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GUEST COLUMN: CMU Web policy standards will lock its site in a maroon and gold box

I’ve spent the better part of an academic year in an effort to improve my department’s “web presence.”

In September, my colleagues and I thought we’d been given tentative permission from University Communications to experiment as a “test case” in variance from the then current standards. This was important because the nature of our department, Art & Design, is visual communication and our competitors, like the Frostic School at Western Michigan University, were not waiting around for us to develop a hot site, but had already posted one of their own.

Over the course of several months, we created a number of iterations in an effort to please many masters. The web standards are meant to “ensure accurate and timely information is easily accessible to the CMU community,” and this wasn’t happening. Even though we adopted style guide standards for page size, color, word mark, and banners, we found that our best efforts were met with increasingly subjective evaluations.

When we pointed this out, we were told with terrible finality: “Art is subjective; go back and try again.”

Being designers, we certainly understand rejection— it goes with the territory. We also understand the value of branding. Yet, the reason we were being told to keep working was because there was not enough gold color on our proposed site. Whether you believe one needs to bleed maroon and gold in order to evoke a CMU identity, such strictures are generally counterproductive. Effective branding allows for variation and exception to the norm as a matter of course.

CMU recommends four standard templates. One of which, similar to our final proposal, is maroon and white. Other units on campus, like the College of Health Professions, utilize this template. Otherwise, one must request revisions to existing templates from IT. This conflict came down to a matter of plain and simple control. By March, without telling us in a timely or direct manner, University Communications had decided to withdraw its permission for us to “experiment.”

These arguments skirt the question of creativity entirely. By our third or fourth rejection, our proposal was already looking pretty conservative. The Web Standards are also meant to “Encourage diverse and innovative use of the web while maintaining a consistent look.”

Personally, I’ve never known anything “innovative” to come from a use of templates. Consistency sure— innovation, not quite. Templates by their nature are restrictive and ought to be employed only after the creativity has actually taken place. I realize there is an argument that CMU’s website is composed of tens of thousands of pages, necessitating the use of a content management system. But no one should labor under the delusion that this will ever lead to anything but standardized predictability.

Finally, when I read the names on the Web Governance Council and the Faculty Technology Advisory Committee, I saw my Dean’s name and one other faculty member from my college – but no one with a design degree or visual art background. Could this be the reason the Web Standards feel like a locked box with a lost key?

Campus was once a Wild West of secondary marks and unrestricted websites. Suddenly we’ve arrived at the opposite extreme, where an exceedingly narrow definition of branding strangles all. If the proposed University Web Policy Standards, supported by the CMU Web Style Guide, are implemented, kiss your freedom goodbye— the situation promises to only get worse.

David Stairs

Professor, Department of Art & Design