Dave Lowe is a web developer at Biola University, and was responsible for the redesign of their undergraduate website, which received some awards and sparked some discussion in the forum at Godbit. I recently had a chance to interview him, and obtain more information from his team about the redesign.
Note: Part 1 of 2. Part 2 will be published next week.
You work for Biola’s IMC Design Studio as the web developer for the Web Group. How (and when) did you start in the field, and with Biola University?
I created my first web site (if I recall correctly, it was on Geocities) in my freshman year of college back in 1996. At first it was just some movie quotes, and then I utilized it for book lists and Amazon affiliate links. A few years later I started working with ColdFusion through a student job I had in the Information Technology department. During my senior year, a good friend who was working for Admissions as their web guy decided to move out of state and recommended me for the position.
Web design was very interesting to me because it combined what I was studying (art) with my background in programming. And frankly, I was about to graduate and had no clue what I was going to do next so it was a very welcome opportunity. That was back in 2000, and I’ve been working here ever since.
For the first 5 years I worked for Enrollment Management, outside of the more centralized marketing and IT groups, but managing and developing some of the most important university sites. A year and a half ago, my position was transferred into Integrated Marketing Communications (a move I advocated and am grateful for, because it’s the right place for this position to be situated).
What would you be doing otherwise, and what were you doing before?
I’d definitely be working on the web, no escaping that. Before this, of course, I was attending college (at Biola).
Share a little about your faith?
I grew up in a Christian home and in a very privileged area (Santa Barbara). In junior high, I went through a dark period (who didn’t, right?) and for the first time realized the emptiness of life apart from God. My youth pastor at the time was a passionate believer and the way he lived his life was a powerful example of God’s redemptive work and love for us. Still, I wouldn’t say I really had a true personal and living faith until I started attending Biola and grappling with truth and community. That’s when I knew I not only needed God’s grace, but wanted to follow Him with all that I am.
At this point in my life, I’m finding myself more and more often just being amazed by God. I’ve been reading through the Old Testament a lot more over the last three to four years, and, man!, that has been an awesome catalyst of growth. I was always bored by the OT when I was a kid, or wondering what the point was and just wanting to read the New Testament. I was missing a ton! It’s incredible, exhilarating, and mind-boggling how God so clearly illustrates his ultimate plan of sacrificing his Son for our sake throughout history. I know few things more strongly than this, that I will never cease to learn from the Bible, no matter how long I’m on this earth.
What are the benefits and challenges of working as an in-house developer? At a university? At a Christian university?
Good question. There are some great obvious pluses: consistent paycheck, great work benefits (vacation time, 401k, medical and dental), stability and peace of mind. But it’s much more than that. I work in an incredible department filled with people that make me happy to come to work every day. Working at a university means that I work pretty much on the same site, or network of sites, all the time which can be a little repetitive. But there’s also a broad range of content and audiences too, so it keeps things interesting and challenging.
IMC has the rare blessing (within the university world) of having the marketing responsibility for the entire organization. On the downside, that means a lot can go wrong and there’s the potential for clients to become disgruntled because they have to work with us. But the importance of consistent branding and experience can’t be overstated.
And finally, this is a strong, evangelical Christian university, so working here is in part a ministry and a constant motivating factor for me to do my best work. Biola’s mission is equipping men and women in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ, not to sell more products or increase share prices. That’s huge.
The main challenges … well I have to be honest, because it’s a university, there’s always going to be the possibility of a lesser standard of quality. It doesn’t have to be like that, but the environment makes it a little easier for it to happen. Just look at how my career here began: for the first two or three years I was making it up as I went along, basically learning on the job.
When I started reading the blogs of guys like Jeremy Keith, Dan Cederholm and Andy Budd, my eyes were opened to a whole new world. I decided to get serious and learn how to excel at my craft (even if it meant re-learning everything I thought I knew). My boss at the time didn’t know anything about what I did, or how I should be doing it better. I think that’s commonplace in an organization that’s not commercially-driven.
The other huge challenge is not having full control over what we’re responsible for (the website). IT has historically controlled “the computer” which started out being just one or a few computers and now is the standard computer setup for faculty & staff, and the servers, including the web servers. IT doesn’t really understand what the web is all about, and still views this whole internet thing in terms of “applications” (which all too often means something as simple as a contact form) and “look and feel.” So we’re locked out of some pretty critical areas. It’s understandable and it’s a process, but it can still be extremely frustrating.
Describe your biggest work accomplishment, and failure?
I’ll go with the redesign of Biola Undergrad for my biggest work accomplishment. It was a complete redesign and I’m very proud of the final product. It was the first site we’d done that was built on web standards. It’s not perfect but I like to think it’s pretty darn close, all things considered.
It also helped us establish some other standards, like form markup and behavior. It’s a close call though because we just relaunched the main biola.edu, and we’re going to be converting the entire site over the next year. So that’s going to be a pretty big thing if we succeed.
Biggest failure: I spent a lot of time a number of years ago trying to build a slew of content management tools for my division and beyond. It was well-intentioned but doomed to failure. Some are still in use, but I think I could have used my time better (especially if it meant I learned about web standards earlier).
The new redesign of the Biola University undergraduate site is quite a bold departure from prior designs, and other university sites in general. Your blog post said, “I’m also pretty certain that there isn’t another university web site like this out there.” You could say that again.
I’m pretty certain there isn’t another university web site like this out there!
I’ll take a minute here to credit the people behind it. So much of this is due to the work of the outside designers who came up with the print design, one of whom is Jessica Nelson (who now works for us at Biola), as well as my creative director, Brian Miller, who led the project. Tim Beardshear is the web designer who translated the design onto the web, so I can’t say enough about his work. And finally, the clients for the project, Josh Smith and Andre Stephens in Undergrad Admissions. These are some of the people I’m proud and lucky to work with.
The site earned several awards, including the front pages of Stylegala and CSS Remix. Any other awards?
We’ve gotten a lot of mentions across the web, which has been really neat to see. Vitamin mentioned the site in their “best sites of the week” recently too. The print campaign has received CASE and Admissions Marketing Report awards.
How did the unique illustration style come about, and how was it shepherded through the university’s stakeholders? Why did it take two years? Anything you would do differently?
Our marketing and admissions teams conducted a full year of research, including surveys, interviews and focus groups, to get valuable insight into design preferences, content presentation, etc. One of the styles presented during the focus groups was this photo illustration style, and it quickly became a clear preference for the students. The production phase then took another year for the print and the web site (with the exception that I had started working on what would become the personalization system during that first year).
What success criteria were selected, and what were/are the results?
CSS showcases around the web, we were also seeing very low bounce rates on the Undergrad home page
Thanks! Now web standards and accessibility is the norm in our office.
Note: Part 1 of 2. Part 2 will be published next week.
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Also published at Godbit.