University = Schools and Colleges. Why do they want to be different?

Eggs in a nest.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:

A sort of consistent web presence, perhaps we’ll call it familial, was Arizona State University:

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?

5 thoughts on “University = Schools and Colleges. Why do they want to be different?

  1. Great questions, Susan. It’s something we struggle with every day. At Oregon State, we recently completed a rebranding project with 11 of our 12 college websites, trying to get everyone using the same logo and CMS, and have a similar user experience. It took us three years, and we still had one holdout. Next we’ll try to see if we can hold it all together.

    For the minimal identity elements, I’d also add “similar user experience” to the mix. Students take classes in multiple colleges. Instructors teach and conduct research across boundaries, too. So as they move from site to site, users should find navigation and other key page elements in roughly the same places.

    It’s tough unifying any organization, let alone one that is made up of stridently independent units across every imaginable discipline, each one helmed by critical thinkers who are predisposed (and trained) to question everything.

    Isn’t higher ed fun?

  2. I find that if an University’s website is not uniform across all the departments, chances are their internal processes aren’t uniform either. Which is frustrating when each college works differently, uses different terminology and interacts with the main university differently. Unfortunately, I think it’s a bigger issue than just web design.

  3. At times it seems like universities are just a collection of separate businesses/brands that happen to be operating under the same parent company. Which is guess is true is many ways.

    There is a justifiable reason for different messaging – because grad students often look to the reputation of the school, sometimes more so than the university as a whole. But I don’t think that’s reason enough to justify a different visual identity, look and feel, and overall experience. Maybe they have their own mark, maybe a different color set, but other than that…

    Jeana is right – the website is a proxy for understanding how integrated (or not) the organization is.

    I would love to find data on the relationship between grad students’ feelings towards their program/school and the university. We’re working on our master brand and family brands right now.

  4. David, Yes. And congrats on the wrangling related to your rebranding!
    Jeana, Amen. And, that bigger issue affects our students as they navigate the silos.
    Erik, I really like your ideas on this topic.

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