The University of York ‘Gateway’ Pages & Virtual Tours
The University of York, one of the pre-eminent universities in the UK, wanted a revamp of its website. They were one of the first universities on the web, but they needed to dramatically upgrade their online presence. The brief was to design the home & “Gateway” pages, the latter being directory pages for independently-operated departments.
They had a number of requirements:
- It needed to be fully accessible, which at the time was a rare goal, even in university settings;
- It had to be usable on a raft of old browsers. Both within the University & internationally, many users were using old browsers such as Netscape 4.7 & Internet Explorer 5.0;
- It had to be very sparing in its use of images. Like many large universities, York pays an astronomical amount for its bandwidth usage;
- They needed a “What’s New?” section for the homepage;
- Finally, any software we developed had to operate in a developmentally restrictive environment.
In addition to these requirements, York needed assistance with its online marketing: how could they present its multi-faceted nature? The campus is filled with modernist & eighteenth-century buildings; it’s a research organisation, but it has great strengths in teaching & works closely with industry; it’s a nature preserve next to an historical city; it’s a fun place in which to study, but the students are also serious. How could we convey these messages with few images & an eye towards their bandwidth bill?
Working on the Marketing Message
ardes came up with an innovative way to convey their multi-varied marketing messages while still keeping their bandwidth costs low: we developed software we called “Picture For Every Occasion”. PFEO lets the website’s administrators change the primary photo on the University’s homepage from any series of images they wish.
It examines a directory of images and switches the images on the homepage at timed intervals specified by the administrator. PFEO addresses their bandwidth concerns by allowing them to alter the duration of any image’s presence on the homepage: from a matter of a second to however long they wish. In this way, they can respond dynamically to their bandwidth bill.
In addition, York can provide image subdirectories and show only those images at specific times of year: images of graduation in May, for instance, or only snowy images in the wintertime. The PFEO system is flexible & allows the University to address any aspect of their marketing at any time. And it’s written in PERL, one of the few languages the University’s servers would allow.
The University of York employs two corporate colours, both dark shades. ardes first created a palette of complementary colours in vastly lighter shades—the darker shades were used for hyperlinks. We then created two layouts: one for the homepage & one for the gateway pages.
The homepage contains the logo, a large photo & separate boxes for information—one, information for different individuals, another for information about aspects of the University & finally one for news. We wanted to create a “pure” design based exclusively on Cascading Style Sheet declarations, but the old browsers we had to support dictated the use of tables for this page’s content.
The gateway pages have a different layout. These are usually very long lists of links and we noted that visitors’ eyes glaze over when reading these pages—and they often miss out on the very information they wanted to find. We logically separated various blocks of links to break up the page, styling each block alternately in light shades of two complementary colours. Each page has a photograph of life at the University to liven up the page. These photos are all ones available for the homepage, so the they would likely be cached on the visitor’s computer, reducing the University’s bandwidth bills.
Separately from designing the website, York approached ardes to employ one of our specialities: virtual reality. The University wanted us to portray two radically different facets of their architectural landscape: the grounds surrounding Heslington Hall, an eighteenth-century mansion & Central Hall, one of the more radical 1960’s buildings on campus.
The purpose of using virtual reality for universities is very clear: foreign students, who otherwise couldn’t afford to visit prior to matriculation, could visit the campus online & decide whether the university was for them.
One of the aims ardes always have in mind for any website we create is “Return-On-Investment” (ROI): how quickly what we make for you will cover the costs of development.
Almost immediately upon its launch, the University of York’s website was recognised as one of the top three most accessible academic websites in the UK. The site’s reuse of graphics & the inherent power of PFEO allowed the University to cut their bandwidth bills significantly.
Because of its facility & graphical appeal, our design was employed by the University of York for several years. The design’s fresh look thereby inherently helped the University save money for unnecessary redesigns over time.
The virtual tours of the University’s campus have helped thousands of overseas prospectives make the decision that York was for them: they couldn’t ordinarily make the expensive journey to the UK to form their impressions. Because overseas students form a massive source of funding, the virtual tours have helped the University’s bottom line considerably.