Those who are not conversant in works of art are often surprised at the high value set by connoisseurs on drawings which appear careless, and in every respect unfinished; but they are truly valuable... they give the idea of a whole.
- Sir Joshua Reynolds
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
- Anais Nin
 

 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Google Art Project changes

Posted by Charley Parker at 7:31 am

Google Art Project changes
Let me start by saying that I have been a fan of the Google Art Project pretty much since it’s inception in February of 2011 — because I love, love, love high resolution art images — just love ‘em! (love ‘em!), and the Google Art Project has delivered them — in ever increasing numbers.

Admittedly there has been some inconsistency in size and some lapses in quality, but overall they have done a splendid job of putting our noses right up to some of the world’s great works of art, along with offering virtual tours of many of the museums in which they’re housed.

When they expanded, reorganized and streamlined the site in 2012, I was right on board. Every change they made was a much needed improvement.

Google has just released a new round of revisions to the project, and at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I have to say I’m not entirely enthused this time around.

First of all, the Google Art Project no longer exists as an independent entity; it has been subsumed into the more ambitious “Google Cultural Institute“, which evidently seeks to cover all aspects of culture (and perhaps, eventually, All Knowledge — who knows?)

So now, instead of the Google Art Project we apparently have the Google Cultural Institute: Art Project, and in place of googleartproject.com, we have google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project (though I will give the tech team credit for keeping incoming links intact).

It just seems like an unnecessary sidelining and de-emphasizing of the Art Project, and of course, I think such a great destination for online art images should be made more prominent, not less.

Google has made interface changes to the Google Art Project Google Cultural Institute: Art Project — some I think are indeed for the better, others… not so much.

The overall interface is now soft gray with black or dark gray navigation bars, making text easier to read and the navigation areas more prominent, and some navigation features are better organized.

The layout of the Collections and Artists listings is simultaneously improved — by a selection of thumbnail images next to each item in the list — and made more awkward — by a selection of thumbnail images next to each item in the list, without the ability to leave out the thumbnails and streamline the list to just text for easier scrolling.

The need to load thumbnails and the “endless list” style of layout make the list of museums so awkward to browse it’s essentially unusable unless you choose to filter the list — not a good browsing model.

(Is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this now seemingly universal paradigm of infinitely scrolling pages updated with JavaScript, in lieu of actual separate pages that can be individually linked to and bookmarked, not only unnecessary but annoying?)

Filtering the list is up to you; you have to guess at some filters. They say “Begin typing to filter partners [i.e. museums] or countries” and the only actual built-in filter they give you is on the other side of the page in the form of a choice between list and world map view.

The Artists list is likewise not conducive to browsing unless you’re actually searching by name.

An attempt to filter for “19th century” returned nothing; a filter for “France” returned only an entry with the word “France” in the name, and filtering or searching for “Courbet still life” returned lots of items that were neither. Typing in “b” did not filter the list for artists whose names began with the letter, so that previously available feature is gone along with other useful interface items. Maybe they need to partner with a company that’s experienced with search…. oh, wait.

The “Artworks” tab yielded somewhat better results, with at least a scrollable text based list of museums, but still doesn’t encourage the kind of casual browsing by which unexpected discoveries are made.

The entire interface is still too widgety, too reliant on JavaScript and too likely to be clunky and problematic in browsers other than Google’s own Chrome.

It also suffers from design for the illusion of simplicity at the expense of clarity.

As a case in point, the list for Collections (i.e. museums) at first appears to be without discernible order, until you scroll far enough to realize that is is primarily alphabetical, but with new entries in the first several places. With no indication of their function other than a mouse-over tool tip, these are set off with diagonal corner stripes (you know — the universally understood symbol for “new entries that are out of sequence from the main list”).

The big sliding image view, which is the default when viewing Collections, doesn’t function correctly, even in Chrome (for Mac), in that an item partially visible to the right is not moved into full view by the use of the advance arrow, but instead maddeningly slides past the center of the screen and under the filter/collection list on the left! WTF?

Google Art Project changes

I signed in to my account (free, and worthwhile for saving galleries) and under “My Galleries” my saved galleries were waiting for me, custom zoom levels intact, but without the convenient row of thumbnails at page bottom that made them previously easier to browse. This area is now apparently set aside for temporarily dropping items to be added to custom galleries, a process that is less straightforward than before.

The actual high-resolution image view is not radically changed; the background is gray instead of black, controls have been moved around and the containing window is now full browser height with overlays, but it’s essentially the same, and even feels a bit smoother and easier to zoom and scroll.

To be fair, creating and maintaining an amazing resource like this like this costs money, and I’m asking for a lot by being cranky about the interface, considering I’m not paying anything directly for the privilege of access. Google is not doing this out of altruism and a love of art, but as promotion for all things Google, and that’s fine.

Corporate world domination and the end of privacy is a small price to pay for access to high resolution art images (frighteningly, part of me means that), and the Google Art Project Google Cultural Institute: Art Project is still a treasure trove, an amazing destination for art lovers and still more than worthy of my Major Time Sink Warning.

Round two of the site was a distinct step up over the first version, and if round three is a bit glitchy, I can live with it while I wait for round four, as long as all those yummy high res images are available.

Interface hiccups aside, I feel the site is still deserving of even more attention and a wider audience, which is why I think submerging its identity into a mere sub-section of a monolithic “Cultural Institute” is an unfortunate choice.

Given Google’s propensity for growth, I’m just hoping the next round of revisions doesn’t leave art lovers digging through the Google Central Repository for All Information: Complete World Knowledge Registry: Humanities Data Bank: Cultural Institute: Art Project just to get to our fix of high-res Rembrandts.

8 comments for Google Art Project changes »

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  1. Comment by Carol
    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 @ 9:22 am

    Thank you for this in-depth critique of Google’s project. I really appreciate your honesty and insight into the way that art gets portrayed (the good and the bad) online, and this is spot-on.

    I lost faith in Google after seeing theme screw up or abandon other projects in the past, but I always thought I was the only one who cared ;)

    Keep up the good work,

  2. Comment by Trish W
    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    Appreciate your honest & descriptive review of the newest changes to that site. I’ve only tried using it a few times & soon got frustrated: the UI is *far* from stellar. Will probably refer back here to your write-up to help with navigation – made me feel better reading this :-)

  3. Comment by David J. Teter
    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

    Ooops Google!
    Google goes down loooong roads (involved projects).
    Someone needs to yell to them… “YOUR’E GOING THE WRONG WAY!” before it’s too late!

    No it’s not just you.
    I liked the infinite scrolling in the beginning, “OMG this is sooo cool!”, but I also became annoyed once the novelty wore off.
    I did not like scrolling with no sense of where the end is going to be like a page of thumbnails give you.

    Totally dumb to drop the Art Project name.

  4. Comment by Alexey
    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

    I feel that the reason for those infinitely scrolling lists is that us programmers LOATHE arbitrary numbers. The number of entries per page is one such arbitrary number and we want to get rid of it. Unless you can explain WHY EXACTLY a page should have a certain number of entries and why by the same metric it is not better to have it just scroll on forever, you will get infinitely scrolling lists.

  5. Comment by Charley Parker
    Tuesday, June 11, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

    Thanks for the input, Alexey. I understand how programmers can dislike the arbitrary.

    Actually, from my experience as a website designer, I can give you a metric for this that is not arbitrary: calculating the number of entries in a list, given their average height in pixels at the specified font/line-height, that will fit in 1400 pixels (768 x 2 minus generous allowance for browser chrome). i.e. page content that scrolls for only 2 screen heights in the target resolution (these days, iPad 2 horizontal height).

    Specific enough? (grin)

    The advantage I see in limited length pages is that they can be linked to – navigation could even be provided that calculates the list (as in many CMS implementations) and creates links for: page 1,2,3,4,5,6 (of 6) – as an example. Much better user experience than blindly trying to scroll a slowly loading list of unknown length.

    When I criticize a website, it’s not just out of annoyance, though that counts, but out of 17 years of studying interface design. I know Google could do better.

  6. Comment by Susanne E.
    Wednesday, June 12, 2013 @ 2:20 am

    Hello Charley,

    Thanks for this review. You have good points and it is intersting to read your view as an experienced web designer. I had a look at the site and I can find mostly what I search for (mostly by artist), that’s all I am asking for – there have been times when it was near impossible to find anything in Google art project, so they have done some things right :-)

    My first fear reading your article was that they might have made it mandatory to create and account and log in before seeing the paintings, or use the chrome browser, or some other evil change like that. I would be very reluctant to do that. For now it seems I don’t have to *phew* but I’m afraid at some point it will be inevitable.

  7. Comment by David Clemons
    Friday, June 14, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    I hear you, and I’d go further in the complaint to say I have never liked their website. I like it even less now, but still occasionally visit since the images (if I can find them) are great to see. Great idea, lousy execution.

  8. Comment by Haystack
    Sunday, June 30, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    I actually have to use Internet Explorer to view Google Art. Chrome won’t display the high-res images for me. As for searching and browsing, I prefer to use WikiMedia Commons; most of Google Art is over there now. The infinite scrolling lists are useless if you’re working through a collection of 5,000 images, like the Yale Center for British Art–each time you click on one, it takes you back to the beginning! All in all, I interact with the GAP’s actual website as little as possible.

    I wonder if you know whether or not the GAP is likely to undergo another major expansion in the future?

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