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Extreme Makeover, Website Edition

If you’ve visited our website lately, you may notice that it’s received quite the facelift. And that’s due to (an exceptional amount of) hard work over the last year or so from our partner, Chicago–based design firm Studio Blue. Kudos to Maggie Lewis, partner and project manager, and Cheryl Towler Weese, partner and lead designer! After the dust settled, we caught up with Cheryl to talk to her about her inspirations and considerations for our site redesign.

 

The Art Institute last did a website overhaul in 2004–2005—forever ago, in web terms. How does your design for the new site reflect new thinking in web design since that long-ago era?

Together with our development partner, Fuse IQ, we tried to harness a number of newer possibilities:

Webfonts. The design firm Pentagram recently developed a carefully wrought new identity for the museum [the museum’s “red square” logo], and we discovered that Ideal Sans, the museum's proprietary font, was available for our use in Beta as a web font. We looked hard at the typeface, and explored ways to use it that best evoke the museum.

Multiple platforms. We thought about large monitors, mobile devices, laptops, and tablets. We worked to allow the site to respond successfully to each medium, so we re-skinned and served up the same content differently for desktop and mobile, and designed a fluid home page. (Responsive design—where the same site essentially reshuffles structurally to adapt to mobile and desktop—could also be a good model, but we decided it wasn't the best option for a site with a number of legacy page types.)

The ability to explore deeply within a page. We wanted a site that felt immersive and accessible yet contained a great deal of rich information. We incorporated tabbed content that users can toggle among, related events that open and shut to provide more information, and videos and images that open/enlarge on an overlay layer.

Navigation. Sites like the Art Institute's can be as rich and complex as the institutions they serve, so we broke the navigation into several discrete chunks. We designed each navigation cluster differently, so that users had a mnemonic means to help them find their way.

Integration of social media. We incorporated dynamic social media content throughout the site, connecting multiple AIC portals (the museum's Facebook, Twitter, blog, and YouTube pages).

Connectedness. We wanted the ability to connect events, exhibitions, and people. We tried to build and leverage a rich taxonomy (tagging) of calendar events, allowing dynamic relationships between events, exhibitions, and a variety of audiences and interests.

What are some of your sources of inspiration? Magazines, design blogs, gardening, random glimpses of something on the street?

I like to spend time soaking in the ethos of a project, talking to project team members, and observing qualities or quirks that might help yield something original. In this case, however, my primary inspiration was an abiding, career-long love for this institution (I've worked with the Art Institute for 20 years) and the intense, committed, and intelligent work done there.

What were the thoughts or images you held in your head while coming up with your concepts for the Art Institute? Were there any signature Art Institute elements you had in mind?

 

We were influenced by the Modern Wing's grace, luminosity, and masterful craftsmanship, and we wanted to reflect a small piece of that in the site's design, while keeping it open and welcoming—Midwestern, if you will.

We've also witnessed the museum's deep commitment to research and scholarship over the past 20 years, and hoped to make the site feel as rich and meaty as the rest of the museum's cultural output.

And we were inspired by the museum's focus on mission, art, and exhibitions, and we wanted to allow the artwork to speak for itself.

If you could have any work of art from the museum in your home, which one would it be?

How about Hella Jongerius's Felt Stool or Embroidered Tablecloth in the Architecture and Design collection? Her work is a fantastic mix of beauty, intelligence, irony, craft, old and new. I'd love living with either of those pieces.

Great choices. Thanks Cheryl!