Digital Humanities & Design

In looking at Digital Humanities, one can acutely feel the struggle to avoid the pitfalls of the restrictive dynamics (gender, racial, economic) seen in earlier established fields and academic institutions. This is expected—as Digital Humanities is trying to define and validate itself within the structures of these very institutions and in contrast to established fields that came up through these institutions. One could argue that it will be impossible to shake the limitations (seen and unseen) without changing the venue and baseline assumptions of what validates and defines the field as a whole. 

In considering the evolving conversation surrounding the definition and validation of Digital Humanities and its standing in the academic and public spaces, I can’t help but consider the breadth, depth, and human-centric knowledge evident in the design field, and how Digital Humanities would benefit from a deeper relationship with this sister discipline. 

Digital Humanities, to me, operates in a similar space as Design as an expansive field encompassing a myriad of possible human behaviors and endeavors which ladder up to perhaps a porous definition. Porous in that it allows for many things so seep in and interlock with existing expressions of the field—not limited to new practices that arise as society and technology develop (internet gave us evolved expressions of UX/UI, interactive design, a new field in web design etc.). At its core design deals with the devising and development of an artifact that serves a purpose or use.  As a discipline it seemingly mimics the nature of a fractal—forever iterating off of new branches and with increased nuances. It is not limited by the medium and does not define the challenge to be solved, only that it can be used to solve challenges. From architecture, systems design, service design, fashion design, or graphic design etc.— each field requires specialized knowledge and skill paired with awareness of the intended final user and use. As in any mature discipline, within each field is a dissection of actions performed—roles required—to realize the final outcome. 

This idea of collaboration— of practitioners working under a similar expectation and school of thought—but with very different access points to how design comes to life—speaks to what could be the most impactful work Digital Humanities has to offer—community building. In looking at each of the sites offered this week, it is clear that multiple instances of collaboration—between skilled practitioners, the creators and their audience, and paralleled practitioners and institutions— were necessary to build and share these projects. From the foundational research gathered and indexed on the back end and the front end layouts providing navigable access to the user—many skills, expertise, and collaborative efforts are on display. In publishing the work, community building moves from simply strengthening academic understanding and partnerships, to creating a wider community encompassing the interested public who choose to engage. 

These sites specifically feel aligned with the early academic uses of the internet—used to quickly share learning with colleagues. Issues do arise, however, in the continued academic design expressions and signifiers. This “gives away” the extremely academic environment that these projects were birthed in. In side stepping modern advances in design — specifically current expressions of UX/UI the project creators ensure a limited reach with audiences beyond the academic space. In exploring the various sites, it’s unclear, in fact, who the target audience is for each. There is a lot of vacillation between focused scholars (links to published papers, wordy introductions, and academic vocabulary) and the general public (anecdotes, quick summaries, and photography). Online behaviors of the average user do not mimic that of scholars used to reading lengthy texts structured in institutional traditions of scholarship. 

Moving forward, if I were to consider in my evolving understanding that DH’s  core includes collaborative sharing and expression of knowledge and experience related to the human experience via digital spaces and specifically beyond the walls of academia — it should be asked what can the field benefit from absorbing from design, an established field that has advanced and dedicated knowledge of the practical and physical human experience, including how to impactfully share knowledge so it is effectively received.

2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities & Design

  1. Elizabeth Szypulski (She/her)

    “…it should be asked what can the field benefit from absorbing from design…”

    Yes! I think this could be said for many digital/digital-adjacent fields. I work in education and am dismayed by how little edTech (both corporate and homebrew) follows or engages with principles of and developments in design. Digital humanists are leaving a lot on the table if they don’t take advantage of what design tells us about how users engage with digital projects.

    1. JP

      Great point. If we do not get students ready to step into their world prepared to engage in it with the appropriate tools, then we would have failed them. As reading and writing were fundamental in days of old, being digitally competent is the equivalent now. This includes being an active participant in the digital sphere with rudimentary or basic skills.

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