Carnegie Mellon's Web site gets smart new look
Share with others:
Carnegie Mellon University unveils a new Web site today designed to catch up with its reputation as a cutting-edge computer science and arts school.
The shoemaker's child has new footwear.
After years of being one of the highest-ranked computer science schools in the nation, Carnegie Mellon University is finally getting a Web site that is designed to match its reputation.
The new home page at www.cmu.edu, which debuts today, was created by university staff and Ripple Effects Interactive, an Oakland Web design firm with several Carnegie Mellon graduates.
The old CMU Web page lacked visual clarity and was loaded with links that were often hard to navigate, according to staff members and researchers.
Click photo for larger image.
It supersedes a blue-and-maroon home page that hadn't been changed for a decade and was "old-fashioned," to use one of the kinder terms students and alumni applied to it.
"The school is supposed to be technology-savvy, and this site clearly was not," said Paul Magnani, Ripple Effects Interactive president.
After interviewing students, alumni and prospective students, "we were told that our aesthetic and design, which was ahead of its time when it was launched, needed to be updated," said Marilyn Kail, assistant vice president for marketing communications.
Sofia Mirza, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, put the issue more bluntly.
There was a big disconnect between the advanced research being done at the school and the look of its Web site, Ms. Mirza said.
"It reminded me of the researchers who go into the lab and create great new programs," she said, "but they don't have time to dress themselves and they wear the same clothes every day."
When Ripple Effects interviewed students who had checked out the school on the Web, "What we often heard was, 'I had no idea what Carnegie Mellon looked like; I had no idea what was going on there -- this is a technology school?'"
Carnegie Mellon is hardly unique in attempting to move its Web portal into the 21st century.
In what many are calling Web 2.0, companies, nonprofits and universities are spending billions of dollars redesigning their Web sites, with varying degrees of success.
Chris Larson, an interactive strategist at Milwaukee's Hanson Dodge Creative who worked on an award-winning Web site for Xavier University in Cincinnati, said college Web redesigns are red-hot right now.
"Two years ago I was working 35 and 40 hours per week," Mr. Larson said. "No longer."
Some of the design surge is being driven by the need to keep up with new bells and whistles -- podcasts, videos and RSS feeds.
But much of it comes from the recognition that the design and usability of Web sites are increasingly important in attracting students and even alumni donations.
"You have 60 seconds at most to convince someone you are a trustworthy site, but if you have a very poorly designed Web site, it's something that could deter someone from going further into it," said Nick Finck, director of user experience for Blue Flavor, a Seattle firm that recently redesigned the University of Denver Web portal.
There are a handful of schools -- Harvard and Yale, for instance -- that could "practically just put up their name and a link and they would still get applications," Mr. Finck said. But most colleges don't have that luxury.
Ripple Effect's Mr. Magnani said interviews with Carnegie Mellon students confirmed that. One student said she visited the campus on the recommendation of a friend, but "If I'd seen the Web site first, I wouldn't have come here."
The challenge, said Carnegie Mellon design school dean Dan Boyarski, is to create a site that looks good and is easy to use.
"You can have things that look gorgeous that are not very usable, and on the other hand you can have things that are very well organized in terms of the information but have a very ordinary look.
"When you have that happy combination of clarity, functionality and aesthetics, then that's success."
So what were the flaws of the old site, and how has the redesign tried to fix them?
The now-extinct home page showed its age by being too small to fit most modern computer screens and by having low visual clarity, according to university and Ripple Effects staff.
It also was loaded with links to other pages that were not always precise or easy to navigate, they said.
The guiding principle of the new design, Ms. Kail said, is "people and stories."
Ms. Kail said the school wanted to "showcase our personality, which is so different from other universities" because of its history as an interdisciplinary arts and science school.
On the new home page, a set of labels across the top, such as "innovation and creativity" and "the global university," stresses the university's selling points. When visitors click on a label, they get a photo and text block related to that theme.
Today's "innovation and creativity" page, for instance, showcases an invention by two Carnegie Mellon business students who developed a handheld device to measure brain pressure.
Because current college students are "leery of marketing," Mr. Magnani said, the university has built in a way for students and alumni to submit their own photos and story material to go on the Web page.
It's a technique pioneered by one of Carnegie Mellon's rivals, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose home page features a different photo and theme submitted by students each day.
In Carnegie Mellon's case, the Web team will actually design the pages proposed by students or alumni, to create a more consistent look.
Megan Malli, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who works at Ripple Effects, said she doesn't anticipate the school running dry of student submissions. "The student who goes to Carnegie Mellon is a very competitive student who wants to be seen," she said.
The Carnegie Mellon redesign affects only the home page and its main sub-pages right now, which means that the Web sites for individual departments and schools often look quite different from each other, ranging from the text-heavy page at the computer sciences school to the sleek charcoal grid at the design school.
Over time, the university hopes more and more departments will adopt the basic look of the home page, Ms. Kail said.
She declined to say how much the redesign cost. A Forrester Research study said that Fortune 1000 companies spend an average of $1.5 million to $2 million each redesigning their Web sites, and Ms. Kail said by using in-house staff to help, the university was able to do the job more economically than normal.
It's money that needed to be spent, many students and alumni said.
"Given the school's cutting-edge reputation, it's absolutely vital they have not just a good Web site but an amazing Web site," said Andrew Widdowson, a software engineer at the Bose Corp. who graduated from Carnegie Mellon last year.
"It's a beautiful school and campus," said graduate design student Rhiannon Sterling of Milwaukee, but the old site was "just not a fair representation of what this school excels in, and in order to project that to the outside community, this redesign was important."
First Published October 30, 2006 12:00 am