Higher education faces a persistent paradox when it comes to meeting its digital needs. You need a site that reflects the larger institution as a complex but integrated system of students, educators, and administrators. But within that structure you also have individual schools, departments, and leadership—each with their own priorities. What works for the website design for the school of law won’t necessarily apply to the humanities department—and vice versa.

The need to create unique digital experiences that remain aligned with the wider institution makes universities ideal candidates for design systems. However, these same circumstances that make higher ed institutions so well-suited for the technology also makes them challenging to implement.

Think of your university as an independent nation made up of various smaller fiefdoms, each carrying distinct demands. To move your institution forward, you need to satisfy everyone’s needs while bringing all sides together—and fast.

Why higher ed institutions can’t delay upgrading their digital presentations

The past two years have illustrated why universities need to ensure their websites make a strong impression. When the pandemic began, distance learning transformed from an eventual need to an immediate reality. As both educators and students have grown more adept with virtual education, the demand for satisfying digital experiences will only increase.

Consequently, the next 10 years will be crucial. Instead of competing with regional institutions for enrollment, your school could be vying against virtual classrooms at Yale, Stanford, and Harvard.

To accommodate a more sophisticated digital audience, your university needs more than lofty catalog shots to communicate its value. You need to ensure your marketing tells a story that resonates at a level beyond ivy-shrouded walls and historic buildings. Part of that storytelling is accomplished by ensuring your digital user experience is comparable with any school that offers remote education.  

When implemented thoughtfully, a design system levels the playing field for your website and your organization’s subsidiary departments. But it delivers so much more.

How design systems deliver structure and freedom of expression to universities

The divided nature of higher education institutions poses a complex and unique website design problem. While most businesses can allow subsidiaries to establish their own brand and visual identities, universities don’t have the same luxury.

However, design systems allow each individual department to retain distinct identities while remaining visually consistent. Along with providing a library of proven, accessible components, the system includes documentation that outlines the parameters for their use.

From font colors to border sizes, a design system can define every Atomic component of your institution’s core design. Then, those components can be grouped into themes, which allow your disparate departments to have options for their use. One theme can be labeled “Marketing-focused” and the other “Academic Writings” with predefined settings and guidelines for their use.

With a design system, your university can provide each department with options to express a distinctive design identity, but those options are constrained within predetermined guidelines. Consequently, you can protect your institution’s design identity while freeing your subsidiary departments to create the features they need.

Design systems enable faster development while protecting valuable resources

A design system allows higher education institutions to save money on creating new digital experiences. Instead of a department needing to schedule time with a UX designer or developer to create a landing page, they can create it themselves.

By incorporating a design system, content creators can access the building blocks to create the features they need. Not only does this enable each department to launch content faster, but it also conserves more specialized resources so they can focus on bigger-picture development needs. Plus, you gain the assurance that new content created with the design system will be consistent, performant, and accessible.

A design system levels the playing field for smaller departments who may not enjoy the same funding as other parts of the school. Once the system is implemented, everyone benefits from the work that went into creating and verifying all the university’s components.

Rather than trying to secure the time and resources to set the design and functionality needs of new digital initiatives, every department can access a centralized resource with the building blocks they need. That way, site editors, marketers, and even faculty can stay focused on content creation.

Leverage higher ed’s fragmented nature to establish a design system

The siloed nature of university departments presents a challenge when implementing a collaborative tool like a design system. You see examples of the fractured nature of higher ed down to its language.

Your colleagues work at the Office of Public Affairs, the School of Engineering, or the Marketing Communications Department. They rarely identify as working at the university itself. In some cases, heads of large departments will have more power than the school’s Chancellor in terms of how a digital experience will look, which further fragments decision-making.

Design systems accommodate flexibility. However, a key task before implementation is for your web development partner to break up some of these silos. You should decouple centralized digital features like navigation from the institution’s organizational structure and in order to prioritize what your users need.

Inevitably, your institution will have a more federated design system that establishes an institutional core with the flexibility for subsidiary schools to express themselves differently. But you shouldn’t introduce the tool from the top down. Instead, an implementation should start with one influential department and expand outward.

Starting a design system at one school enables your development team to test its capabilities and establish it as a success. Once it becomes a proven tool rather than a mysterious, outside addition, internal teams will advocate for its use. From there, internal politics are set aside as each part of your institution wants the tool that will make their website—and their work—that much stronger.