Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Arresting Image

Like a lot of librarians and writers (I happen to be both), I have a habit of privileging text over image. Partly it's upbringing, partly it's preference; however vivid and absorbing an image, I'm habitually more drawn to text, both for information and for entertainment.

In the past month, though, I've twice been pointed to the Boston Globe's The Big Picture. As MediaShift puts it, the Big Picture is "a large-format photo-blog" that "has created a way to display powerful images in a user-friendly manner". Simply put, it does this by making the images really, really large, and captioning them. The result is beyond attention-getting; it's far more absorbing than the images that typically accompany online newspaper stories, which often seem to be stuck in as an afterthought, or a way to balance the page layout. (Some of these, to be fair, link to larger pop-up versions of themselves--the Big Picture's images are still larger, though.)

This week I'm thinking a lot about the presentation of information, as my library website is about to go through a minor bit of redesign. We won't be changing the site architecture, but we will be doing some aesthetic rearranging. A few months back I asked, here and elsewhere, for examples of library websites that showed particularly good design. The response was mostly resounding silence. Library websites tend to be ugly, for the same reason that a lot of online newspaper sites are just the print version ported to the Web, often to a visually cluttered result: we're not used to thinking about how to make what we offer appealing to the eye in this medium. Larger monitors help; I read online a lot more since I got my 17-inch Macbook. But you can't count on that, not with mobile technologies taking off the way they are.

Now that I've been in the library field a few years, I'm thinking seriously about what aspects of the field interest me, since there's not enough time to try or do everything even in this little disciplinary slice of the world. We pay a lot of lip service to the necessity of good online service, especially usability, but rarely talk about what that means in terms of aesthetics and presentation. The Big Picture shows why these things are important.

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