Blog #6: Design in An Evolving Medium

For my Digital Tools for Historians graduate class this week, we read the first two chapters of Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice by Janet H. Murray. We were asked to explore the concepts, insights, and explorations of Murray’s book and to “think aloud” about the design of our own project. Murray’s book introduces four properties of the digital medium (the procedural, the participatory, the encyclopedic and the spatial) that create immersion, agency, and transformation. Here is more of a breakdown of what the four properties entail:

• Procedural: Game engines, search engines, spread sheets, sensor devices, control conventions
• Participatory: Blogs and instant messaging, media sharing sites, recommendation systems, input devices, and icon/command conventions
• Encyclopedic: Databases, archives, encyclopedias, portable media players, and organizational conventions
• Spatial: Information spaces, virtual landscapes, maps, GPS devices, navigation conventions

Thus far, I have figured out that my digital project would benefit from a spatial component, a procedural component, and an encyclopedic component. I would like to incorporate a map, a timeline, a search engine or text mining tool, and an archive of songs and podcasts into my project (see my previous blog entries for more information on my Florida folk music thesis topic). Using Murray’s vocabulary, my project will primarily utilize “temporal media”, or media that are time based (spoken language, audio, and video recordings). Murray claims that temporal media in digital formats such as the kind I will examine can be more difficult to search and present than text documents or still images. She recommends using information organization strategies for temporal media including transcripts, descriptive metadata, and playback control. I had already been thinking about including transcripts or metadata whenever possible, and now I am thinking more seriously about how to go about doing that. I find myself thinking about how to incorporate a search engine or a text mining component as well. I have so many ideas and so little time! At the moment, I also have only a small amount of knowledge concerning the implementation of my ideas into a coherent and meaningful digital project.

I must admit that some of Murray’s concepts are over my head or beyond my abilities or interests, but I do appreciate many of her points, including the need for “good graphic design”. According to Murray, a successful digital project should balance simplicity with visually appealing decorative elements. Murray argues that the digital medium is not yet mature. Therefore, she also advocates for the creation of principles and the use of a set vocabulary for the digital medium. Yet, I wonder if it is truly necessary to “invent the medium” as Murray attempts to do rather than permitting it to develop organically over time through exploration and imagination. In my opinion, a “unified vocabulary” and a “common methodology” for digital design could be a practical objective, but it may also stifle growth and creativity.

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Once again, I am trying to balance my lofty dreams for my project with my technical abilities and time constraints, so I wonder if I can possibly incorporate all of my ideas into one project. At the moment, I am building a Storymap for my project. It seems to be one of the best ways to tell the story of the folk music collecting expeditions in Florida in the 1930s. It appears to be a good tool for me to use, but I do not know if I like the way each slide attempts to connect to another on the map as if it is recreating one journey rather than separate expeditions. Anyway, stay tuned to see how my Storymap develops. Also, see if I can possibly build a digital project that includes an interface to store my future podcast series as well as an interactive map, a timeline of events, transcripts of songs that were collected, a search engine to analyze song lyrics, and a text mining component to explore the topics of the songs folks were singing in Florida during the Depression. Also, watch as I grapple with ways in which I can make a digital project with so many components that is also not too “busy” or complex for the common user/interactor. That is a point from Murray’s book that I will be sure to ponder as I create my digital project. I have always been told to dream big, and right now my ideas for my digital project are rather ambitious. Perhaps I will only be able to do half of what I would like to do with this project. We shall see.

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