Commenting Week of March 1

Turns out Zayna and I are in the same boat with color – red to be precise, which is a fabulous color, but difficult to use correctly. I also commented on Clay’s discussion of color, which in my mind sparked a “what’s better” debate: good content on a non-designed site or gorgeous design and so-so content? I think even online, content has to remain “king.” The “history” has to remain. It should be well-researched, well-thought out and well-argued. But I also think a site needs to present the content in a compelling way. Since I tend to lean towards clean sites with a lot white, honing my eye for design is something I will have to work on.

I also gave Lisa some feedback on her text assignment and commented on Jon’s post on visual explanations.

Data Visualization & The Historian

I was looking forward to revisiting Edward Tufte this week. In 2000, I scammed a free trip to one of Tufte’s day-long seminars in Crystal City. At the time, I was working for Sallie Mae as one of their web content writers and often, my work required drilling down complicated loan details into digestible webby bits. One of the ways we were hoping to make that easier was by (smartly) using visuals.

While sending a lowly web writer to a seminar discussing the 30,000 foot view of visualization was probably not the most utilitarian of ideas, I did appreciate the fact that I was getting a nice overview of the importance of proper visualizations and the theory behind what is good and what is bad. Not that I think I ever fully realized my goals of making kick-ass visualizations.

Years, age and more education later and I still know the difference between a good visual and a bad one and yet, I’m still not sure I could easily create one. I still architect visualizations for work and I think that a visual is only as good as the data you have underneath. furthermore, visualizations are only as effective as person creating the visual has an understanding of the underlying data. And I think this is the rub. And the irony. Time and detailed study are required to create a visualization that people can quickly find and skim for the pertinent information. Gobs of info in a quick byte.

I’m still striving to deal with data in intelligent ways. When I come across something I really like, like the video in my very first post here, I spend some time and really look at what they’ve done and how. The Onion does them well, but I think it’s easier to build them when you aren’t as stressed about the integrity of the data, which I ended up having to do quite a bit during my five-year stint running an entertainment channel at AOL.

Complicated or nuanced data is a bit tougher to deal with. And as much as Tufte hates it, USAToday has created a level of expectation for these things. And if we are attempting to attract and audience larger than 20, it would do us well to consider that.

And again, we are back at the question that spans two Clio courses: who are building these suckers for?

I believe we can strive to cut a middle line where we remain academic and true to our standing as historians, and still make the data easy to digest and recall at a later time. After all, I think Dr. Hans Rosling toes this line pretty well in his video. I have no doubt about the veracity of the underlying data, nor do I think it’s shallow by any means.

So upon my re-read, many years later, of Visual Explanations, I think it still stands the test of time. We have more accessible data visualization tools now and a bit more experience in viewing these on the web than we did when it was first published. We can still strive to find the right balance between information and accessibility. As a budding historian, it’s certainly a goal that I have.

Though the fake ones are amusing!

funny graphs and charts
see more Funny Graphs

Purpose-Built Content

I finished up my Type assignment last night. Like most of our other classmates who’ve expressed such things, I spent an inordinate amount of time on it. Even still, I’m not totally happy with it.

For the final project, I might do what Ruel did and use a graphic for my rule instead of that long line. I put a dividing line between my content and my footnotes and I don’t like the way you can’t tell the difference between the two rules.

Additionally, I’m not crazy about my actual text. (I know the point of this project was to code the layout of the text, but still…) Since I am creating this project from scratch I think I’m going to have to spend some quality time actually writing up my thoughts and research in a way that will be usable for my project.

Which brings me to the question of purpose-built content. It has been very interesting for me to read how all of you took existing text and applied it to this project. Specifically, those of you who struggled with how to deal with the length. Since I did not use something from my back pocket, I had length issues on the other end of the spectrum. Namely, how much is enough to formulate a real discussion online? Whatever the answer, I don’t think I made it this week, as what I have feels more skeletal than anything.

And this has led to me ponder the concept of purpose-built content for consumption online. Much like my beloved Nutshells were purpose-built to be used as training tools, and only as tools, I think I’m going to have to widen my thinking about creating and consuming history online. Not to get too metaphysical here, but this becomes a bit of a chicken and egg question: which exists first? The concept for the site or the research behind it?

If the concept for my proverbial future site exists first, specifically, if I say to myself, “Self, this is a really cool subject and I think you should study it and make it into a website, because that is the best format AND audience for it.” Well then I’ll have to visualize the guts of my scholarship in a different way than if I churn out a really good paper and decide to post it online. (And then I will get medication for talking to myself in such a way.)

Those are two very different sites, with very different purposes. As such, everything about them would be, for lack of a better word, different: design, presentation, information architecture — all would need to play the appropriate part to bring the scholarship alive in the right way.

This post-assignment rambling is meant only to really force myself to think about how to proceed from here. I’m not sure about you, but once I got past fighting with the endnotes, it seemed to me that we really are at a turning point with this assignment. We now have to get beyond making our sites work and really start thinking about the specifics about our projects and how we want to present them. And for me, that is the scariest question. And right now, I have no answers. So I throw this question to you? Do you think I’m over-thinking it?

Oh, Oh The Places You’ll Go

When I found out that I had been accepted into the PhD program, my husband bought me a new laptop. It was sweet and very thoughtful and he said that he had no doubt that me and my new laptop would become the best of friends. And so far, we’ve been joined at the hip. Not specifically because we are co-dependent, but because I seem to be going for some sort of world record of how long I spend on these assignments.

I’m not at the point yet where I can tell you exactly what each declaration does — I’m still in trial and error mode. I think eventually it’ll click and I’ll inherently know that to move this, I have to change that.¬†And while Kellie has gotten to know DreamWeaver’s “undo” function, I’m flirting with the gold for the most uploads of my CSS. I find I’m in the habit of changing one thing and then uploading to see how it worked. That’s the beauty of the web. Instant gratification.

I have the basic coded outline of my text assignment. I pulled a basic one column html template from DW and coded in the nav along the bottom of the header. I changed the colors to match my new header. I’m still rocking the Latin placeholder text, but today, I plan to write out the text explaining Frances Glessner Lee’s impact on crime scene investigation.

I did a basic newspaper search from the 40s/50s/60s and found several interesting articles about her. Apparently, Harvard used her program as the means by which to reform the Massachusetts state coroner system in favor of instituting trained medical examiners. (For historians who study crime, coroner’s reports can be a fabulous source of primary materials–coroners were allowed to accept gossip and hearsay as evidence, so they are usually ripe with details about the person’s life. Alas, coroners were not at all trained in police work or medico-legal procedure and eventually went the way of the dodo.) I hadn’t thought about how these dioramas might affect the eventual migration away from the coroner, so this is a nice little twist for my project.

I’ve also been spending quality time with PhotoShop. Last Thursday, I drove up to Baltimore to spend the afternoon with the Nutshell Studies, which are housed on the 4th floor of the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office. Visitation is by special approval only, so I am very grateful to Jerry D for accepting my request and letting me roam the little exhibit room for 3 hours with a ridiculous amount of unnecessary camera equipment and Alexa, who was a most gracious helper.

Photo by Erin Bush, The Nutshell Studies/Red Bedroom

I’m still making my way through all the photos I took, but I did manage to get some that I really like. (Including my new header! Meet Marie Jones, a prostitute who met her untimely end at the point of a knife in the closet of her red bedroom. The packed suitcase and open bureau drawers makes me think she was packing in a hurry…)

Once I organize them all, I have to think about how I might use them. Eleven of the eighteen dioramas have female victims. I took pictures of seven of them hoping that I’d get enough imagery to represent four. (As you can imagine, the lighting was really tough.) I don’t have the official analyses/answers to these dioramas since they are still being used for training, but I do have my own opinions about the pertinent evidence from each.

Not sure if I’ll incorporate my own thoughts, but it’s fun to ponder. Anyone have any ideas on how I might use that info? I’m trying to pull together how these were used to change the face of crime scene investigation. With technological advances in forensic science, these seem a pretty low-tech way to go. Thoughts?

Success and Comments for the Week Ending 2/15

Update: thank you to those who helped me online and off. Thanks to Sasha, your suggestion to remove the quotation marks from the font URL string in my CSS worked like a charm, and Alex and Alexa, I got the opacity to work in PhotoShop! So now I’ve embedded the script font I wanted and have a header image. (Now I need to figure out how to center the header in the middle of the photo!)

As far as comments go, this week I agreed with Roger’s suggestion to suggest Lynda a few months out for future incoming ClioII students. M.C. Farrington’s post started an interesting discussion about the fate of design in today’s web world. And I dropped a couple of links on Sasha’s World of WebFonts post and
AnnaLise’s post on script-y fonts.