Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 36

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF [Used by permission of John Fea, *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

I continue to press forward with plans for History to the People. A friend referred me to a web developer and designer to help with the branding. The designer sent me an exhaustive questionnaire in order to get a feel for the experience I’d like to create. I have always appreciated graphic design, but I was struck by the similarities between a thoughtful designer and an astute historian.

The designer, rather than simply creating a logo according to a few superficial questions, operates according to a precise set of design principles. Good design is nuanced and complex—just like a good historical narrative. Her questionnaire included a section on the “global images” of the branding project. In other words, how do I want my brand presented to the customers (or in my case, community), through the use of various oppositional adjectives? Do I want the History to the People website to be fashionable or timeless? Discreet or aggressive? Contemporary or nostalgic?

I found this exercise far more difficult than I had first imagined. I thought that if I conveyed the mission of the website (to encourage historical thinking and to provide an aggregate of academically sourced historical information for a popular audience), that she’d have the tools necessary to complete my ideal design. This is just as erroneous as assuming that one source provides the material necessary to construct a historical narrative.

Often times I feel that because of what I do I am part of an exclusive club. I think to myself, “academically trained historians must be the only people who are conditioned to think critically and to evaluate a problem from a variety of angles.” This just isn’t true. There are a myriad of professions, including those in the arts (a genre from which many historians wish to distance themselves) that encourage analysis and careful attention to a multiplicity of questions.

When I talk to the designer about the website, I feel a sense of camaraderie. We both take what we do very seriously, and we both see critical thinking and complexity as essential to preforming the tasks expected of us. Our conversations as we hone the overall feeling and design of the website remind me that what I do is part of a larger community of intellectuals who labor to tell the most honest and effective stories—no matter the medium.

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