When a highly regarded graphic design program launches a new website, it’s often received by design community with the heightened levels of scrutiny and anticipation reserved for the latest iPhone unveiling. And those expectations become stratospheric when that academic department happens to have distinguished itself with its pioneering transmedia curriculum.
But all that pressure to dazzle the design world did not deter ArtCenter Graphic Design Chair, Nik Hafermaas, from breaking with convention in both the conception and execution of his department’s newly minted website. Instead, Hafermaas recruited a core group of innovative designers to take a distinctly idiosyncratic approach to developing and building the content of the site around a set of user archetypes known as “psychographics,” based on demographic research of likely visitors. The look and feel of the site was then created based on the written psychographic Q&As that Graphic Design faculty member Guillaume Wolf had assembled as the site’s driving conceit.
Hafermaas’ risk paid off. Artcenter.edu/gx launched to great acclaim earlier this month. As the raves continued to roll in, we seized the opportunity to ask Hafermaas to illuminate the unconventional process that lead him to create a site inspired and inhabited by the presumed end user.
What was your creative mandate for the site and what do you hope to achieve with it?
We wanted to create a portal for our ever-expanding graphic design community consisting of students, alumni, faculty and friends. And at the same time, we wanted to provide an engaging entry point for prospective students as well as for people who are just plain curious about new directions in transmedia graphic design.
As graphic designers, we are not mere pretty-makers any more. We have become creative authors that translate our world’s complexity into visual messages that stimulate the retina, tickle the brain and touch the heart.
What did you want to do differently — in terms of both functionality and design — from other similar sites?
Successfully capturing the vibrancy and diversity of a place like ArtCenter within the confines of a website is a tall order. We also didn’t want to do the thing that’s most expected from a leading graphic design program: simply front-loading a candy store of flashy work samples.
Instead, we wanted to create a sense of authenticity about the exceptional creative people in our program—to provide a glimpse into how they tick, what attracts them to our community and what drives them creatively. This website is as much about the WHY as it is about the WHAT.
Shooting for the unexpected, we therefore started with text (instead of images) which we then mapped onto abstracted loops of campus activity to create a sense of place. We used pull quotes to guide users to Q&As with current students and recent alumni as well as to samples of their stellar design work.
Our People section features samples of faculty and alumni work, which may be of particular interest to current and prospective students. When viewers dig a bit deeper into the ABOUT section, they will find links to inspirational videos on Transmedia Design, an instructional video instructing applicants on creating a compelling portfolio (Begin Here) and some related programs and activities (TestLab Berlin, Designmatters). Happening Now directs users to a list of the most exciting graphic design events on campus and within the broader design community.
What were some of your initial sources of inspiration or ideas that emerged in the ideation and design process?
We started to work on this project from scratch. We actually didn’t look at many similar sites. Instead, we asked ourselves some deep questions: Why do we do what we do? What are the different motivations that prompt a very diverse range of people to join our high-intensity creative environment and to choose a career in transmedia graphic design?
Our faculty colleague Guillaume Wolf introduced us to the idea of psychographics—the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests and lifestyles.
The different psychographic profiles that we feel best apply to our community are the Explorers, Reformers and Succeeders. Are you a Succeeder, driven to master your creative leadership skills? Are you a Reformer, determined to make a difference in the world through your creative voice? Or are you an Explorer, seeking to create new experiences for yourself and for others?
Did you feel a specific pressure to really push boundaries given that this site represents one of the top graphic design departments in the world?
Sure, you don’t want your typography to suck. Our best bet for a deliciously designed website was to collaborate with Carolina Trigo, an exceptional visual designer of international stature, who designed our previous website that won awards as early as 2006.
What were some of the biggest challenges to pulling off the more innovative elements of the site?
I think that the most innovative feature is under the hood. For our graphic design department, we have recently implemented a comprehensive digital asset management system, WikiPixel, which is designed to capture every piece of final student work produced within a given term. This platform will provide a direct pipeline into our website, enabling us to feature fresh student work. Thom Meredith has designed the backend to the new site so cleverly that even a digital immigrant like me can easily post new stuff.
What would you most like to improve?
We have already received some valuable feedback from our alumnus Daniel Young, interaction designer at Google, which we will use to further tweak some aspects of the overall navigation experience to better strike a balance between the intricate and the obvious.
What do you hope users take away from their interactions with the site?
With this website we hope to have created a living, breathing organism which invites users to become part of our creative family.
Website Project Credits:
Paula Seo: Project Management and Content Management
Caro Trigo: Visual Design
Thom Meredith: UI and Programming
Guillaume Wolf: Psychographics concept and interviews
Carolyn To with Ming Tai: Landing page movies
Steve Kim: Q&A Section
Kit Baron: Admissions Section
Christine Spines and Sylvia Sukop: Interview Transcripts
Manny Hernandez and Jason Blackader: IT Support
Our Psychographics Students and Alumni
Nik Hafermaas: Creative Direction