action will also be launching two other online courses, one in entrepreneurship and one in gardening. I’m not sure yet how gardening fits into digital humanities...

Of course, Method of Action is just one simple way to start to learn graphic design - traditional routes like reading graphic design books and taking a course are always available as well.

There is a real possibility and opportunity for graphic design to make our projects more defined, focused, effective, and engaging. Like many of you, I am just beginning my quest to learn to code, but during that process, I encourage you to consider the importance of design in your digital humanities new year resolutions as well.

Further questions and thoughts:

  • How have you encountered graphic design in your projects?
  • What have been the big design challenges you’ve faced?
  • Do you think it’s important at all?
  • What specific areas of design could be improved in most digital humanities projects?

Quick post introduction: My name is Kevin McGillivray, and I’m a senior undergraduate at St. Norbert College studying graphic design. This semester I am focusing my HASTAC blog on art/design, entrepreneurship, and writing pedagogy. You should follow me on twitter here.


1 comment

My only worry is that at some point, the goal of digital humanities becomes "Know ALL THE THINGS."