SAFE…or obvious?

August 13, 2008

At the Institutional Web Managers Workshop recently, a team from branding agency Precedent talked about a so called “SAFE matrix” that they use for branding work – in this particular context they’d used it for the iSoton portal as a way of evaluating success. Here’s the matrix (click for slideshow):

safematrixNow, I’m new to the world of HE but I think it’s fair to say that brand and design don’t necessarily sit comfortably or naturally with many university web teams. You only have to look at most university websites – particularly those of the “old” universities (sorry, my language in this space is still naïve, but I basically mean “the universities that didn’t used to be polytechnics”…) to see – well, a lack of design. These sites aren’t incompetent, visually: they often look ok, but at the same time there is often a missing coherence to the visual design; a lack of deeper thought about what the site represents and why.

There are many possible reasons for this – first off, it can be expensive – inevitably it involves agencies and not just “someone in-house who can use Photoshop”; second, it requires a series of skills that are specialist and often not available to these institutions; and thirdly, it just isn’t (or hasn’t been) seen as a priority. And in a world where sites have grown organically, without any strategic overview (much like many large museum sites), it’s hardly a surprise that the end result often looks like an explosion in a paint and typography factory.

Here’s the thing – personally, I think it was a mistake to have Precedent doing the talk at IWMW. This isn’t – contrary to what would be an easy assumption – because “I hate that London designer type”. Far from it. I’ve worked with agencies like this day in, day out for (scarily) a decade, and see the extraordinary work these approaches can have in supporting and extending “the brand”. I’ve been the budget holder for projects where we absolutely reaped the benefits of getting the brand right. Where I once squirmed at handing over tens of thousands of pounds for “a logo I could have knocked up in Photoshop in an hour”, I now see that the work surrounding brand development can be absolutely fundamental to aligning the various voices held by institutions. I have – I guess – grown up, and now find myself fighting the battle on the side of the design and brand agencies; or, to put it another way, against mediocre or non-existent visual design.

The fact is, though, you couldn’t have scripted the opposites at IWMW more perfectly if you’d tried. One the one hand, a media type with his SAFE matrix; on the other, a room full of techies with SQL, Java and repositories higher up in their mental wish-lists than all that high-level brand stuff. Which is not as insulting as it sounds: these guys are busy people with the daily requirements of huge, political and sprawling organisations in their in-boxes. Why should they care too much about what the thing looks like?

The reason I think Precedent were the wrong choice for IWMW is that what they do is so far in one direction – they are at a distance that is worlds apart from where most HEI’s and other institutions are today; it assumes an acceptance of the need for brand; it assumes a considerable budget; it assumes that anyone actually cares about what brand and visual design can do for web users and the coherence of an online offering. Out there in the commercial web world, these things can – sometimes – be taken as read; in here, with museums and HEI’s, many sites haven’t even got coherent colours, style guidelines or a consistent tone of voice sorted yet, let alone a “brand” or online strategy.

The net result, of course – through no fault of the speakers, but more the context – was that the already-held misconceptions about brand agencies (expensive, marauding, slick) were reinforced rather than broken down. No-one went away thinking “great, a SAFE matrix: I’ll take this back and implement it”. Instead the audience sniggered a bit and then went down the pub to laugh at iSoton for spending money on a text based logo that – yes, you guessed it – “…I could have knocked up in Photoshop in an hour”.

What would have worked better, I think, is an online marketing agency talking about why visual design and coherence is important; someone with some understanding of the barriers that museums and HEI’s face when trying to get to this coherence; what it means to have to battle with differing internal pressures about what the website is for and how brand work can help win these battles.

moodle Even amongst web people, there is a huge divide – astonishingly huge, IMO – between those who think visual design is important, and those who don’t. Go to any web conference like FOWA and you’ll see beautifully crafted visual design on everything you come across; go to any repository, VLE or research site and you’ll get Times New Roman-esque nothingness, or worse, a level of extremely nasty amateurism. Just take one look at the Moodle logo on the left, for example. I mean, that hurts, right? That’s a classic “hey, the bevel filter. Cool! Where can I use it…?” moment. That isn’t design…it’s…horrible..

The question – either to the HEI’s, museums, public bodies or government sites that are lacking in visual appeal is – well, hey, does it actually matter? I mean – Moodle works, right?

My personal take is – yes – it matters a great, great deal. What Precedent are saying I think is that visual design and brand are absolutely vital in communicating trust, and increasingly this will be the case as time goes by. The trust landscape is the place that we will increasingly be inhabiting as the web evolves. The very fact that the social web is a leveller, a democratiser, makes it even more vital that institutions have coherence in brand, voice and visual appearance.

Of course, the debate (as was highlighted by a recent twitter moment about the new delicious re-design) is only made more confusing when you bring in non-visual design: how the IA helps or hinders a user; whether (as I strongly believe), “accessibility” is about brand, look and feel, identity and not just about whether the thing “works”. That, as they say, is a whole different story…

One thing is clear: the bar is continually being raised, and with it the expectation of users. All institutions, whether HEI, museum, public body or otherwise, are continually being compared to commercial websites. We should therefore learn to listen to people like brand and marketing agencies. They have something useful to say – whether you choose to engage with a “SAFE matrix” is up to you…

7 thoughts on “SAFE…or obvious?

  1. Since I wasn’t at IWMW this year it is hard to comment, but I can say on previous experience that IWMW can be quite a mix of ‘marketing/design’ and ‘techy’ people – because where the role of ‘web manager’ sits within an organisation can vary.

    In the past I attended IWMW as the head of the ‘tech’ part of the web, with my colleague who was responsible for the marketing/design aspects – we were based in different depts in the institution, but clearly had to work closely to deliver the institutional website.

    Whereas there was a time when IWMW was about the tech aspects of the web, I would say that by IWMW 2005 there was a strong marketing/design aspect to the workshop, and that there was a good mix of people attending – I felt that in 2005 IWMW really acheived a dialogue between the different approaches that people brought to ‘institutional web’. I don’t think this necessarily resulted in agreement about the issues, but I thought that it was a great venue for moving on the conversation and working towards more mutual respect between the two approaches.

    Perhaps this has changed (I haven’t been to IWMW since 2006), or perhaps you just went down the pub with the hardcore techy component. If the majority of people really had SQL and Repositories high on their wishlists it seems that perhaps the people attending have changed – possibly this points to a maturing of the web as a medium and so those techies who were interested in HTML and CSS now leave this to the non-techies and the CMS, while they move onto pastures new?

  2. Thanks for commenting, Owen!

    This was my first IWMW, so I didn’t have much context to go on. Compared to the museum conferences that I’m usually found lurking at, it felt fairly tech-centric (in *audience*, not speakers) to me. There again, I’m completely new to the whole HEI scene so the whole thing is a learning curve and I could well be wrong.

    One of the things I’m fascinated in is the cross-over between look and feel and tech: where this happens, why it doesn’t happen sometimes, what the technologies bring to the equation and WHO does the work… Ultimately, I feel it’s about being able to spend time focussing on strategic aspects of what we happens in institutions rather than necessarily the tactical stuff. Alison W talked quite a lot about this and brought some interesting thoughts to bear.

    Ultimately, there is somewhere a correct balance whereby institutions can function effectively but within a framework of brand / marketing / technical strategy. But in my experience, this framework is usually either non-existent or in a delicate, pre-pubescent state that suffers every time a “requirement” comes along.

  3. The iSoton redesign shows that brand isn’t just about a logo, the brand values should also be obvious in the user experience.

    I started but never posted a very grumpy blog post about the hoops I had to jump through to try and get a postgraduate prospectus sent via the Soton site. I had to *register* for their site just to request a prospectus, the form had usability errors, and the request form was written as if they’d never met someone thinking about postgraduate study.

    Everyone who makes a website should be forced to use the website, and that includes anyone dealing with brand.

  4. Dear Mike, enjoyed your presentation at IWMW – thought your slides were very beautifully designed and put together.

    I’m not going to justify why we were invited to speak at IWMW (you’ll have to find that out from the organisers). But I will point out that the intention was to do a two parter with our client from the University of Southampton – and when she was unable to make it at the last moment, we had to improvise a different kind of presentation.

    You say that ‘brand and design don’t necessarily sit comfortably or naturally with many university web teams’ but that hasn’t really been our experience. Universities tend to have large web presences, much of which is made up of research and other materials created and managed by semi-autonomous Faculties, Schools and Departments. Those responsible for these materials often come from the academic side, and do often have reservations about marketing and brand. But corporately most University websites are managed by marketing and communications departments, and tend to be staffed with web professionals (who have often come to HEIs from the agency side or the private sector).

    Modern Universities are – amongst other things – big, complex businesses. Most have dramatically expanded their capacity in recent years in order to create the financial strength to sustain their many activities. University websites are critical to these business strategies, and have to perform to the University’s needs as a business. That is, they have to recruit students, raise funds, promote ‘third stream’ initiatives (knowledge transfer, ‘spin out’ enterprises, consultancy, continuing professional development and short courses), forge strategic alliances with other partners and act as a shop window for the many other business activities Universities have (Science and technology parks, conference facilities, movie locations, catering, creches – even functions such as wedding venues).

    Academic web publishers may – and, in my experience, often do – grumble about the University being ‘taken over’ by suspect private sector brand and marketing thinking. What they often aren’t willing to see is that the ongoing viability of their activities depends, critically, on the University’s ability to promote itself in increasingly competitive markets.

    I doubt there was a single institution represented at IWMW this year which isn’t working with agencies on their brand and website development (indeed, we’ve worked with many of them ourselves). Understanding the connection between brand and web is a hot issue for University marketing departments and many of the conversations I had suggested that sharing some of the tools we’ve developed to facilitate this (like the SAFE matrix) was much appreciated.

  5. James – thanks for commenting, great to have your point of view (and cheers for your kind comments about my presentation :-)).

    I’m absolutely with you – as I hope was clear from my post – about the value of companies such as Precedent. I’m unconvinced, though, that most large institutions see, or are wholesale bought into this value. The interfaces that you have with these institutions could well be with those people that have, but I’m really not sure they are representative of the wider community.

    I’m only too aware (having done it for seven long years..) that actually the issue is not “just” about brand awareness but about lack of strategy; it’s about organic rather than managed growth. Having a holistic view of “what the website is for” from an institution perspective is probably the biggest challenge that these institutions face. Working with museums, it was hard enough: how do you build a strategy with no money, few resources and no idea where the “value” is held? In HEI’s it is even harder: I don’t know of a HE website manager who could give me a one sentence elevator pitch about what their website does, where it is going or who it is for. These are still – often – wild, unmanaged landscapes that attempt to cater to everybody from student to academic to postdoc to funding body. They usually fail. This is through the fault of history rather than anyone in particular, but I think the current “trust landscape” means that it is more important now than ever before to focus on these strategies.

    Under the hood, I still don’t think many web teams see the value of brand. I know most techies don’t. I fully understand (and sorry, it was unfair of me not to mention it!) that you were having to pull together an ad-hoc presentation at the last minute – but overall, I think it would have worked better if the conversation had started with the question “why brand is important” rather than anything more complex.

  6. As James says, the initial intention was that this talk would provide the institutional view on marketing and engagement with a branding agency. Unfortunately due to illness the speaker couldn’t attend so James and his colleague had to fill this slot at the last moment.

    I’ll not comment on the contents of your post as institutional marketing of, as James describes, ‘big, complex businesses’ isn’t my main area of work. However this is an area of interest to many of the IWMW 2008 participants, so I’d welcome people who attended the event (and those, such as Owen, who didn’t) to contribute to this debate.

  7. Isn’t part of the problem that, very often, techies and marketers speak in completely different language? It’s a problem we face at IOP Publishing (certainly in the B2B publishing side of the business), not aided by the fact that marketing, editorial and IS all work on the same web sites but not as integrated teams.

    Ultimately people have different views of the world: some prefer something that works well and couldn’t give two hoots what it looks like; others are willing to sacrifice some utility for something that has more visual appeal.

    For techies, an organisation’s “brand” would be enhanced by easy access to the information they want in the way they want it. I vaguely remember a blog post critiquing Ford motor company’s website a few years ago, saying that a (utilitarian looking) 3rd-party car info site did more to enhance Ford’s brand (as it gave prospective purchasers the comparison info they wanted) than did Ford’s own site, full as it was with shiny, but ultimately meaningless, lifestyle statements and photos. I can’t find the link – sorry 😮

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