More than just a website redesign, this is the first launch of an initiative led by a talented and forward-thinking university team that’s breaking down silos to better serve the entire institution.
Oklahoma State University is a land grant school that enrolls close to 25,000 students on its main campus in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Despite their size, the OSU community is known for being like a family: loyal, friendly, empathetic, inclusive, and supportive.
Our team certainly felt that spirit every time we visited Stillwater, or even just fired up Zoom with the OSU team — a daring, well-rounded, and enthusiastic group who knows just how to rally their people and get the job done.
But in addition to the great people, we were (and still are) thrilled about this project because its vision stretched far beyond launch day. Its main goal was to break down silos, building digital tools and strategies that could unite the entire university and support it into the future, even as its needs change and grow.
Needs More Orange
As with many redesign projects, the old OSU site’s design was clearly outdated. Digging a little deeper, we found that the user experience, navigation, and content were also disjointed. And honestly, the site just didn’t feel like the university.
The school has a BIG personality — think bright orange, cowboy hats, and the friendliest place you’ll ever go — but their existing homepage was devoid of evergreen messaging on who they are and what they stand for. Instead, it was a crowded jumble of news, events, and social feeds, with no consistent voice and tone.
And then there were the navigation challenges.
There were no fewer than 194 nav links on the homepage alone — way too many choices for users to sift through. And the university website had no global nav at all — those homepage nav links took you to separate subdomains in the OSU site family, each with their own unique nav structures. All were talking about the same university, but they didn’t seem part of a unified place. It presented a disorienting experience.
It was the right time for a complete overhaul. The university had had already begun replatforming many of their sites to [OmniUpdate]’s OU Campus®, a content management system designed specifically for higher education, so it was the perfect opportunity to create an entirely new architecture that would seamlessly integrate admissions, better represent OSU’s personality, and offer a significantly improved user experience.
Breaking Down Silos
“When I first got to OSU, I noticed that our admissions site — really our university site — but specifically our admissions site, wasn’t meeting the needs of prospective students and their parents,” said Erin Petrotta, Director of Marketing and Student Communications for OSU. “It was outdated and confusing. I’m not really sure how anyone was applying to the institution because you couldn’t even find the button on the website to apply!”
That’s really where the relationship between marketing and admissions began — through the discussion of bringing the admissions site together with the main university website (which was really just a homepage) through a major redesign.
What followed was the strategic initiative to break down silos across the entire university.
“As we think about silos in higher education, the more silos we build, the wider they are, the taller they are, the more complicated that is to manage,” Megan Horton, OSU’s Director of Branding and Digital Strategy, commented during her presentation with Erin at the 2018 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. “It makes being competitive as an institution that much more difficult. It’s really critical that those silos come down to be able to work across the aisle to really move forward and be as competitive as we want to be.”
So to really move Oklahoma State forward, the team wanted people to receive consistent messages and the same look and feel across all university communications. “That’s what hopes and dreams are made of,” Megan added.
To that end, the chief goal of the redesign project was to create a design system that would inspire colleges and other units on campus to adopt it.
Dreaming As Big As the Sky
We wanted the website to convey that sense of friendliness and welcoming community through a tone that’s casual, personal, understanding, helpful, and fun, while providing newcomers a strong sense of who OSU is and what makes it different (to back those claims up).
So we built in places to show off their personality and what it means to the students there. We went bold with messaging and design and created plenty of styles to show off their brag points with big numerals for statistics, big display headlines, and general bigness and boldness to match their personality.
And, of course, it had to be ORANGE. They’ve actually trademarked the slogan America’s Brightest Orange, why not embrace it?
Designing a Navigation from Scratch
This was no simple redesign and migration, with the usual handful of architectural adjustments to rework content around. Because each department and office had its own separate website, the OSU team had to think through everything as a new system and re-do all of the dependencies where content pieces relied on each other. Which meant they pretty much redid everything.
“They jumped right into the content,” said NewCity’s Content Strategist Rachel DeLauder. “I thought they had an insurmountable amount to do before launch, but they did it, and they did it right.”
Senior user experience architect Jennie Salamoun leveraged research and data to devise a new global navigation strategy. She worked closely with the client team to plan the information architecture, improving consistency between sections and reducing the number of choices in navigation menus. She also worked closely with the colleges to provide information to help users first read more about what they wanted to study in a new university-wide list of academic programs, and then dig deeper into the college sites.
The initial launch included a lot of the central administrative units, but not everything. Other departments are moving into the new design in OU Campus as they’re ready, but they’re not rushing into it. They’re taking the time to really examine their content and reorganize around what’s best for users, so that what’s done is done right.
As NewCity’s Director of Design Rodger Bridges said, “Everybody was in it to win it, get it done and make it perfect. It was a great experience.”