I have to be honest. When I think about websites of graduate schools, the first thing that usually comes to my mind is the expected struggle around “looking different” from the university site. Most of you won’t be shocked about that impression; if you are, go browse around. You’ll certainly find plenty of examples of school or college sites that have their own look and feel. In some cases, and worse yet, there is no reference to the university at all. Consider that in my wanderings, I even found this statement in the footer of two school sites: “Content may not have been approved by or reflect the views of ___ University.”
I took a peek at the websites of Arizona State University, Florida State University and Yale University to get a random sample of how the websites of schools and colleges differed from the main university sites. I was interested in the level of web design consistency between the university site and the school and college sites. Here’s what I found:
In the category of very consistent, there was Florida State University:
- FSU College of Business
- FSU College of Education
- FSU College of Law
- FSU College of Medicine
- FSU College of Visual Arts, Theatre & Dance
A sort of consistent web presence, perhaps we’ll call it familial, was Arizona State University:
- ASU W.P. Carey School of Business
- ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
- ASU Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
- ASU Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
And, Yale was an example of not consistent at all:
Why do they want to be different from the main university website?
Often, communications professionals in a college or school state that the audience they need to reach is completely separate from the audiences of the university. And, in the case of medical schools and law schools, this is unequivocally true. But schools of business, architecture, journalism and engineering (and more) often have both graduate and undergraduate programs. They have a lesser claim to make about serving a separate set of students and alumni.
Maybe schools and colleges don’t want to be different but they feel they have to be. Sometimes the main website is not a compelling and professional representation of the university and individual schools and colleges feel they must strike out on their own to meet their audiences’ expectations for their digital presence. For example, a business school might determine that a site optimized for mobile is a clear expectation from prospective MBA students. If there is no university-wide mobile strategy or near term plan for responsive web design, the business school may feel forced to move ahead with optimizing their own site for mobile. They simply can’t wait.
It is not unusual for schools or colleges to be located away from the main university campus. This geographic separation contributes to the development of a community of people who act as a subset of the university. I think sometimes pride about their school or college is a reason to want a distinctive look and identity. But what do students think about these brand distinctions? When home for winter break, do the students at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering say they go to Arizona State? When music grad students in New Haven meet someone new, do they say they go to Yale School of Music or simply Yale? While there are exceptions (Wharton), graduate students tell us that they value the connection between their school and the overall university brand.
What are the minimal brand identity elements for a school or college site?
Frankly, it is sometimes hard for me to understand why an individual school or college does not include name references for the university of which they are a part. After all, the school or college exists only because the university exists. Here are two elements that I think should be always be included on a school or college site:
- A prominent logo or word mark that links to the university homepage and is consistently located (the upper-left corner is typical placement)
- The university name in the footer
What say you? Does a solid web strategy include design consistency? If a college or school website is well done but dissimilar to the main university site, does it matter?