DH and Design

DH and Design

At a recent NYCDH event, I had a brief conversation with architect Laura Kurgan who asked whether I’d received any design training alongside other DH skills and methods. As it happens, I majored in graphic design and worked as an art director for several years, but I am almost certainly the exception to the rule. She got me thinking about the relationship of design and aesthetics—taste is subjective and trends change. And it’s a tricky thing to critique someone’s visual decisions because at a glance, it seems like a very personal kind of decision to make. But information design, and the hierarchy of information presented in any project (especially multimedia, digital ones), is a crucial component of design, and one that goes far beyond aesthetic decisions.

Design is a craft and a profession, not just a skill to add to a cv. Design decisions are loaded with issues: accessibility, UX (user experience), hierarchy of information, environmental impact, cultural norms. Good design can make an argument, guiding the viewer in a way that enhances the overall message of a digital project. Or it can be participatory, offering information in a way that opens up multiple avenues for the reader/viewer to contribute to or for manipulating their experience. But design is never neutral, never just the icing on the cake.

I’ve always believed that studio arts and the MFA model of education have a lot to offer the academic DH community, so I am stepping outside my usual list of university-based resources into some of my personal favorites that can augment the DH experience. The list below links to resources on typography, information design, and accessibility that can instruct designers and also reflect on issues related to design decisions.


  • Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is a classic, nuts-and-bolts instruction on good, elegant design. It is only available in analog form, but is one of my undergraduate textbooks that is still a handy reference.
  • Matthew Butterick’s typography books provide an excellent crash course on the importance of typography, particularly for print design. The most recent is Butterick’s Practical Typography. His previous work, Typography for Lawyers, was written for a particularly conservative field, is a useful reference for the institutional tone that many academics need to consider. (Technically these books are freely available, but the author notes that he does rely on reader-supported publishing, i.e. a donation or purchase, in lieu of ads).

Information Design

  • Edward Tufte’s work is the gold standard for information design of all sorts. His work on data visualization encompasses several printed books, but his entire website is wealth of information and reflections on related topics.
  • Inge Druckrey’s short film, Teaching to See, examines the visual as a kind of language. (Watch here, on Tufte’s website).
  • Online classes at Skillshare are affordable and cater to design-friendly interests. I’ve been enjoying The Designer’s Guide to Writing and Research with Steven Heller. Heller is a well known designer, critic, and lecturer. This is a free class from Skillshare, an online company/community that offers instruction in a number of design-related topics. The Steven Heller course is actually a video workshop on writing about design. Since DH-ers are already thinking conceptually and writing about the work we do, I think it’s a good match.


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