2013 Conference

Website of Dreams: If You Build It, Will They Come?


Allison Manley, Owner/Designer, Rogue Element Inc.
John Nollin, Director of Operations, Promet Source
Andy Kucharski, Founder & CEO, Promet Source

“Your website looks like it belongs to a credit union.” That’s the last thing that Grinnell College wanted to hear. This liberal arts school, based in Iowa, needed a redesign that reflected one of its core values: individuality. With the help of Promet Source, a Drupal web application development company, and Rogue Element, a design firm, they built a website that would never again be mistaken for a bank.

The Problem

Grinnell is a tiny and dynamic liberal arts school where students create their own curriculum. The website did not reflect this. The IA was a mess, things were hard to find and there was no hierarchy. To top it all off, the website was blue and black – which aren’t even the school’s colors.

Departments were defecting from the main site and going rogue. Content was passing through the hands of various editors, with no rhyme or reason.

Grinnell wanted brand cohesion. With Promet Source and Rogue Elements, they figured out that they needed a smaller site, an easier publishing workflow and a way to accurately reflect the heart of their brand.

Starting at the Beginning: The Audit

Those involved in the redesign got down to business and narrowed down the problem areas. They included a lack of brand awareness outside of Grinnell, navigation and Drupal issues, and a lack of user engagement.

“A Brand We Can All Be Proud Of”

Grinnell considered three branding concepts:

  1. Home & Horizon

  2. The Unexpected

  3. Individuality

Individuality struck the right chord. It spoke to the students’ self-governance and their customizable experience of crafting their own education. Grinnell wanted to explore this concept with their website. Instead of telling outsiders about their uniqueness, they wanted to demonstrate it.

They discussed three design ideas to encompass the theme of individuality:

  1. The Mosiac – to reflect the community.

  2. Pinterest Style – users can chose what they want to see on the homepage.

  3. Tile System – a customizable homepage.

Grinnell chose the Tile System as it best reflected their unique customizable education experience.

Above the fold on the homepage, the Communications Department has control over content. But below, all content is of the user’s choosing. There are over 30 tiles that the user can select. These include tiles such as ‘Global Grinnell,’ ‘Poster of the Week,’ and ‘Moment.’ They can also create a tile to put in a link to whatever they want – Facebook, New York Times, etc.

Students access their tiles through user accounts. Users build a profile and put in valuable information; information that comes in handy to the Communications and Recruitment teams. This insight into prospective students “takes marketing to a new level.”

Offices and departments have control of their own special customizable areas. But to keep the overall feel consistent, some content areas are set beyond their reach and locked. It’s the best solution – combining control with autonomy.


How is content associated with the tiles? Each tile is associated with its own tags. The key is fewer tiles rather than more, so each can aggregate multiple tags.

Will They – The Users – Come If We Build It?

The customizable homepage gives users the opportunity to create their own space. It strips the “political stuff” out of it. Students are taking to it well. Users have called the new website “extremely valuable.”

Actual user responses to the website:

  • “I like this a lot in comparison to other schools, because I haven’t seen much in the way of customizing [from others].”

  • “I get the impression that they really want me to find what’s right for me and be able to get the most out of my experience there.”

  • It’s a “website catering to what I want.”

With implementation, this isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning. With the new Drupal 7 site, new features and functionalities are fairly easy to launch.

Can other schools replicate this?

They must ask themselves these questions:

  • Can you sell it internally?

  • Do you have an agreed-upon brand?

  • Can  you get buy-in from departments?

  • Do you want a site that’s an evolving story?

  • Can you assign a Project Owner?

  • Can you feature-freeze?

Road blocks that implementers may encounter include:

  • Users may say things that you don’t want to hear

  • It is difficult to change behaviors

  • More content = more content management

What are the benefits?

A website like Grinnell’s encourages authentic communication, engagement of the school community, and it provides real utility to the user.

Photo from Flickr user Wednesday Elf under a CC license

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By Liz Gross

Liz Gross is the Director of Campus Sonar. Her professional super powers include designing and analyzing market research, applying social media strategy to multiple areas of the business, explaining difficult concepts in simple language, and using social listening to develop consumer insights and assist with reputation management. She received her Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University.