We believe that the best creative relationships mirror personal relationships: They shapeshift organically over time between teams that listen to, understand, and react to one another’s needs.
That has been our experience with the University of the Arts, one of the country’s oldest and most esteemed visual and performing arts institutions. In fact, our connection with UArts runs deeply personal as many of our own team members attended the institution, learning under some of the industry’s most accomplished artist-educators.
An extension of a collaborative creative relationship that has lasted well over a decade, our recent work includes dual projects happening in tandem: the design functionality completion, development, and launch of a groundbreaking new Virtual Commencement microsite (commencement.uarts.edu) and a phased continuous improvement plan for the university's existing main site (uarts.edu).
A Virtual Solution to Current Challenges: The Microsite
The UArts commencement microsite was conceptualized internally as a novel way to address the obstacles facing their class of 2020 graduation ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal was to create an innovative platform that proudly showcases the university’s first-ever online ceremony that took place on May 16, while a traditional ceremony will take place after local social restrictions are lifted.
In approaching this project, we began with initial concepts the university had been developing internally and made a variety of additions and enhancements to address the team’s goals — including refining navigation and search filtering functionality, updating menus and forms, and adding new pages and imagery where needed. We then worked collaboratively with the client, quickly assembling a large team to take the microsite through the buildout and launch on an accelerated timeline.
We began with a bold landing page featuring a real-time countdown to the highly anticipated event that transitioned over to a live video stream of the actual commencement. We then created a webform that students accessed with their existing UArts password to create personal profiles that included honors earned and work sample images, videos, and audio files. Visitors and families could use the complex taxonomy we created to search by school and major to find approximately 480 undergrad and graduate students; peruse their bios; browse a full portfolio of student work; send message-board-style postings to students; and view a community-wide gallery. A comprehensive collection of graduation resources were provided for both students and families, including a downloadable commencement program, a video playlist of president, valedictory, and honorary degree recipient speeches, awards presentations, graduate name announcements, and more.
To coincide with the registration and launch periods, we conducted load testing and implemented provisions to ensure that the site could properly handle an upcoming massive amount of short-term traffic.
UArts' live graduation is a high-profile tradition that carries with it incredibly high expectations — both for the school and the arts in Philadelphia, in general — and this site successfully set a precedent as the first of its kind for a major Philadelphia institution. What's more, this fully functioning site and groundbreaking digital event were completed in a mere 6 weeks.
Continuous Improvements Rolled Out Over Time: The Primary Website
At the same time, we worked with the UArts team to begin a phased series of upgrades to their main site that would help them achieve some high-level, long-term goals. To begin, we undertook a deep discovery process that included stakeholder interviews, competitor and opportunity analyses, and a thorough review of the university’s current site, including the CMS configuration, branding, and design.
After comparing their site to peer competitors, we identified messaging gaps and made recommendations for content additions at both the site and program level that would help them speak to users more directly, effectively respond to user queries, and rank higher on searches. We also identified technical issues that were causing their SEO results to suffer and made recommendations for enhanced internal linking that would guide users to targeted pages and emphasize the importance of those pages to search engines.
In addition to the program research, we also examined the client’s visibility and reputation in relation to the UArts brand, which helped us create a site-wide strategy for optimization that includes everything from restructuring navigation to improving UX to creating new content that will promote visibility.
Based on our findings, the client chose three programs to be optimized over time: Animation BFA, Illustration BFA, and Product Design MDes. The Phase 1 goal for the project included Drupal core updates and design changes that would more closely align with existing UArts brand identity guidelines and reposition the site as a vessel for student work. In short, the user interface needed to transition to the “back seat” so the content could move front and center.
To achieve those goals, we made visual styling improvements to the homepage hero treatment; created a more robust library of type styles for various applications; implemented a program search function with filtering options that allow prospective students to easily explore the depth and breadth of UArt’s offerings; and applied a navigation redesign and restructuring that provides a singular and more intuitive experience for both desktop and mobile devices. In order to address current concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic, we created accordion-style FAQ components featuring answers to the most common general and residential student questions.
As this project moves into Phase 2 and beyond, we’ll address longer-term goals of the UArts team, which include adding and refining items like imagery, taxonomy, secondary landing pages, and improvements to social feeds and page loading speeds. When complete, the overall digital experience will be optimized in a way that meets all objectives of the client’s individualized plan on a schedule and pace that fits their needs over time.