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The War Against Ugly


In the documentary film Helvetica by Gary Hustwit, one of the interviewees says that graphic design is the fight against ugly. I try not to use violent, competitive  language, but I have to agree with this statement.

The subject of design is something I’ve been thinking about with e-portfolios. I’ve seen examples of e-portfolios at other universities, but (warning: harsh statements to follow) they are ugly.  Who wants to see a faded image of you hiking in the woods on a bright yellow background with two paragraphs of unaligned text about your sisters and favorite foods? Not me.

 Not only are the e-portfolios I’ve seen aesthetically offensive, they are also unorganized. Just like in writing a paper, organization is key to building a webpage. An unorganized webpage is like an unorganized essay: confusing, uninteresting, and unprofessional.  If I as the viewer/reader can’t navigate your space (whether it’s a webpage or a paper), I don’t want to continue investing in it.

If we’re following American standards (and at Agnes Scott we are), the introduction to a paper should state the main message that you support throughout the text. Likewise, a home-page should give the viewer a sense of who you are and what this website is about. Are you funny? Are you studious? What are your career goals? What’s your education? And most importantly, why are you interesting enough for me to continue looking at this site? If you’ve ever kept the “So what?” question in mind as you were writing a paper, or put yourself in the place of the reader, pursue the same process when designing a webpage.

The e-portfolios I’ve seen that have some type of organization are often built around boring titles like, Transcript, Goals, Qualifications. Or they are organized by year, First Year, Sophomore Year, Junior Year, etc, or class, REL 331, ENG 101, Global Connections. These categories don’t tell me who you are. These categories tell me that someone told you that these were the categories you should have on a webpage. Because an e-portfolio is not a list, but a deeper analysis of a student and and her interests, I encourage students to name their categories based on these interests. While brainstorming with Carin, a TPS tutor, she revealed her interests in math, economics, environmentalism, technology, and photography. Any of these categories seem more interesting to me than ART 160 or Sophomore Year. If she wanted to, she could get even more creative and name her categories based on projects she’s done in these areas or on something else interesting and related.

I had a meeting with Career Planning yesterday and Catherine Neiner, the director, said that many people are scared of the word “design”. I’m grateful she brought this up.

I believe that anyone can do anything with the right resources and support. However, if you’re scared of design, don’t design a webpage. Use a template, like what you can find in a blog or any number of other sites. People are paid to design for a reason. Templates exist because people who are designers want people who are not designers to still have access to good design.

The topic of ugliness brings up the debate between process and product. To me, an e-portfolio at its best represents both process and product. Continuing the metaphor of the paper, an e-portfolio is an abstract and a final draft on top of a pile of notes and reflections and color-coded research. If I’m interested in your abstract (home-page), I’ll read your paper (the pages linked to your home-page), and if I’m still curious about you after that, I may delve into your brainstorming (your blog, writing samples from your early college career, your extracurriculars, etc.) I’ll emerge with a sense of what kind of learner and thinker you are and I’ll have a clear understanding of your interests and goals.

That being said, I am actually impressed with several of the students’ sites at St. Olaf College. (Thank you Kevin Brace for a link to this resource!) These students use standard, pre-determined categories, but I still get a sense of the individual. My favorites? Matt Tiano, Amy Kirihara, and David Sayre.



2 thoughts on “The War Against Ugly

  1. I think seeing examples like the ones you provided via link are encouraging. They provide a starting point for people, since once they see where they could go they can develop their own ideas. It’s a lot better than being faced with a blank screen or template. Also, it’s easy to see how useful they can be in synthesizing one’s interests and ideas or helping out one’s career search.

    Posted by Anonymous | September 16, 2009, 12:27 pm
  2. It’s important to remember how reliant we are on visual navigation and imagery in our techno world. Visual literacy is as important as verbal, and the more you learn about and manipulate imagery that supports and augments your message, the more likely someone will “listen” to what you are saying. When Shannon talks about thinking of your own categories–what a great idea–think about authentic images too. Instead of doing a picture of you that might be forgettable, what about your portrait being cupid? Or a sunflower? Or a snowflake. Suddenly a regular old looks more compelling…not just “so what” but “what if”…open up, give us something we don’t expect!

    Posted by agnesart | October 6, 2009, 1:00 pm

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