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5 Amazing Ways Universities are Innovating in Website Design in 2024

Written by Craig Slade

Innovation in web design for universities is a relatively new trend.

Historically, university website design has been template-based; with most sites looking similar and very few standing out in terms of their UX or UI design. It’s a crowded field with lots of competition for the attention of potential students and academics.

The digital strategy that many have followed is to take the user journeys and style from some of the best university websites (see our blog post, 10 Best Higher-Education Websites in 2024 for the strongest websites in the higher education sector).

However, increasingly some universities are pushing towards eye-catching innovations using web design. This takes various forms. Sometimes, it means great User Interface design and interaction design, but sometimes it comes down to the website content strategy and refined user journeys.

Read on for some of the most innovative breakthroughs in university website design, and let us know what you think.

 

Our top five innovators in university website design

  1. Virtual Tour for Higher Education – Aalto University Website
  2. Interaction Design for University Websites – College Merici
  3. Website design focusing on admissions – Princeton University
  4. Websites showing off specialisms – Royal Academy of Music, and European Cultural Academy
  5. Using layout to stand out from the competition – Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences

 


 

Virtual Tour for Higher Education – Aalto University website design

Virtual tour image of Aalto university from their website

 

Many of the best university websites have made use of virtual tours, but the virtual tour for Aalto University takes it to another level. It really makes you feel as though you’re visiting the campus, allowing you to move freely around, even making use of Virtual Reality (VR) if you have some goggles to hand. This is a prime example of innovation in website design in the higher education sector, and points strongly to some of the trends we’ve commented on in our article on the future of university websites.

If you’re a bit overawed by the freedom it offers, you can use a virtual tour guide, who will take you around the campus, pointing out areas of interest and giving background information. The audio descriptions also make this tour more accessible for users with accessibility requirements.

“Aalto University is where science and art meet technology and business.”

That’s the mission stated on the About page. They’re interested in shaping the future – we think this virtual tour is a great commitment to that goal, and will help attract the brightest minds.

Try it out at here – in Virtual Reality if you can!

 


 

Interaction Design for University WebsitesCollege Merici website design

Screenshot of College Merici's website, showing innovative layout and interaction design

 

This Canadian school has really focused on animation and interaction design, producing from a visual standpoint one of the best university websites we’ve seen. It has been achieved with a level of creativity, ambition and bravery we rarely see in the sector. To some it might seem like overkill, but for the attraction of Gen-Z undergraduates, it makes a lot of sense.

The school’s brand is focused on prestige and excellence. Take a look at their page on the various sports teams playing under the name, the Mérici Panthers. Their mission states that “Being a panther of Collège Mérici means committing to being the best version of yourself.” The imagery on the page is brilliantly brought out by the animation design, and the interaction design makes the website feel dynamic and exciting. Overall, the combination of strong user experience design and user interface design will attract an ambitious undergraduate to apply.

Beyond the emotive elements of the brand, the design makes a lot of sense for its target audience. Speaking to a younger demographic means being well-optimized for mobile, and Merici have taken this to heart. The website has been designed mobile-first, and the great layout we see on desktop produces an even better mobile experience.

Try it out here – on mobile if you can!

 


 

Website design focusing on admissions – Princeton University website design

Screenshot of Princeton University's admissions microsite, titled 'there are layers to this'.

 

One of the pitfalls of website content strategy is believing that everything has to sit visibly on a website’s homepage in order to be found. (We’ve covered some more of the pitfalls in our blog, 7 common challenges in higher education website design. We have first hand experience of the need to accommodate a wide variety of user groups, from students and parents to visiting academics – and even groundskeeping staff. If designers and content strategists for university websites aren’t careful, user journeys become unfocussed, and messy.

However, Princeton have taken the powerful approach to create a separate microsite to delineate the admissions portal of their website. This has many benefits, from content strategy to user management.

The decision speaks wide user research, and a considered approach to user journeys. This microsite is aimed specifically at users who have already decided that they would like to apply. Princeton have realised that it is necessary to speak to these users in a different and focused way: they’re not trying to sell the university experience – they’re aiming to convey complex information as simply as possible. With that in mind, the site has a cleaner layout than the rest of the website, and the microsite has its own separate menu structure.

The best university websites work not just for prospective students but also for website administrators. Having a separate microsite and portal for admissions means it is easier to create and stick to a website content strategy within this smaller team. It means that administrators can keep sensitive, regularly-updated information on admissions in one place. It also means that the admissions team don’t need to access the Content Management System (CMS) of the main university website in order to update the information here – a great advantage for site security and user-management.

A microsite like this could be achieved through WordPress MultiSite: check out our blog on MultiSite here. And take a look at Princeton’s admissions microsite here!

 


 

Websites showing off specialisms – Royal Academy of Music, and European Cultural Academy website designs

Some universities are known all over the world for a specific discipline, and they want their website design to shout about it. These two schools are among the best places to study what they teach in the world, and it makes sense that they’d have two of the best websites in higher education.

Screenshot of the Royal Academy of Music's website hero video, showing students playing music and a 'music icon' to turn on audio on their website.

 

It was a terrible aspect of website design in the 2000s that forced users to listen to music upon landing on a homepage. But in some instances, this is still desirable. While the Royal Academy of Music haven’t made music autoplay, there is a sound icon in the menu navigation which allows the user to hear the music behind their homepage hero video. This takes the user directly into the halls of the Academy, allowing them to experience not only what the school looks like, but what it sounds like as well.

 

Screenshot from the European Cultural Academy's website, showing a unique design and layout.

 

Similarly, but with a different emphasis, The European Cultural Academy isn’t just an art school, it’s a place for creative professionals to hone their skills. They marry artistic practice with industry. This is clear in its layouts, in which simple grid designs are embellished with outlines which, when hovered over, reveal high-quality imagery of art and architecture. This kind of interaction design encourages the user to explore the website, and leaves a strong brand imprint.

 


 

Using layout to stand out from the competition – Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences website design

Screenshot from Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences' Website, showing a unique stand-out layout and menu design.

 

Standing out is a primary goal of so many higher education websites, and the best universities use innovation in their design to achieve this. Voralberg University of Applied Sciences have done just that, with their eye-catching layout and interesting navigation design.

On mobile devices, the website looks great: it’s navigable, and clean. On desktop, though, it really stands out from the crowd, with the navigation menu being situated on the left-hand side of the website layout.

Asides from differentiating the site from the rest, it has a few visual benefits which contribute to the website’s mission. Because users are familiar with websites fitting into a screen shortened by the navigation menu, it means that this site achieves a real sense of vertical space. Furthermore, it gives the website the feel of a console or digital product, something other than a website which has been designed and built with particular focus on science. Both of these really give the sense of a technically capable, progressive institution which is interested in finding the best technical solutions possible, rather than following the crowd.

If we had one criticism? We know that mobile-browsing is a primary way of browsing for younger demographic, who must be a primary target audience. It’s a shame that on mobile-browsing the only reflection of this innovation is that when the menu is tapped, the tray slides out from the left. This doesn’t convey as much as the desktop version – but it is understandable given the limitations of these devices.

Try it out here – on desktop if you can!

 


 

How to innovate with your university website design

Competitor analysis is a crucial part of the journey towards designing a website for a higher education organisation, but if you’re considering a redesign of your institution’s site, we would encourage caution. The best university websites aren’t just those with the most exciting features, they’re the ones that serve their users the best.

As a London digital agency, Crucible’s approach isn’t to simply borrow and steal: our first job is to get to know your students, and the ones you want to attract. From there, we can start to think of ways to break the mould, and conduct detailed research – allowing you to attract the best minds without alienating any users, whether they’re your academics, students or parents!

If you’re looking for assistance with website design for a university or college, Crucible can help with any stage in the journey, from the website’s content strategy through to the final deployment – reach out to one of our team if you’re interested in learning more.

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