Skip to main content
Mediacurrent logo
Hero Background Image

Blog Post

Design at Scale: The Playbook for Higher Education Brands

by Mediacurrent Team
April 28, 2021

open waters podcast logo

Open Waters: Season 2, Episode 1 

Welcome to season two of Mediacurrent's Open Waters podcast! In this episode, we welcome Sheree and John G from our creative team. If you are a marketer, designer, or tech lead in the higher ed space, this episode is for you.

Episode Transcript 

Susan Cooper: Welcome to season two of Mediacurrent's Open Waters podcast! Mario Hernandez and Mark Shropshire will be coming to you each month to explore the intersection of open source technology and digital marketing. In today's episode, we'll be speaking with Sheree Hill, Creative Director at Mediacurrent, and John G, Digital Designer at Mediacurrent. Both have been doing extensive work in higher education - building design systems, addressing pain points of scale and velocity, and bringing brand stories to life.


Susan Cooper: We will explore some of the challenges facing marketers and designers in higher ed, touch on learning modalities, and how they function in web and marketing teams, as well as some quick and easy tips to help sharpen your school's brand strategy and maximize some production workflows. If you are a marketer, designer, or tech lead for higher ed, this episode is for you.

Susan Cooper: Glad to have you here. Can you tell us about yourself? What are your roles?

Sheree Hill: I'm Sheree Hill and I am the Creative Director here at Mediacurrent. For those of you who might not be familiar with what creative directors do... We work with awesome designers like John and some of our UX and UI designers to help bring creative visions to life. We help to establish colors and themes and really design brand experiences that are memorable and connect to audiences.

John G: I'm a Digital Designer here at Mediacurrent. I work directly with Sheree to produce branded elements, both in house and for clients.

Challenges in Higher Ed Web Design 

Mario Hernandez: Great. Well, thanks for being here, both of you, we really enjoy and appreciate you taking the time to join us. The first question that I have, I know there's always challenges when it comes to design or working on that project, but can you give us a little bit of information about some of the challenges that our client's face, especially higher education clients, when it comes to design?

Sheree Hill: Right now clients in higher ed are really facing challenges when it comes to pivoting from what's happened with COVID and building coursework that connects with students online. There are different audiences in higher ed and different challenges with those audiences. For example, for the content authors or for the marketer, there are certain challenges that they have in producing content, as well as reaching leads and reaching students versus a faculty member who might be wanting to share some of the knowledge that they're building and to find the best students, their programming. Some of the other challenges that are faced are really looking at creating consistent experiences across different channels. And that's something that John and I have been able to work with on a few different clients. 

Sheree Hill: John, do you want to talk a little bit about how the design debt is managed for schools?

John G: Yeah, absolutely. So design debt is a pretty big problem with a lot of education facilities starting from the top all the way to the bottom. Everybody needs different branded content, you know, emails, papers, that sort of thing, and trying to keep everything consistent so that you've got a brand that everybody recognizes and understands is pivotal.

Sheree Hill: And then when you think about producing content, this is something that everyone in digital, every brand faces today, and that's content production. Back in the day schools or universities or different brands would have a designer on staff and they would produce an annual report or there would be flyers that would be produced. That's not how it is today. Today, the cadence is that on social media, there are daily postings on different websites. We really need to look at how schools can scale and how is work produced across teams? Because marketers aren't the only ones that are producing content. Brand ambassadors at schools, teachers, students, they're all producing content that helped the schools reach new prospects and help to build the school's reputation. So it's important that any brand has the tools that they need to be able to create consistent brand experiences across channels.

Branding Strategies

Mario Hernandez: As a follow-up, let me ask you, how does your team work on addressing these challenges that you just outlined?

John G: One of the first things that we do in order to establish that brand is we have brand workshops that inform all of our design decisions and asset production. And then we develop that into an entire brand guide that helps kind of, kind of reduce that design debt and keep everybody consistent. So they've all got that same page to follow.

Sheree Hill: When you think about the voice and the personality of your brand, every brand sounds different. When you think about Harvard, for instance, the institution is very traditional. It has a lot of legacy and a lot of history that it's rooted in and its mission and vision is going to be different than a modern art school like RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). It's important to understand what a voice sounds like. And we can explore that through the brand workshop that John just mentioned, and we do that through design thinking and what's great about design thinking is everyone has a voice. So because of COVID, as we mentioned earlier, we're able to do these virtually and we do virtual brand workshops in Mural, and everyone uses different sticky notes, just like if we were in a classroom doing it together and we can gather those findings and then distill it into the brand strategy.

Sheree Hill: And those guidelines define everything from how the logo looks to how the brand sounds to all of the different distinct brand elements. So the different designs, the actual grid, the typography, all the things that you see in different design elements are defined in the brand guide.

Creating Design Systems 

Susan Cooper: Awesome. So tell us a little bit more about designing for higher ed.

Sheree Hill: One of the things that's unique in service-based design is that we're creating a service and a system, right? So that's different from product design that reaches the consumer. Amazon, when you think about a business to consumer it's different challenges. In services, and we're looking at providing a service to schools, providing education as a service. But we also productize it and by creating digital products like component-based design. As we define the system and the design system and all of the elements we call it atomizing the design system, right? We're not really building so much on templates anymore. We're really creating those key elements that are used throughout the system. When you think about challenges like scale or velocity, and being able to produce that content quickly and have the teams produce the thought leadership and the content, we create the systems that allow the team members to do that. 

Sheree Hill: John, do you want to talk a little bit about the challenges that you've seen in producing and working with higher ed institutions?

John G: I think the two main challenges that I've seen are first off content migration. And so with educational systems, we've got hundreds of pages of content. We've got blogs, we've got books, eBooks, we've got all of these different classes and classwork. And along with that comes the second challenge, which is division of labor. And so in order to get all of that content migrated, we have to work directly with the school's team. And we also have to build out a team of internal people to kind of work up a system, to get all of that content moved in an orderly fashion. And so one of the things that really helps with that is component based design so that we can drag and drop. So that it's easy for, for everybody, not just developers, but people on their team to help us with that lift. That's great.

Collaboration Tools 

Mario Hernandez: You mentioned that nowadays there are a lot more people involved in the content creation process. What are some of the tools that can help marketing teams in their productivity?

John G: Cloud collaboration for starters, cloud collaboration is extremely important these days. So one of the things that we did for an online college is we developed these Google doc templates for their eBooks, for their internal communication, for their external communication, so that they have this kind of rigid structure based on their brand guidelines that everybody can modify, not just people with Adobe cloud software, but also people on the ground level.

Sheree Hill: And hand in hand with that, one of the things we think about, cause we have training here at Mediacurrent when we build Drupal systems, but we also create processes for cloud collaboration. For example, one of the things that we found here in our brand, our own brand evolution moving from one brand to another is that there is a level of effort when it comes to obtaining documents. A cool hack that John discovered is a methodology to update different brand elements to the new brand. And so we've captured those findings from what we've learned and we create recreated processes that we can share with marketing departments and with schools so that it's a lot faster and easier to update those documents. Historically it has taken hundreds of hours. It can take hundreds of hours to update on old brands, to new brands when there are different flyers and documents. And it's not just letterhead anymore. When you think about schools there's so much information and content that’s shared that has to be updated. We've worked to build those processes that are quick, easy, and efficient.

John G: And alongside that with cloud collaboration in mind, we have also found ourselves using Canva an awful lot. I mean, like I said, not everybody has access to Adobe cloud software and Canva really helps people keep digital graphics consistent. We've got graphics for email graphics for social media, we've got animated graphics. And if you use the brand guide to build out a brand, a kit in Canva, you can kind of establish these parameters that makes it a lot easier for people to follow and also helps reduce that design debt.

Sheree Hill: One of the things that we talk about here is does it pass the litmus test? How can you tell your content from another school's content? It's so important any time there is a brand moment like there's a moment that you are speaking or reaching out to a prospective student, that's called an impression you're making an impression of who you are as an institution and the value that you can add to their life. It's important that your brand stands apart and has those different elements of identification so that you're easily recognizable.

Branding with Purpose 

Susan Cooper: Many marketers and brands these days are placing higher importance on mission and values. Why is that important for higher ed and how do they apply that to a design system?

Sheree Hill: Absolutely. As a brand, any brand, your mission is your guiding light. It's why you get up in the morning. It's really why you do what you do and your mission will help to inform how you make decisions. There are so many different points of decisions for brands and organizations and team members. And the vision really helps us keep the story. The mission really helps us keep aligned in that and the vision is how you do it. When you think about what that looks like the vision is really how that would look in the future. So when we think about how that informs the design system, we think about how it feels, right? Because the design system really has a lot to do with emotion. 

Sheree Hill: For example, when we were working with Emory Goizueta Business School, their vision is really about preparing principal leaders and they're known for being rigorous. When we created the design system, we selected and created images that reflected passion and discipline, and collaboration, which are all characteristics that are representative of principal leadership. And we carry that throughout the design system. And then when we think about the different shapes, we used different angles that were pointed upwards that were inspirational and driving, and motivating. That really helps to tell the brand story without using words, it's an energy, it's an emotion of how you connect with the audience.

Mario Hernandez: You know, I had the pleasure of working on that project. And it was a very challenging project from a design and development point of view. But I, at the end of the day looking at the end product of the project, I really thank you for pushing us because that was something that really pushed our team and, you know, it was challenging, but at the end of the day, it just, it made us so much better. That project came out really nice. And I was very happy with the decisions that you made from a design point of view there. So how, how do schools build that brand story as a service organization? How is that brought to life?

Sheree Hill: Absolutely. That's a great question. What we do when we look at the brand story is we examine the different facets of the value system of the school. Schools all have a value system that helps you inform your brand strategy. We look at all of those different pieces and we build out a complete brand strategy and that brand strategy, we look at different personality values and those different personality values. 

Sheree Hill: We have a workshop where we place images with those different values and we create a mood board and that mood board is then shared with the team and we get feedback. And that's something that John was able to work with an online college on and really help create a unique design system for them that doesn't look like any other school that I've seen. John, do you want to talk a little bit about that process and what that looked like?

John G: Once we put the mood board together, we can start using their mission and vision to kind of inspire the visualization of developing design elements and bring that across the entire system. For example, right now we're working on a campaign for DrupalCon and we've got this system that's based entirely around open source and open source expansion. And so we're creating visuals that kind of follow along with that mission and expanding on the expansion element of it.

Sheree Hill: Some of the visuals that John selected have outer space and rocket ships, and really the idea of going where people haven't gone before because that's really what open source is, right? It's us collectively exploring and building new frontiers together. We're able to harness the excitement of that and just use these beautiful visuals of space that light the imagination to inform the design system for the event campaign. So that's everything from a virtual booth to different media types to ad placements, to email campaigns all of the different parts of the system.

Open Source Design 

Mario Hernandez: So Mediacurrent is pretty big. It sets up, you know, we set ourselves apart because we have a huge commitment to the open source community and giving back to the community. Are there any tools that your team has either put together or found that you would with the community that can help other organizations implement the systems that you have?

Sheree Hill: Well, yes, we do. In fact, from the project that we worked on together, we built out the Rain CMS component matrix template from Emory Goizueta together. So that's something that we have created into a tool that we've designed into a tool. We can share that with anyone that's listening to the podcast. And then the other piece is the brand strategy guide. We have that as a template as well. We'd be happy to share that with the community. [Author’s note: These resources are linked at the end of the post!]

Book Recs for Higher Ed Marketers 

Susan Cooper: I bet that'll be really useful for folks. So what's something that every marketer should read, watch or listen to. This is a question for both of you.

John G: Right now, one of the things that I'm really big into reading about is a book called What's Your Enneatype, which is an essential guide to the Enneagram. I've been reading an awful lot about personality typing and more importantly, how you can market to different kinds of personality types to really improve that follow-through. And I think that's something that's absolutely important for marketers is just learning as much as you can about personality types, learning how you can market to those people. There are so many different books and so many different methods of thought on each of those topics. It doesn't have to be Enneagrams. There's Myers-Briggs, there are all of the other different types, and none of it is an exact science, but it's something that'll put you on the right path.

Sheree Hill: It comes down to relationships, right? Sales and marketing are all about relationships. And it's about understanding who we are as people. And it's understanding how someone else thinks and really having empathy. I also read the Enneagram. It's something that I believe in, it's not just right for marketers to sell, but also to work in teams. It's something that John and I have worked on together, understanding who we are and, and how to work together, and how to motivate and collaborate. So it's great, not just for sales, but also for teamwork. 

Sheree Hill: The other piece that I would say to that, and that's something that we're doing as a team is the CXL coursework in digital psychology and persuasion. And what it is is it's a psychological framework to improve our different platforms like our websites. And it teaches us how to understand behavior as well and influence purchase patterns. So why that's important is because if we can understand behavior, then we can influence and we can help our clients meet their goals.

Susan Cooper: It's incremental, right? With behavior change. You can't have people completely change the way they go about their day or the way they approach something. It's, it's incremental. You can change one thing at a time to get them where you want them to go and not in a manipulative way, but in a way that is helping guide their experience.

Sheree Hill: Absolutely. Yeah. We call it nudging and we just about how can, how can we influence them? And, and that's really where that mission and vision comes to play as well. Because if we have a mission and a vision that is looking to change the world for good and looking to change people and help them grow, then that's incremental and we can help people reach the best version of who they are.

See you next time!

Susan Cooper: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I'm excited to have you all on our first episode of the second season.

Mario Hernandez: That was a lot of great information guys. We look forward to making this available to our listeners.

Susan Cooper: You can find us at and subscribe on your favorite podcast app. If you liked this episode, share it with your friends and tag @ mediacurrent on Twitter.


Related Insights