I have spent the better part of the last couple of weeks looking at every university or college home page in the US. I did this as research for a new direction we’re thinking of taking the HSU site. It has been a year and 1/2 since our last redesign, and by the time I’ll be able to get something new up it will have been two years.

This seems to me to be the ideal redesign schedule for an institution our size. Long enough of an interval that all the whining from the last redesign has stopped, the gaps and shortcomings have become obvious, and the university has new priorities. But also short enough of an interval that the design doesn’t look overly dated and still functions.

It was obvious in my tour of US higher-ed sites that some of them have been around for a lot longer than two years. This isn’t surprising— I think that a two year redesign schedule is pretty much the quickest it can be done. But it was surprising to see how many sites are obviously still around from the mid-to-late 90s. But I digress.

I promised myself and my colleagues out there in RSSville that I would never point out specific sites and talk about why they suck. There are many, many reasons why this might be the case. Instead, it is much more productive to point out sites that are doing things well. And what better time to do that then when I’ve spent so much time going over so many University sites?

So I give to you a little essay about my favorite higher ed home page at the time of this writing:

Mills College: Designing to your audience, not your administration

When I did my survey (using this list on this page of UT Austin’s site— kudos to whoever keeps that up. Is it you Glenda?), I focused on just a few things: the overall graphic design of the home page, what kind of information was included on the home page, and the navigation structure. If a home page grabbed me, I explored the site further. If it didn’t, I closed the tab and didn’t return to the site. There were just too many sites to spend very long on each one, so I definitely could have missed a gem if the home page wasn’t compelling.

When I got to Mills College, I stayed for a good 10 minutes. Something about it just clicked with me. It is not the most sophisticated design out there, and the elements that are included in both the design and the navigation are typical. But as a package, it works very well for me.

I started to think about why this is. Why do I like this site so much more than the hundreds of others I looked at? And then I realized that two other sites that made it onto my list of “Good Sites” were Simmons College and Smith College. All three of these institutions are small, private, liberal arts, women’s colleges, and the designs are similar on first glance. They even have a similar color pallete. And then it hit me: I like these sites because they were designed for me. I am their audience. At least I was 16 years ago (omg, say it ain’t so!) when I was looking for a place to call home and continue my education.

While I didn’t go to an all women’s college (I just liked the boys a little to much…), I went a small private liberal arts college. I was drawn to the personal, small, intellectual atmosphere. Mills is able to convey that atmosphere to me through their home page through subtle details, without literally spelling it out. I want to talk about a few of these details and how they work together for me to add up to a very effective design.

First, the banner. While the metaphor of Polariod pictures may be a bit played out, they pull it off well here. They use interesting cropping on the photos, which feature interesting looking women. They didn’t water down the photo subjects for the web site— they are showing what at least seem like actual students. There is a nice fade effect when you click on a photo, that isn’t obtrusive— there are too many sites out there with distracting flash headers. But the best part of the header is that the two photos together create a dynamic tag line for the college no matter what random combination you choose. The photos on the left contain handwritten verbs, and the ones on the right have nouns. So when you click through the photos, you get a series of compelling phrases, such as “Create Action”, “Celebrate Community” and “Experience Change”. Very nice.

The second set of elements that drew me to the site was the handwritten titles, and the doodles embellishing typeset titles. These give the site a personal feeling and make it feel like a fun, interesting place to be. If I were to look over the notes I took in college, I would find similar doodles in almost all of the margins. This is a huge departure from the corporate feel of many higher ed sites out there. It is easy to imagine an administrator thinking that doodles and handwritten headers would make the site seem frivolous. But in the context of a good design, they give the site a personal, intimate feeling.

Third, I love the color palette. If I could do one thing to improve the state of higher ed web sites, it would be to somehow convince administrators that the school colors in most cases shouldn’t be used on the web site, and in all cases the web site shouldn’t be limited to the school colors. School colors were made for athletics. They were designed to show up on uniforms and distinguish one team from another. They were also designed to provide a harsh contrast between the lettering and the background color of an athletic jersey, so that names and numbers can be read at a long distance on a playing field where everything is in motion. These same traits make them unsuitable for the web. They are too intense and the contrast is too harsh. They usually make a design look awful, because they are wrong for the medium. My school is as guilty of being stuck on the school colors as the next, but looking at Mills, Simmons, and Smith, it is obvious to me that breaking away from the school colors can lead to a much better design.

Lastly, there are all the photos of those interesting women. I can probably appreciate that aspect better now than I could when I was 18, but it is nice to see a bunch of folks that look like they could be my friends. This is probably why the women’s colleges drew me in— all the photos look like they could be of my peers. This is an important realization for me in a couple of different ways. First, from a diversity perspective— I didn’t notice a lack of photos that hit home for me on most other sites, but when I ran across one that got it right for me, it made a huge difference. If you are at an institution with a diversity initiative, imagine what kind of powerful message your photos are conveying. Also, there were a lot of sites out there with no photos of people, and a few with no photos at all. These really lacked the personal feel that made a difference to me. One of the graphic designers in my department asked the other day if we need to solve every design problem with shiny, happy people. Well, I’d say that this can definitely be overdone, but done well it is much more compelling than any less human solution.

Finally, I feel that I must point out that everything is not perfect on the Mills site— if the site were done using web standards I would be able to give it higher marks. A goal for the future, perhaps.

But all in all, nice job Mills! I’d love to know the process and thinking behind this web design— if you’re out there reading let me know.

And just to drive home the main point a bit harder: if you design with your audience in mind, you will end up with a more effective site. Mills nailed it for me— it is the kind of place I could see myself going, and that I would recommend to the 18-year-old women I know.