So What *Do* We Like?

In the last post, I talked about the “inspiration board” I generated after reviewing over 1,000 college and university homepages. In addition to learning that there is a lot out there that looks the same, I also found some homepages to file under the “Stuff I Like” category: homepages that were clean, easy to wrap your head around and navigate, and immediately compelling.

California Baptist University
You know me: I’m all about the big photos. And Cal Baptist sure runs some biiiiiig photos. I also like trying to create a look of layering and depth in a design, and Cal Baptist handles this in an interesting way, too. The main navigation elements are pretty simple (though some of the dropdowns get a little long). There are a few too many boxes and buttons on the page for my liking, but I really like the overall approach.

NYU Steinhardt
Another big photo and another approach to creating layering and depth. There are not one, not two, but four horizontal menus, which may be pushing it a bit, but graphically they are treated in such distinct ways that I don’t think I mind it so much.

Thompson Rivers University
“Hey, what happened to the big photo?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell you. I like this site for a very different reason: its sparsity. Remember the movie Moscow on the Hudson? (Those of you under age 21, ask your parents). Remember the scene where Robin Williams, playing a Russian who recently defected to New York City, is sent to the store to buy coffee? Having spent his whole life in the Soviet Union with only one type of coffee available, he’s now confronted with an entire aisle of coffee. Faced with so much choice, he’s paralyzed into inactivity and proceeds to flip out (this is a Robin Williams movie we’re talking about).

This movie moment — and the Thompson Rivers homepage — serve as useful examples of Mike’s earlier design mantra: less is more. By providing too much of everything right away, you can actually make things harder to find, not easier. If you don’t believe me, check out the one element on the Thompson Rivers page that does not fall under the “Stuff I Like” category: the Quicklinks dropdown. If you can find anything quickly in that coffee aisle of a list, you’re a smarter bear than me.


The Lay of the Land

This past fall, I looked at the homepages of every college and university in the United States that has a homepage (all 1,138 of them, not including community colleges). I did this for a presentation I gave at the HighEdWeb 2007 conference regarding the rate of adoption of Web standards in higher education versus corporate America (the truly geeky among you can check out that presentation here).

Though that presentation was my main goal, I had an ulterior motive. Since I had to look at over 1,000 university homepages anyway, why not do so with our upcoming redesign in mind, and ask myself: what does the lay of the land look like out there in College Homepage World? Are there any emerging trends or conventions? What do I like, what don’t I like, and why? The result of this process is what I call an “inspiration board” or “design source book” for our homepage redesign.

The most important lesson I learned from the exercise was this: there is a lot conventional, typical, average, solid, but “same-y”design out there on America’s college homepages. This is good news, I think. It means you don’t have to do much to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Even the slightest design twist or clever innovation can make a huge impact.

For an example of what I mean, check out the homepages for Cornell and Michigan State. Both are good, solid, easily navigable sites (though I do prefer Cornell’s architecture), but if you toggle back and forth between them quickly in your browser, you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone had just swapped out Cornell’s “Big Red” for Michigan’s Spartan green.

Some other examples of homepages that fall into this “typical” band are Virginia Tech, Washington and Jefferson College, and University of Connecticut. Again, all good sites (I especially like Virginia Tech’s). But after a while, I think they start to blend together a bit: a Flash “splash” in the top third, news and events in the bottom third, header across the top, menu on the left.

Don’t get me wrong; design conventions are good. They help our visitors get a mental handle on things when confronting a new site. But conventions don’t have to be applied conventionally. Looking at the college homepage landscape, it does appear that there is much room for improvement. After all, Meliora doesn’t mean “Always the Same.” It means “Always Better,” and we can definitely do better!