This morning I presented to a group of ~80 higher education colleagues who work in creative services offices for colleges and universities across the country. My session, Stand Out! Customize Your Institution’s Social Media Presence went beyond yesterdays Social Media 101 session and got under the hood with seven social networking sites to equip these designers with the specs and knowledge needed to customize their college’s presence.
Earlier this week I wrote about reining in the outliers for a university-wide cohesive Web presence. Todd Sanders (@tsand) from the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, had the gall to disagree with me (“for the first time EVER,” I’ll have you note), arguing that the art department shouldn’t look like the business department Web site. While I kid about his gall, I actually had to break it to him that we didn’t make history – we actually do agree on this.
Before you run away calling me a hypocrite, let’s explore this.
Art programs should do what they do best – express themselves creatively. Business programs probably don’t need to be as bold and edgy as an art program would, as they attract a different type of student. I’m not saying business program sites should be stodgy and traditional. Just different.
There are great benefits to using templates across all units of the university, but I do believe there are projects where it is appropriate to stray a bit from the cookie-cutter template. These “other sites” should still be very clear they are part of the overall university identity, but there are a number of ways to do this visually, without forcing them to conform to the standard university template.
At the university I work for, we created a new template for the School of Fine & Performing Arts, and are nearly finished with our year-long project to convert all of the departments and programs within into this new template. Their template is quite different than the overall university template that all other academic and administrative programs use. However – their School still has a cohesive School-wide presence, and there are elements in their template that tie it in to the standard university template.
We’re embarking on a redesign project of the main template and site to go along with the university’s new branding initiative. Part of our challenge will be marry the different templates together, and still clearly project our new creative strategy. I love a good challenge.
I don’t think this approach makes my previous post null and void. I still think there are many appropriate times to use the steps I outlined and push for the standard template. But, I think in the case of the example Todd brought up in the comments, he’s right. What do you think?
A prospective student does a Google search for “English composition [university name]” and is brought to your English department’s site. While there, they find the program that intrigues them, and decide to jump off course to learn more about tuition and fees, housing, and dining services. Along they way they bounce through three additional department Web sites, but the prospective student feels like they’ve been to three completely different university sites. Each step along the way they have to figure out where the navigation and search bar have moved, how their content is organized, what lingo they use, and likely have a completely different experience on each site. Sound familiar?
Developing a university-wide Web design template that is flexible enough for all departments, programs and units to use is one behemoth of a challenge. In the case of large institutions where there are usually multiple Web offices throughout the institution, it’s even more challenging and unlikely to find. Small- to mid-size colleges/universities with a centralized Web and/or marketing unit can make this happen – but it takes quite a bit of work, commitment and patience.
Five steps to rein in the outliers
1) Create a strong template
Create a visually appealing, yet flexible enough template that is customizable for each unit. The flexibility needs to range from having a small to large menu of options, the ability to manage rapidly changing content areas, and be able to use customized photographs and images that best represent the unit.
2) Create a strong policy
Create a strong, clear, concise policy that is enforced, endorsed and supported my upper management. Make sure this policy is brief, yet contains information about why and how using the standard design template will benefit them and their audiences.
3) Blame the law
Many states, as well as the federal government, have policies and standards related to Web accessibility. Some are more complex and intricate than others. Regardless, the average faculty and staff member who is not a Web developer for a living will likely gloss over these laws, and not be able to produce sites that are in full compliance of them. Let them know you and/or your staff have become experts, or perhaps have even attended seminars to learn these laws inside and out. Encourage them to focus on the content and messages they want to deliver, and to let you (and your staff) handle the technicals.
4) Make the case
Don’t make it personal. When initially communicating with the department, don’t make it personal, don’t be defensive, but do expect resistance. Always phrase your statements in ways that remove yourself, as well as the other individual, from the equation. Using the standard template is in the best interest of all parties involved – it supports the university-wide branding initiative, the users of the site will have a much easier time hopping around from site to site when a common template is in use, their site will be in compliance with local and federal laws, etc.
Talk about the benefits of cohesiveness. Talk about their audiences. Talk about the strengths of the overall university brand that will help their department/program/unit.
Compliment things they’re doing well. Empathize with them. Become their partner. Get them excited about the variety of options the new template provides – being able to use the content management system for quicker updates, being able to easily post and update news whenever they want, the ability to quickly and easily add videos, photo galleries, etc. Whatever the benefits are of your template – make them known. Make sure if they’re doing “cool” things in their current site, they’ll be able to continue to do them in the new template.
5) Don’t pull rank.
We all know universities are filled with politics. Tread lightly, but don’t pull rank. Avoid involving “higher ups” and keep it at your level and below whenever possible. If you’ve truly tried everything you can at your level, only then should you take it up one level to your direct supervisor. Doing this may give you a fresh perspective and approach to try that you hadn’t thought of previously.
Vassar College is an internationally known institution with approximately 2,500 students, but they made a strategic decision to not impose an institutional layout. Their college’s site is one of the most well-known in the industry. They have a centralized Web office with five staff members. What do you think about this approach?
As I mentioned before – I know this is hard, if not virtually impossible, to do at many institutions. But, it has been done. Tell us who you are – I know you’re out there. Are there steps or tricks I’m missing? Can you share any secrets you keep up your sleeve?
As a team leader of an upcoming redesign project, The eduStyle Guide to Usable Higher-Ed Homepage Design was very useful to me. My favorite section: Recommendations. I got more take aways and ideas of what to do (and what not to do) from that one section of every university’s review than anything else in the entire book. I don’t necessarily agree with all of their recommendations – but was convinced of their perspective and credence established based on most other comments. (Cornell – “groundbreaking design?”)
It’s clever to break down universities with their pertinent stats to give their page a bit of context — the size of their internal community, where they physically reside in the country, who their primary competitors may be, etc.
Pet peeve throughout the book: URLs that end in .com/.edu, etc. should not have a trailing slash at the end.
A wide variety of design implementations are thoroughly reviewed and explored. It gave me a great synopsis of the types of features I’d like to incorporate into our redesign, and visual ideas of how to accomplish them. I was convinced of design styles to stay away from (low contrast links with the background color behind them) and that RSS icons can and should be incorporated (along with the being able to subscribe to the feed within the browser location bar – not just the icons).
Can you get most of this info on the edustyle.net site? Mostly. But, it wouldn’t be as concise as a 95 page handy guide at your finger tips with an easy to read/reference format – especially the Positives & Recommendations section after each home page screen shot. (Ok, so the site does that too – but not all of the comments are written with such care and professionalism, and sometimes turn into a conversation/debate.)
If you’re going through an upcoming redesign/refresh, are new to higher ed, or are looking for ammunition to clean up your home page and/or add new features, buy it. Read it. It’s worth it.