Tuesday, September 13, 2005

New University of Birmingham Brand and Website

For some time, the University of Birmingham have been working on a new "brand" and have spent thousands on its new look, which can be seen on posters, on the back of buses, in university prospectuses and print publications and now finally also on its website:

University of Birmingham

The essential idea of the new brand is to have a large "U" and a large "B" with a kind of facing square bracket effect around a choice picture and / or quotation. It is probably not overstating it to say that some are unenthusiastic about the new brand, especially in view of the huge amount invested in it.

My own feeling is that it does no harm to rework old looks, to think in fresh ways about how to market the university, and that in the current competitive climate in UK higher education, it is necessary to look at ways of attracting new students and investors by giving the impression of dynamism and enthusiasm. Having said that, my first impressions of the brand were mixed, and several months later they remain mixed. The idea of choice quotations and immediacy of impact work quite well, but other aspects of the brand are problematic. In particular, the general decision to drop the University shield, the main feature of the old brand, has left websites and print documents looking a little naked. The main page is allowed the luxury of a redesigned shield, but all other pages (e.g. here) have a naked top left with shield absent.

A related problem is the amount of white space on the new template, especially across the top of every page and on the right hand side. The pages look busy and are well populated with varieties of navigational strategies, yet every page has a huge excess of white space. I would raise a further question about the place of the "U" and the "B" on all the main pages -- it takes up so much space given the large header area that one only gets to the content at the bottom of each page. Moreover, the editable area on each page is very narrow and leads to pages in which only a fraction of the page is actually used for content. I am wary of a web design that results in 75 per cent of the page reserved for headers and navigational strategies, and 25 per cent for content.

Some encouraging features include a "Print/document view" on every page, and sensible, concise contact information at the bottom of every page -- it is remarkable how many university websites forget to include that -- along with some aspirations about accessibility, also good to see.

I am guessing that it will be some time before the departmental websites will get the full treatment. If I were still working on my own department's website, my hope would be that they have designed their new templates sensibly enough to be make the transition straightforward and in may cases automatic.

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