Founded in 1887, Cornell Law is one of only five private Ivy League law schools in the United States. So it was only natural that this leader in legal education needed a digital presence that clearly communicates its top-tier academics, distinguished reputation, and storied history.
With a vibrant campus setting in the idyllic lakeside town of Ithaca, NY, “Cornellians” take great pride in the beauty of their university’s natural environment. And when it comes to educating the next generation of attorneys, the priority of administrators, faculty, and staff has always been set on quality over quantity. In fact, when Cornell co-founder Andrew Dickson White began plans for establishing the law school, he wrote that he wanted to educate “not swarms of hastily prepared pettifoggers, but a fair number of well-trained, large-minded, morally-based lawyers in the best sense…’”
Since that time, Cornell Law has evolved to offer three highly revered law degree programs, along with several dual-degree programs in partnership with other professional schools at the university. One of their team’s main goals was to increase enrollment across all programs by more effectively attracting high-caliber prospective students and clearly illustrating the reasons why Cornell is an excellent choice.
Because they found their legacy site really difficult to manage and visually dated, the Cornell team had created interim marketing landing pages built in a subscription-based online CMS template. While they appreciated this product’s contemporary design and easy administrative functions, they realized that it was lacking in meaningful customization and content flexibility and recognized the value of an investment in a custom-built solution. To help achieve their longer-term goals, the Cornell Law team partnered with us on the creation of a new WordPress website that would act as a more compelling evolution of the school’s existing viewbook — the central and most celebrated element in their marketing toolbox.
The first order of business was obtaining a clear picture of the school’s various audiences and their content needs. Our discovery involved user and stakeholder surveys, a baseline analysis of user behavior analytics, a comparison of competitors, and an intensive face-to-face discovery workshop — which provided deep value through interactive sharing. Among many key findings, we discovered that there were great strides to be made in terms of optimizing content and creating clear user pathways guided by audience interests. We also found that many peer university websites were relatively generic, dated, academic, and lacking in clear strategy — providing Cornell with opportunities to break out of the mold with great visuals and meaningful messaging.
Our recommendations were distilled into a comprehensive strategy brief that reflected not only our discovery findings and current web best practices, but also our knowledge of the higher education and professional services industries — and that served as a guidepost throughout the duration of the project.
With our focus on creating a more intuitive UX, we designed clear user pathways and audience-specific navigation that help users immediately understand where to go once they land on the site and what to do next based on their audience type: prospective, admitted, or current student; or prospective or current faculty, staff, or alumni.
Because prospective and admitted students are the primary audiences served by the landing page experience, we made sure to tailor homepage messaging, wayfinding, and content toward them. For current students, faculty, staff, and alumni — important secondary audiences — we provided user-focused, audience-specific landing pages to the content that they need to access on a regular basis.
As many stakeholders suggested, the legacy site had become an archive for old and unloved content. In addition to eliminating much of the redundant and irrelevant material, we recommended streamlining the copy collection to be less exhaustive and more digestible. Referring back to our workshop results, we had gained clear and strategy-driven direction on which content should be public facing for all audiences to consume, and which should be partitioned off behind an internal password-protected portal for select users.
Significant improvements in the overall user interface included building a custom WP theme offering ADA-compliant page templates and flexible components that would allow the Cornell Law IT department and vast community of content contributors to easily add, edit, and tweak website features and content in a wide range of combinations without the need for custom features or functionality. We also provided ample opportunities throughout the site to highlight faculty members—including incorporating an API field that populates and imports any changes to their listings on a daily basis, including updates to their biographies, media mentions, publications, and more in a standardized and cohesive way. This is a particularly important feature for high-caliber universities with prolific faculty whose wide-ranging achievements are evolving on a continual basis.
From a visual design perspective, we paid careful attention to honoring Cornell Law’s long-standing branding while also tying in some of the design language of existing print materials, including a multi-colored “ribbon” element that served as a divider on select pages of the site and contributed to a cohesive shared experience. In addition, we infused the experience with personality by showing images of students, faculty, and alumni in action, making real change in the world, taking full advantage of their experiential learning opportunities — even hiking up the Cascadilla Gorge Trail to campus.
In the end, the completed new site delivers very successfully on the promises made by the Cornell Law viewbook: Not only does it convey that students will achieve a highly desirable and marketable Ivy League law degree, but that they will thrive in the immersive and rewarding student life offered by both the school and its stunning geographic setting.