plotting the user experience

If you want the online version of your catalog to be of real value to the public you should consider plotting a narrative for the published side. After all, an artist’s works are like archaeological fragments of a life—and each life has its textures, colors, and context. Consequently, using some kind of narrative to shape your content gives it meaning as well as form. But, how does one plot a catalog? Here is a simple suggestion.

Ordinarily, an artist’s output is arranged in chronological order. What if, in addition to that necessary chronology you offer another, only this time you break it up into periods of stylistic development i.e., Early Career, The Yellow Period, The Expressionist Years, etc.? Or, by creation location i.e., Paris, Côte d’Azur, Tangiers, etc.? Or, construct a timeline? Afterwards, select some exemplary images, embed them in a series of essays with commentary, and add links to places elsewhere in your catalog. As a result of a modicum of planning, users will have alternate routes to your existing content, they will get something for their effort, and they’ll have reason to return. Meanwhile, you don’t have to change your original database structure. Very easy.

Now, let’s get a little more complicated. Depending on the intended scope of your project you may want to add other materials to your database to further develop a story around your catalog. If you go this route, then how you set up supplementary materials in your database will naturally follow from the stories you wish to tell, so you need to think about your narrative(s) early on.

You’ll have to store the extra stuff in containers, separate but connected to your core catalog, and customize your database accordingly. These containers are called supplementary tables. Besides the usual images and texts, you’ll want your supplementary tables to hold things such as scanned documents, conservation reports, letters, newspaper clippings, maps, charts, diagrams, spectrographs, x-rays and infrared photographs, sound files, video files, 3D visualizations, etc. Adding these tables to your database structure makes for the possibility of more complex narratives when you’re ready to publish.

Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, your catalog is to be filled with hundreds of medieval tapestries. You might want to show lots of details. You may also want to provide documentation of the reverse of each tapestry and show the evolution of weaving practices from from place to place and over time. Then, from all the flora depicted you might want to isolate and describe the culinary and medicinal uses of the herbs; display pages from herbals and other manuscripts; connect the fauna in the tapestries with their mythic descriptions in bestiaries, show them in book illuminations, in stained glass, ivories, wood carvings and rock crystal, and in architectural details; create overlays of sacred and secular iconography and its representation in missals, chalices, and monstrances. What about adding an illustrated glossary? Conceivably there’s no end to this.

When you are ready you will have a substantial storehouse of goods to draw from. Now, you need to work with your web designer to create ways for users to draw from what you have and give them the tools to dig deeper, to compare and contrast, and most of all to connect the dots and make discoveries of their own. Of course, you demarcate the territory, but they will interpret for themselves.

In many ways the aforesaid is nothing new. When the catalog was strictly a print form, these kinds of things were to be found in the commentaries, essays, appendices, addenda, and other supplements to the catalog proper, all relegated to separate value-added sections. Now, due to new database technologies and developing strategies for publishing online, one is able to mix it up so-to-speak and the user can make connections never dreamed of before.

It isn’t magic. It does have to be scripted.


Roger Shepherd is the Creative Director of panOpticon.


Have questions you want to ask or topics you want to recommend for discussion? Please go to our question page to post them. Thanks.

Roger Shepherd
Article By :