Think Like The Beatles: tapping into the expressive nature of web redesigns

April 8, 2010, 12:02 pm

One of the projects I’m working on right now is a web redesign. Actually I’m calling it a renovation because we’ve pretty much demolished everything and are rebuilding from scratch. This has been a very long process but I think I can see some light around the bend. Pushing for an August launch.

We’re moving into Drupal. This will give us a new look—a more modular flavor. It will change the workflow of managing our site and content, hopefully for the better. But regardless of the site’s architecture we’ve had some good conversations about what a library website should be. The trend (which I’m guilty of myself) has been to talk about features, rather than functions. We’re trying to make our site extremely useable, not in the sense of ease-of-use (although I hope for that too!) but rather as a core utility in the learning experience. There are some 2.0 elements, but we’re actually consciously deemphasizing that. We’re getting back to basics but with a shinny wrapper and insightful content organization.

Before I get ahead of myself— I’m not going to use this post to reveal our design. I’ll do that in late May– instead I wanted to share some of our philosophical themes. I needed to feel the design and find my motivation and then hopefully share that with my team.  Much of the “web redesign” stuff I’ve seen about libraries reads more like a strategic plan rather than a call for an inspiring design. I'm trying to break us from that.

Over the winter break I composed a few thoughts to set a tone. As we're gearing up for a big push in content creation right now I dusted off my notes. Here is a sample to get the gist of what I mean:

Think Team Not Committee
There are numerous committees throughout the library. Many of you serve on them. I hope that this is something different. I want us to tap into a different mental state. Our task is going to be hard but I hope it will be fun too. I want us to function more like a Research & Development Lab. I want us to view ourselves as a group of designers, architects, authors, and marketers… not just librarians. We are a team… like a basketball squad or an orchestra. Each of us will contribute. Each of us will write and edit content. Each of us has a role. Each of us will play defense. Each of us has different talents, skills, interests, and perspectives— we need each other. This is a communal project.

Find “the voice” of our site
Besides look and flow, tone is very important to me. We’re not just going to copy and paste what we have now– we’re editing everything. Every page will be touched. Every piece of content will be considered. Think of this as “washing” our site—cleaning up the pages. We have a lot of laundry to do! I want it to sound like one voice—the voice of a friend or at least of a friendly professor. I don’t want it to be drab. I want some positive personality. I don't want it to read like a policy-driven organization. 

Imagine that our website is a book with hundreds of pages written by many different authors but having one common voice. We need to find that voice. Who is that person? A friendly, intelligent, encouraging voice. Let’s create/find that persona (celebrity) and have that person “write it” so to speak. George Clooney is the voice that comes to my mind. When we write we need to be character. 

Content Flow
I can’t emphasize enough how important content flow is to this project. There is a lot to do and a lot to think about, but I feel it is vital that we have a shared understanding and obsession about content flow. I don’t want long lists or gobs of content or lots of scrolling or confusing language. I don’t want to look at a site that reminds me of 1997—or even 2007 for that matter. I want us to strive for a site designed for 2012.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (Redish) is our bible.  Key phrases: grab and go content, skim and scan, less is more


This is an image from the book that I want us to use frequently during our discussions.

The Entry Page leads to a series of Navigation/Pathway Pages, which leads to a series of Destination Pages. Our mission is to create a clear path (actually multiple paths) to get people to their destination. Our site is a verb—it is filled with action—we’re moving people along. They come to our pages to do stuff. So our job is to enable them do/get what they need.

We also need to keep our different user segments in mind. Novice users, experienced users, non-affiliated users, ADA users, researchers from outside, etc. I’d like to involve them early in the design rather than toward the end. We need to talk about diverse segments of users, not one generic user type. I need to see them using the site. And better yet, involve them in this process.

Be The Beatles
We might not sell millions of records but over a million people view our site each year. This project is an outlet for expression. This site is art. It is a mix of form and function, but still, it is art. It is visual. It is text. It is layout. It is design. It is an experience. It is interactive. It is a statement. It is a declaration. It is a rebellion against our current site. We are not just a group of people assembled to write content for a website— we’re creating something special here. This is our canvas. This is our album. This is our
Sgt Peppers. This is a project that we will to be proud of. We have to take accountability and responsibility for what we are developing.


I gave each person on the content team a Beatles magnet, which I hope they keep on their desk, along with a copy of my notes. I attempted to capture the spirit of the project and keep it present. It's easy to lose sight of the heart when the mind takes over and does the work. Hopefully all this stuff taps into their sense of adventure and creativity, and that they’ll continue to look at this project as something fun and meaningful, rather than as just editing a bunch of web pages. Rather than just work this is something collaborative and substantial. I’m going to try and keep using the Beatles/art/design/expression themes to keep us in that mind set. I think they think I’m weird though— when I said I wanted Clooney to be our voice, I think I was pushing my luck. I also tried working in the NCAA Tournament and I'm not so sure they were feeling it, but that's ok. Part of leadership is finding the tone, message, or image that motivates them– that speak to them. I'm proud of the work they're doing though. They've been very open toward accepting me into their organization and I think we're finally starting to hit stride.

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