While I was doing research for my job as a tour guide today, I happened to notice that the websites of Brown University and Dartmouth College had been completely redesigned since I was a prospective student. Although I applied to neither of these schools, they were both on the consideration list at one point, so I was familiar with their previous websites. I was extremely impressed with the new look of both sites; they are attractive, informative, and easy to navigate. Dartmouth and Brown are both schools that have colors associated with their names, and they do a good job of capitalizing on this (Dartmouth's athletic program is the "Big Green"). Each site highly emphasizes the school's graphic identity, which serves to reinforce the brand as a whole.
Brown: Visitors to Brown's website are greeted with an extremely simple, clean homepage that has a header and a list of popular destinations, with related links in smaller text to the right. When mousing over an item on the list, it slides open like a drawer to reveal a recent news item. "Life on Campus," for instance, reveals information about a series of free concerts to celebrate a newly renovated recital hall. These drawers are extremely well-implemented; there is even a short delay before they pop open so that you can move your mouse freely without springing open every drawer.
Dartmouth: Dartmouth's three-column design resembles that of a blog, with quick links to events and news on the right, short news features in the middle, and important links on the right. The header is a large, visual representation of recent college events; each time the site is refreshed, a random picture is selected from a pool of nine or ten. The pictures are replaced with new ones each week. Needless to say, the photos are beautiful and convey well the collegiate atmosphere. The spacing is perfect, the colors are very pleasing, especially the light background, and the text is the perfect size.
It is interesting to note that Brown's site was developed with the help of Pentagram, a design company with a wide portfolio and many recognizable clients. Dartmouth's, on the other hand, was developed totally in-house. I slightly prefer Dartmouth's design over Brown's because everything is visible at once. Although Brown's tabs are sexy, the appeal wears off quickly.
I suppose that I'm writing about other collegiate websites because I have website envy. The University of Rochester's site looks quite outdated. I want to be able to set it as my homepage, but it's much too static. Great websites, such as Dartmouth's, are always changing. There is something new to look at every time you visit. Another great example of this is MIT. The homepage image is created by a different member of MIT and changes each day; it is used to spotlight important research and events.
At Rochester's site, the news section, which is the only dynamic part of the page, is too small. College news should be prominent; it should be the second thing (after the logo/name) that catches the eye. It shows that the college is alive, that faculty are productive and that students are enjoying themselves. Another problem is that the same thirty or so pictures have been gracing the front page for the past few years. The whole site could use more of the screen; right now it isn't taking advantage of today's higher-resolution monitors. Hopefully a site redesign will arrive with the new logo and new identity that we will be getting later this year.