Meet #hewebNE conference keynote: Jason Pamental on text vs. visuals, issues & #highered websites

April 22nd, 2014 Karine Joly 1 Comment

Helping you learn and grow in your higher ed career – no matter how you do it.

High Ed Web New England 2014That’s Higher Ed Experts’ motto!

That’s why I spent my time chasing the latest trends, doing research, developing online programs (conferences & courses) as well as teaching. That’s also the reason why I’ve chosen – this year again – to invest the main part of Higher Ed Experts promotional budget in the 4 HighEdWeb Regional Conferences, more specifically the 4 keynotes of these conferences.

This Friday at HighEdWeb New England, the conference attendees (including 2 Higher Ed Experts Alums I’ve given our 2 free invites) will be able to enjoy a keynote by Jason Pamental, a web designer by trade, a speaker well-known for his work on type and the co-founder of h+w design.

Jason agreed to answer via email a few of my questions earlier this month, so we all get a chance to learn a bit more today.

1) You’re well-known for your work on web fonts. Now that pictures and videos have become so central on the Web and social media, do you think it’s still important to focus on text?

Jason Pamental - Photo credit Chris CascianoPictures and video are fantastic – but they don’t tell the whole story; and in particular with regard to the proliferation of screen sizes and network speeds, text content will likely always be a part of our design language.

The written word will be read on an electronic screen with ever-increasing frequency (Amazon has been selling more eBooks than physical ones for a couple of years already). And given that web fonts are resolution-independent, they’re a design element that can work successfully on virtually any device!

I think that the voice and tone that can be conveyed through good typography will always be an important tool in a designer’s arsenal. Using them well – from typeface choices and pairings to implementing them well from a technical perspective – is what will set a designer apart from a good one.

2) Today’s web ain’t what it used to be. In your opinion, what is the top challenge for people making websites now – and how can they tackle it?

Keeping up with an ever-fragmenting landscape of where our designs end up!

There are literally thousands of combinations of screen sizes, resolutions and operating systems that we have to contend with. Being able to convey meaning, hierarchy and intent in our design, regardless of where it is viewed, is the greatest challenge – followed closely by being technically able to implement it. I talk a lot about that and think the notion of what we consider design (and the role of the designer) is shifting and expanding every day. I don’t think you can design effectively for the web without knowing how to make it. At least the HTML & CSS, and maybe a little Javasrcript. At least enough to deal with changing screen sizes and modifying classes when that happens. You can’t work as a print designer without knowing how something gets printed – and how to prepare a file for the press. Designing for the web should be no different. Real designers code.

3) What is the most common problem in higher ed websites? Any suggestion on how we can start to fix it?

That’s a tough one. Higher ed sites are hugely complex ecosystems: admissions, marketing, donors, students, faculty, departments – everyone has a need, and sometimes the only thing left in the middle of the Venn diagram of content and functionality is the end user’s browser. Schools need to market themselves. Students want to apply. Faculty want to put up their course materials. Departments want to tell their own complete story. It’s never one site – even for the smallest school. So from the very beginning you have an enormous challenge: to create a design system that can tie disparate sites and varied content types together in ways that simultaneously allow for a certain amount of individuality yet present a cohesive whole to the end user. That’s not simple for even the most experienced designer or IA. And, most schools don’t necessarily have someone with that deep level of experience on staff. At best it may be someone who’s done one or two sites; not 20. So their scope of experience is likely narrow.

That of course is further complicated by the distributed organizational nature of most higher ed institutions. There is generally not one office or department that is responsible for the entire web ecosystem. Public Affairs, Communications or Advancement might own the external site, Schools have their own administrative layer and budgets, and Departments are often left to their own devices. So even if there IS a cohesive design system created, getting everyone to use it is another challenge entirely.

I think that’s actually the biggest challenge: getting the stakeholders to internalize the reality that they are not their own target audience, and the end user doesn’t know or care about internal organizational structures. They care about accomplishing their own tasks: to apply, to contact, to give, to connect. And, that usually cuts across internal boundaries in ways that can really challenge existing hierarchies and spheres of responsibility. But, it has to happen for the website to be effective.

I have seen some great efforts though. Penn State, Brown, Yale and I’m sure many others have developed their own site ‘platforms’ with shared technology and – at least to an extent – shared theme elements. So at least that way schools can leverage their technology and design investment across many sites, and allow the creation of those sites to be MUCH simpler. The challenge it to design systems like that in such away that you can have a certain amount of creative freedom but still have cues for the user that it’s the same institution.

3) You’re going to present the keynote talk at the High Ed Web New England conference. Can you tell us a bit more about your talk and what attendees will be able to learn?

You’re going to have to wait unit the conference! But I can tell you that it will ring an alarm bell, and throw down a challenge. The web profession and community has come a long way, especially in the last few years. But our ‘feeder’ system is fundamentally broken. We’re not teaching the right topics. We’re not nurturing the right combinations of curiosity, design and technology to develop those who will lead us through the next 20 years. This conference represents a unique nexus between the web design and development community and the educational institutions that are currently struggling with the pace at which our industry changes. Indeed struggling with what ‘design’ is in the first place. I’d love to see greater collaboration between those worlds, and I can’t think of a better place to start!