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Three Higher Ed Design Trends for 2018
three people and a dog looking at computers


Three Higher Ed Design Trends for 2018

Jan 23, 2018By Ben Bilow, Shannon Lanus, Abby McLean & Ben Conley

Designers are always looking ahead to new innovations in aesthetics and process. Whether that change is grounded in user needs, market opportunity, or pure curiosity, we’re always pushing forward. Rested from our winter holiday and motivated to make this year the most innovative in mStoner’s history, we put our UXer/Designer/Content Strategist heads together to suss out the next wave. 

1. Moving Beyond the Template with Modular Design

In 2018, design systems with modular components take a greater role in design. In the past, institutions focused efforts on developing web pages that serve specific content needs and short-term goals. Today, we’re making a conscious effort to think, design, and code with greater flexibility in mind. At mStoner, we make functional and aesthetic web components that can recombine into a number of goal-driven experiences.

We believe modular design will improve and help maintain higher ed websites for the long haul. The beauty of modular design is that you can upgrade a component that is underperforming without sacrificing the integrity of the page or the site as a whole. But some other advantages exist too.

Modular design systems will empower designers and content editors. Teams will make smarter decisions that don’t require huge effort. If you need to augment a page with new functionality, you can assemble existing components. And you can create new experiences without the limits of a template designed for a different purpose. Conversely, template-based design is difficult to improve and maintain. These pages are typically designed with integrated functionality and complex visual design.

By taking a modular approach at the onset of a redesign, we’re able to build a product that is flexible, adaptable, and improvable based on new institutional goals or changing user needs.

2. UX Choreography 2.0

A reaction to skeuomorphism fueled the uber-flat design movement of the past couple of years. In favor of a less-is-more aesthetic, designers were more than happy to jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, what was gained in aesthetics was unintentionally lost in actionability and clarity. In 2018, we’ll continue to adjust course back to more interactive signifiers in the name of better usability, while taking the successful design elements from flat design forward to a beautiful and usable online experience.

In 2017, we noticed every type of institution — from large, state universities to private liberal arts colleges — used transitions and animations to bring the wow factor back to their sites’ design. This year will see less flash and boom and more subtle cues that help users find what they’re looking for, explore their options, and make decisions with confidence. Inspired by real-world physics, motion on the web naturally gets us thinking about designing customer service experiences rather than information repositories.

3. Designing Content for Internal Audiences

Ever year, we are happy to see more higher ed institutions refreshing their website content with prospective students in mind. Your website is one of the most trusted sources of information when prospective students want to learn about your institution. And when your website is engaging, up-to-date and easy to use, it is also the most trusted source of information for faculty, staff, and current students. That’s why, looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, internal-facing content is the next frontier.

Over the past year, we’ve heard from many students, faculty, and staff members at a variety of institutions. In everything from discovery sessions to surveys and one-on-one user interviews, we’ve heard that the internal web experience is an enduring pain point for a number of institutions. For the internal website user, a thoughtfully designed information environment goes a long way. Asking students what they need, then organizing the page accordingly with some student-friendly copy and visual hierarchy, helps students find what they’re looking for faster and makes for a better internal user experience.

The key to bringing great experiences to internal audiences is to think about those individuals as important customers along a path from potential buyer to devoted enthusiast to lasting brand evangelist. At every stage, give your audience your best: personal, personalized, dynamic, intentionally designed content.

Looking Ahead this Year

There’s always been a fascination with what’s next. We love testing shiny design tools and poring over sites that inspire us for the next visual design trick. The important thing to remember is that great design is always backed by great people who take the time to understand you, your audience, and your project goals. And that is a timeless approach that will persist year after year.

Are you ready to make this year the year you really own your site? We’re here to help.

In this free on-demand presentation, we’ll cover the six things you need to know to set up your next website project for success. You’ll learn how to:

  1. Use insights from data to justify a website redesign, and what to do while you’re waiting for budgetary approval.
  2. Set your priorities by determining goals and success metrics around engagement, conversion, brand building, and internal efficiency and collaboration.
  3. Identify blind spots. (Spoiler alert: We have a list of top 10 mistakes that institutions usually make, and how to avoid them.)
  4. Create a strong RFP that great firms will want to respond to, and choose the best-fit partner for your needs.
  5. Create realistic expectations internally around cost, process, and community engagement.
  6. Move your website from a capital project to an ongoing process.

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  • Ben Bilow Creative Director Creative success comes from digging in, getting messy, and making stuff. As a kid in St. Louis, my interest in skateboarding and rock & roll music shaped my work ethic — be resourceful, build community, share. We invented our own fun, designing rock posters and building half-pipes — tearing them down and doing it again.

  • Shannon Lanus Director of Web Strategy As Director of Web Strategy, Shannon Lanus works to make sure great content and amazing design co-exist in every mStoner project. She crafts persuasive digital stories for our clients that are informed by their business goals as well as mStoner’s market research and effective audience engagement methods.

  • Abby McLean Art Director Higher education deserves amazing, polished design. The majority of my experience has been designing for higher education. It’s fun for me to bring good design to college and university websites, where staying ahead of the curve can be a challenge.

  • Ben Conley UX / Visual Designer Nothing energizes me like working with my mStoner team to solve our clients’ creative problems. As top-notch designers, developers, and strategists, we work behind the scenes and tinker with details to make sure all the pieces and parts come together in the best products.