SAFE…or obvious?

Posted on August 13, 2008

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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…

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