David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

The Importance of Design for Historians

A Museum Studies classmate turned exhibition design firm colleague once remarked that she pursued design as a career because it combined her interest in art with an appreciation for engineering inherited from her engineer father. This is the best definition I’ve heard of design and its importance–it’s not just about making things pretty (the art side), but functional and usable through visual and physical cues (the engineering side).

That is the main point of this week’s readings (for the two of you following at home, scroll to January 30): design creates the form and function of everything, and sends its own cues. This is an important lesson for historians, particularly in a climate where our work will increasingly be on the Internet or in other media, and where we will be interacting frequently with designers, if not designing ourselves.

In history, we are used to privileging text, as can be seen sometimes when historians review museum exhibitions and focus solely on the text. This means they miss the messages sent by the space, which is planned just as meticulously to convey the exhibition’s messages and themes. For an example of this, see the back and forth between Alan Singer and Richard Rabinowitz over the New-York Historical Society’s Revolution! exhibition (an exhibition I loved, for what it’s worth)–Singer’s critique focuses almost exclusively on the exhibition’s text. While the text is an important component of the exhibition, it is merely a component.

From left: American Historical Review, Public Historian, Museum. Each conveys the message of its organization.

No matter what, the design of something contains a message. Let’s look at the main publications of the three professional organizations with which I associate myself: the American Association of Museums (disclosure: my wife works there, but not on the publication), the National Council on Public History, and the American Historical Association. Each reflects its organization and its audience. AAM’s Museum is glossy, with numerous color photos and a magazine-style layout. The American Historical Review, by contrast, conveys heft both by its bulkiness and its design. The cover is plain, with one image and serif type on a white background. Public Historian falls in the middle: It contains photos on the cover and more color.

What messages do they convey? Museum serves a field where conveying messages visually in physical and digital spaces is paramount. Public Historian serves a field with similar concerns, albeit one where text is more privileged. American Historical Review, by contrast, serves a field whose traditional means of communication–at least those that advance one’s career–consist of monographs and article. In other words, text is privileged.

When we historians are communicating with others who privilege text, perhaps a design like that of the American Historical Review makes sense. It conveys extreme seriousness, perhaps even turning off others outside the profession (and, I suspect, many within). But as more of our work goes online, and as even those in academia (those few who get jobs on that path, at least) hopefully work with museums and historic sites, we need to have a greater understanding of design.

As B.J. Fogg’s report on website credibility notes, design is the first cue of credibility for many, not just on the Web. Even if we are not actually the people designing our own websites (or museum exhibitions), we need to be aware of the language of design for communicating with designers. The era where we could not be concerned with design is over, if it ever existed. We convey meaning through more than our words.


  1. I liked your term “extreme seriousness”. Does privileging text somehow mean more legitimate? I would like to think you would say no, and the focus on design supports this. Fogg’s report seems to support this as well, though it was interesting that the text that would normally signify credibility (i.e.-privacy policies) came second to “superficial…visual cues”. But not as much as they thought. Interesting…They seemed to conclude that it was out of ignorance of good design practices.

    • David McKenzie

      January 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      Rosendo–thanks for your comment! As you correctly inferred, I don’t mean to say that privileging text equals legitimacy, although I do feel like that’s the (gradually changing, perhaps?) ethos of our trade. Hm. I should look at some other super-scholarly works, and look for design consistency in them (perhaps, for example, smaller fonts, no illustrations?). I wonder if some would that to equal more scholarly?

      • Stephanie Grimes

        February 4, 2012 at 5:34 pm

        David, in your second comment you mention looking at more scholarly websites to determine if they put forth more focus on illustrations or texts. Perhaps it is the art historian in me, but I buy into the idea that design should be the number one priority. If a website is ordered and appealing to the eye it assumes credibility. Lets say a super scholarly website had lots of writing and small text. It may appeal to a specific group (who would have more than likely had to have had an interest in said topic previous to stumbling on this website) but it would not draw in the general public. So what is more important when building a website, appealing to the general public through this “superficial” design? Or establishing credibility with an elite and specific group of scholars?

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