Want really well designed content? Here’s what it takes.

I was doing some informal research today on .edu websites, specifically about the types of content they offer and how they present it. I came across the University of Missouri’s Illumination magazine, a publication about research and scholarship at the University: illumination.missouri.edu →

It’s really well done. The site is easy to navigate, features long form articles that are right at home in their own unique designs, with tastefully integrated audio and video. And it looks great on an iPad. It’s some of the best designed content I’ve seen in recent memory.


For the detailed answer to this question, check out this interview with Josh Hughes, the designer/developer of the Illumination site. To my eyes, the keys seem to be:

  • Design follows content: the web content is the print content. Because the print publication’s calendar runs ahead of the web publication’s calendar, the content for the website is known in advance. As a result, the design can play off the text, artwork, and photography unique to each article.
  • Light CMS requirements: so light, in fact, that there is no CMS powering the site. This is not for everyone, of course, and the pros and cons of this approach deserve their own post. Working without a CMS allows complete creative flexibility; page designs are free from the constraints of a templatized CMS environment.
  • Infrequent updates: the print publication is only issued twice per year and the website is updated accordingly. Any more frequently and this starts to look like a full-time job for someone.
  • Talent: last but not least, Illumination clearly has very skilled designers (print and web) working for them.


Ah, the $64,000 question (more or less, depending on what else is in your RFP). If a client told me they wanted Illumination’s content, I’d first get excited about their ambition and good taste. But is this for everyone? Here are the key questions to ask your organization if this is the way you want to present your content:

  • Will you always have the content ready before the web design begins? Articles with unique art direction can’t exist without the content.
  • What are your CMS requirements? As a rule of thumb, the more CMS requirements you have, the more restrictive your publishing tools tend to be.
  • How frequently do you publish? Also be sure to balance the frequency with which you publish with whatever other responsibilities your staff has. This kind of content is not easy to “crank out,” as they say.
  • Do you have the right combination of design and development talent on staff? In my experience, it’s extremely rare for one person to be proficient in both. More often, two or more people are needed to design and implement this kind of content.

There are many more questions to consider carefully; this kind of an approach to content design is definitely not for everyone. But if you can pull it off, the end result is often truly distinctive.


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