University Web Developers

University Web Developers

I've only been in the Higher Ed industry for 4 months now, but in that time, I've looked at just about every university site in the United States. I've come across many similar designs out there, but today I came across one that seems to have possibly borrowed a little too much.

The University of Alabama - Huntsville ( ) has redesigned their site sometime in the past 6 months or so. I'm not exactly sure when, but my colleague pointed it out to me. When I went to their site this morning, it immediately struck me as VERY familiar. I spent about 15 minutes trying to track down where I had seen that design before and traced it back to Brown University ( ).

While UAH doesn't make their menu interactive like Brown does (maybe they thought that would be borrowing too much) it is obviously a design borrowed heavily from the Brown homepage.

My question is this: How far is too far when 'borrowing' ideas from other websites? Did UAH go too far, or did they go just far enough as to keep the design their own?

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Thanks Eric. :-) I was just about to point out that usability and accessibility aren't the same. I've spent several years reading research on usability, and while a relatively small percentage may not find trouble with the site's layout, the majority could.
Well it's been up at least a year (since it was reported "stolen" a year ago) and I would hope they did some kind of conversion impact tracking of the new layout.

What sorts of usability issues are you seeing?
I wasn't meaning to criticize. :-)

The biggest one that strikes me right off are the horizontal layout of links on the right. People scan lists, links, etc. in a more vertical manner, following an F pattern.
Also interesting to me is that the homepage design was copied by our own bookstore, without our (Public Affairs Office) knowledge or input:

We're not sure if they did it because they thought it was a good solution for a bookstore (it's not), or because they thought they were required to (they weren't), or they thought it would help emphasize their affiliation with the university (I don't think it does).

Anyhow, it seems to me that time and again when our homepage design is imitated, not much concern is given to the details that make it successful (despite whatever flaws). For example, we work hard to source strong imagery that fits in the narrow horizontal space; we keep text to a minimum; we refined the design over time to minimize unintended "moving links"; we refresh the content frequently to create pleasure in "discovery".

The imitators tend to fail on one or more of those criteria.
Regardless of what you think of the design—there's a proverb attributed to Picasso that sums it up nicely:

Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.

Within one's own institution, I think the acceptable limit of copying is extended. In the race to get our initial Engineering website off the ground, I copied, stole, grabbed, groped and borrowed a lot of markup and CSS from our main MU website. At the end of the day, that office and I have the same boss (the system president). Version two, however, was rebuilt from the ground up, and solved our problems our own way, but still tips the hat to that design.

But, when you're talking about two different legal entities, there should be a respect of the labor, time, and money that was spent.

The basic problem is lack of respect for the discipline of design & designers in general. It's not that anybody is maliciously trying to hurt the profession. It's that most human beings never come in contact with a graphic designer. They don't know what we do or how it's done. It's like the difference between a doctor and the engineer that designed the MRI machine. Everyone knows the doc, the MRI machine, but what do engineers do...?

As for plagiarism, it's the same discussion we could have about our athletic marks that gets ripped off by high schools around the country.

Nobody at any level—from teachers to t-shirt shops have any understanding of how that design came into being: "What's the harm? It's a cool tiger."

The harm is that 1) Another legal entity paid a designer actual money with which they fed their family and paid their mortgage. By stealing that person's work, another designer is not being paid actual money. 2) When your local mom-n-pop t-shirt printer makes a print of our mark, mom-n-pop got paid for work they simply didn't do, nor were they licensed to use it.

In the edu, there is a similar lack of respect for web design, which is why so many academic sites are selling Viagra as we speak ("good job temp student!"). This is just a large scale manifestation of what happens on the front of t-shirts.

I applaud Brown for being gracious about the whole thing, and for hiring Pentagram, (and not some crap "agency." Don't get me started on that either).

I'm fascinated by the design, and would love to see some analytics from it.



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