Making Websites for the World of History: The Importance of Flair

I spend a lot of time on the internet. Whether it be for research, leisure, and everything in between, I find myself looking at computer screens far more than I should. This is why I have such a pet peeve for web design. So many times I find websites, GUIs, and menus to be so horribly designed that I can’t believe a normal person thought it was okay. First impressions are huge, and most users can’t be bothered to spend a couple minutes figuring out where the actual information is.

This is especially important in digital history. Finding information quickly is tantamount to all, but that does not mean that visual flair should suffer as a result. The best example of this I can find comes from a website for a video game: Firewatch. This game’s running theme revolves around exploring the vast forests of the Midwest. The parallax scrolling and lack of words immediately trains your eyes on the massive vista on your screen. Even on the website, you’re already having fun exploring the wilderness that awaits you in game. This advertises the game better than almost anything I can imagine. It immediately catches your attention while also showing you information about the game without you even knowing it.

In the world of history, we often never do this. This website is the homepage to the National Museum of American History. On a first glance, it seems fine. Your eyes are drawn to the large scrolling pictures, and blog posts and other links follow below. It gets worse and worse the more you scroll down, however. Rows of red, white, and blue separate links to other parts of the website. These colors, while patriotic, confuse your eyes and distract from the information inside of them.  It becomes hard to discern what each category contains, and why they deserve to be separated by color. Many will also assume that anything in red is related, when in reality, there is no running theme. The web designers here have sacrificed readability for the American flag aesthetic, which is a cardinal sin of the history world.

Museum designers in the future need to look towards a look that compliments the material, not works against it. Like the Firewatch website, the ultimate goal of a history website is to teach through the look alone. If a visitor can get interested in your website without reading anything, then you did a good job.

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