Blog Post

Why Are Academic Websites So Ugly?

In my research I look for the nineteenth-century American poems that I believe have been wronged by being printed in physical books, and I create interactive digital websites for reading them instead. This project is the culmination of a lot of study and analysis, but is related to a question I’ve had for quite some time:

Why are academic websites so ugly?

I explore scholarly websites a lot in my work -- especially archives. I look through digital scans and metadata in search of unusual moments in print history, but the exploration is often awkward and unpleasant. Sidebars seem to come out of nowhere, search engines return poor results, and long jargon-filled explanatory paragraphs overwhelm the screen. I am forced to spend my time searching for very specific items, rather than enjoying the sense of open-ended discovery every academic is familiar with -- the experience that comes along with research in physical archives where we can wander down long rows of books that smell like old paper and move beneath our fingers.

I've wondered why we often accept that digital discovery is less tactile and enjoyable. Why do we divorce the aesthetic experience of physical research in archives from the process of research on and through computers? I think it goes back to the historic divide between art and technology that started in the mid-19th century -- but the original 17th-century word “technology” had little to do with industry and machines. (It comes from the Greek word tekhnologia, meaning the systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique.) It wasn’t until the rise of industrial mass-production in the mid-19th century that the definition changed to something more mechanical. People began to see artistry as something derived from the human mind, and machines as the enemy of that process. As a result, we often see things made by machines as “ugly” and don’t question that it should be that way.

We should pay attention to aesthetics when making digital scholarly websites, rather than just focusing on what is in them. We should see the aesthetic and interactive elements of any research environment as inextricably linked to the process and product of what is produced through it. We should embrace the experience of digital research as providing new possibilities unavailable in research in physical spaces -- like the ability to get more (and faster) information about what we’re viewing. But we should also be able to enjoy it just as much as we would enjoy a day in the library or our favorite bookstore.

tl;dr: we can make academic websites pretty too.


1 comment

What interests me is why these sites remain so successful in and outside of academia. 


Starting first with what websites during Web 1.0 looked like:

For the time, these were very good, but with the invention of
tools like CSS and JavaScript along with all of the online
website-making tools (e.g. SquareSpace, WordPress, Weebly, etc.), these sites
and their aesthetics became obsolete - for the most part. 

According to author Gerry McGovern in his article Why Ugly Websites are so
, "...visual appeal is rarely a major factor for
the customer. The accuracy, up-to-datedness and completeness of the information
are critical...often the more visually appealing something is, the more they
ignore it. If it looks like marketing or an ad, it's dismissed as having low
value or credibility." This can easily apply to academic websites as well
by changing the role of "customer" to "academic searching for
information."  Often in academics, the more straightforward the source
of information is, the better. 

This idea of "ugly is more accurate" plays a roll in the stereotyping academics receive:
expected to be unattractive, stuck in a library all day, and very socially
awkward. This is further perpetuated by the misogyny and sexism prevalent in
academics throughout history, causing women's taste to be unaccounted for in the
creation of these staples in academia. The societal norms of men, such as not
having to put as much effort into their look to be "socially
acceptable" is very clear in this comparison. If academics are mostly men
throughout history, and men view aesthetic and decoration as feminine and
therefore of no use to them, then the idea that beauty and academia do not mix
is further pushed as an agenda. This contributes to academic settings being
known as bland, but hopefully with the rising of awareness and feminist ideals
things like this can be addressed.

Hopefully the future of academia does not
have to be so ugly.