The potential reach of design and design education are limitless, and—we will argue—until now, largely unrealized.Terry Irwin, Head of the School of Design.
My alma mater, Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, has been using the same website since the early 1990s. The School has been undergoing a period of sweeping change after Terry Irwin, the new head of the school, joined the staff.
As an exit project, a group of seniors were asked to reconsider the branding of the entire school, save the logo, and determine the future face of the school. The goal of the project was to modernize and re-establish the School of Design in the design education world as a leader and innovator. The project was organized into several teams, each handling a different aspect of the rebrand. Together with David Yen, I led the web effort. Ultimately, our work bore seeds for the School's eventual web presence outside the classroom.
The current website is almost two decades old and it shows. The custom CMS that was built is falling apart and is largely unmaintainable. As a result, news stories are scarcely posted, the student gallery is largely the same as it was two years ago, and body content may be the same as it was when the website first went up.
The project was split into three phases. The first phase was a brief competitive audit that looked at other schools also offering top-tier design education. We looked at over fifteen schools, including the University of Washington, SCAD, and RISD, and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of their communication, branding, marketing materials, and information hierarchy.
As expected, we found that some schools presented themselves much better in certain areas than others. Many of the schools had awful navigation and subpar information architecture. As a whole, none of the schools we polled were excellent in all areas, but some were significantly better than others. The communication of those schools to their audiences was orders of magnitude more engaging than our current offerings.
The second phase of the project was a comprehensive self-audit. As the web team, we analyzed every page of the website and it's interaction flows. We also asked a broad spectrum of students, including prospective ones, for their input on how the website affected their decision and their daily lives. Many of them said that the School's website was unhelpful during the application process and a large deterrent when making their decision. Finding any kind of information on the website is almost impossible, even as a current student.
In our own internal analysis of the website, we created six personas from different target audiences and walked through the website searching for specific information. This study strengthened the complaints from the actual students we interviewed. The hierarchy of the website is incomprehensible and the navigation is stranded in seas of irrelevant text. There are links everywhere to information unrelated to the user's actual search. In terms of visual aesthetics, the website looks outdated and is programmed awfully. It does not instill confidence that the School of Design is actually a very good design school at all.
We also learned that faculty updating the website doesn't scale. There simply isn't enough time for professors to gather projects, write about them, resize images, and upload them to the website at the end of every project. Under these pressures, the student gallery has fallen into disarray, and the school and its community aren't represented properly.
David and I iterated separately, then regrouped and combined our best ideas into an interactive prototype, meeting several times for critiques along the way.
My original direction was to make something much more reminiscent of a design studio than a design school. Through use of vibrant colors, active typography, and a robust grid, my goal was to create a website that people actually had fun using. While the design changed over time, I made sure that the playfulness and energy were not lost. Many of the design elements from the early mockups are seeds of ideas developed more fully in the final prototype.
The final product combined the playfulness and energy of my early mockups with David's information-centric designs, creating a very fun and engaging learning tool. We thoroughly designed each interface element to both serve a specific function. These interface elements and their reasonings can be found on the Brand Guidelines page.
We decided that since students are required to document their work as a part of the existing curriculum, shifting the documentation to digital could be beneficial in many ways. Firstly, it would help the School keep detailed digital archives of all the work that students do. If the submission system and the website were intertwined enough, it would help the School keep the online gallery up-to-date. Lastly, it would help teach students about digital documentation and online portfolio-building, a skill that many students don't have by graduation.
Creating a custom application to handle course enrollment and project documentation was an important decision for us. Such an application could also be expanded to hold community-building tools as well -- another area of student life that students felt the School was neglecting.
At the end of the semester, David and I were hired to continue work on the project as a part of the School's official effort to overhaul it's web presence.
I produced two prototypes that visualized concepts that we had only had time to touch on briefly. The first was a more flexible version of our final project, and the other was a basic technology prototype of the Intranet. I also advised the school on technology decisions.
The Web team consisted of myself and David Yen. The Print team was made up of Erika Lepke, Jennifer Baumgardner and Anne Brodie. David Rocco was in charge of shooting short videos that describe life as a designer in Pittsburgh and at CMU. The Image team was responsible for providing imagery to all of the different teams and consisted of Alex Laskaris, Christine You, and Sarah Harissis, and the Content team was manned solely by Alyssa Fogel.