A college website faces several tough challenges. It has to attract potential students, lend an air of credibility to alumni and donors, prove useful to current students and faculty, and work within tight marketing and IT budgets. These factors compound for historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) which face the added challenges of lack of funding and the specter of white-supremacist policies. Nevertheless, I was excited to find several expertly designed websites among over 50 HBCU websites.
Noteworthy HBCU Websites
These HBCU websites combine solid user experience, design, and best practices to deliver attractive, informative content to their digital audiences.
Shaw University’s website has a great mega-menu navigation and the iconography in the top level navigation is a nice touch. Lack of HTTPS and text based images used in the home page carousel detract from the site’s professionalism. I also really like the unique hover effects used in the University News cards.
Delaware State University’s website does not have a striking or unique design. However, the simple layout, careful placement of elements and straight-forward user-flows make the site a breeze to navigate. Less is more.
The Fayetteville State website has some great design elements that give the site a unique aesthetic. Also main site actions are easy to find and have multiple entry points. Lots of professional imagery and great typography also make this site stand out. However, major misses include the use of text in images and over reliance on carousels to highlight important content.
I instantly understand what Bowie is about within seconds of viewing their website. Fantastic navigation with multiple ways to engage in the most important content such as admissions and student info. Information such as a news and and events are presented clearly with the right amount of negative space. I would love to see the header shrink down when scrolling as it takes up a lot of vertical space on small screens.
A unique layout done well really helps the University of Maryland Eastern Shore stand out. Again, there is careful attention on navigation with several routes to the most important content. The imagery is clear, crisp, with vibrant colors and although the sections can seem a bit cluttered, the overall design does a good job orienting the viewer with color and borders.
The Langston University website gives me ambiance of a bright, cheerful and modern. The color gradient on the video hero is a brilliant touch. There are a few issues like the readability of the navigation, buggy animations, and design inconsistency. Overall, however, the site does a great a job of communicating the feeling of studying at Langston.
The NC Central university website has a modern, minimalist design the strips out the necessary and highlights the essential. Ample use of negative space really serve to draw attention to whats its important. Small accessibility touches like a pause button for the video hero and subtle hover effects really add to the overall professionalism to the site. This is a great design that with clear pathways for personas such as prospective students, faculty, and alumni.
Howard, the Mecca and the cream of the crop for this collection. The animations are beautiful and aid rather than distract the viewer. The typography and imagery is visually astounding and the attention to detail in iconography and embellishments is well received. There’s a lot of scrolling to do but the information is presented as a story allowing the user to be taken on a journey culminating in an uplifting video of graduating students.
Other Notable HBCU Websites
There were a few websites that didn’t quite hit the mark compared to the others but still have great qualities that could be improved upon.
- Claflin University
- Claflin University makes interesting use of animation to highlight user actions and mega menu items with images to emphasize content. The color palette is kind of inconsistent which lends a sorty of DIY aesthetic to the site. Additionally, lots of clear imagery shows visistors the many sides of Claflin without getting in the way.
- Alabama A&M University
- Alabama A&M uses trendy design elements that give the site a modern feel, yet the content gets lost in confusing imagery and carousels.
- Xavier University of Louisiana
- Careful design placement makes content on the Xavier University easy to find. More attention could be given to the site navigation and placing more focus on primary user actions such as applying as a student or arranging a visit.
- Harris-Stowe State University
- The video header for Harris-Stowe is a nice touch. The use of text in the same header video in combination with actual text comes off as unprofessional. The imagery really helps orient and accent the content.
- Coppin State University
- The Coppin State website makes excellent use of mega menu navigation. However, there are some blank spaces in some of the content areas that feel out of place. Within the content pages, the left-aligned sidebar does a great job of highlighting useful content while not getting in the way.
- Texas Southern University
- The TSU website has a clean design. Information is dispersed well throughout the site and the navigation is clean and simple. However the overall aesthetic is somewhat bland and almost corporate with poor use of stock photography.
- Alcorn State University
- Alcorn State organizes its content well with mega menu navigation. However, the rest of the sites feels empty and much of the content content folds together without really speaking to the visitor.
- LeMoyne-Owen College
- The LeMoyne-Owen college site content is decently organized. Making the design elements more consistent by removing the areas of empty content would really improve the site.
- Tuskegee University
- The design of Tuskegee university clean and the content is easy to understand. On the other hand, the website is lacking in uniquness that could separate it from other schools. It feels a little too much like a template.
- Texas College
- Texas College has some cool design treatments here but the header and navigation needs some major work to make the site easier to digest. The overall layout could also be condensed. The two full rows dedicated to social media could be dedicated to more meaningful content.
Trends Among HBCU Websites
During research, numerous commonalities arose that serve to define the challenges and opportunities within the HBCU web space.
- Video Heroes
- Short, looped videos above the fold quickly grab viewer attention.
- Red, Purple, and Gold Palettes
- Reds, purples, and golds along with neutral colors abound in the color schemes of HBCU’s.
- Inadequate Site Navigation
- Site navigation often does a lackluster job of helping users wade through a massive amount of content.
- Ethical Design Practices
- There were minimal uses of unethical design patterns with the most frequent being newsletter subscription popups.
- Large Headers
- Large logos lead to vertically stretched site headers which detracted from the main content.
- Heavy Social Media
- Social media rarely adds to the overall usability of a site and these channels are better left as separate avenues of engagement.
- Overuse of Carousels and Sliders
- Carousels! So cool! But are they though?
- Lack of HTTPS and SSL
- SSL is super important for site credibility. Any credible institution should have SSL for their website.
- Lack of GDPR and User Privacy notifications
- I think public institutions should lead the way for user privacy and refrain from hyper-survellance information marketing.
- Problematic Maintenance
- Many sites seem to have started out great but suffered when content editors didn’t know how to effectively make content updates or changes.
- Strong Reliance on Templates
- Many sites rely heavily on templates leading to a certain blandness and missed opportunities to highlight individuality.
- Separate Sites for Athletics, Students, Libraries
- Athletics and student portals are often noticeably separate sites. Unfortunately, the experience across sites and experience and often leads to a detachment from the University.
A great website doesn’t just convinently appear in front of users, neatly shown in a coloroful well-lit screen. It takes teams of people, researchers, and experience from numerous stakeholders to create a good website design. From my research I can’t help but see the dated web presences among many HBCU’s as indicative of the urgent need to adequately fund US public schools and universities. Additionally, I was surprised to see prestigious HBCU’s such as Spelman, Morehouse, and Fisk with web presences that didn’t seem to live up to their incredible legacies which likely stems from unequal distribution of already dwindling resources for schools and lingering negative portrayals of Black institutions. On a different note, it would be great to see HBCU’s incorporate innovative designs that portray more of the global African diaspora to foster exchanges of African culture across faith, region, and nationality. Nevertheless, It was exciting learning about the interesting design trends and experience the best online experiences offered by HBCU’s.