In this article, Senior Design Director, Madeline Jacobson, outlines the elements of an effective unbranded brand website and breaks down best practices to keep in mind when taking the step towards approachable design.
Screenshot of an unbranded brand website highlighting project benchmarks and public amenities
A few months ago, we wrote an article about the complexity of placemaking and the community process.
We outlined the issues that Boston residents and advocacy & civic groups care about, and the urban-scale and financial issues real estate development teams are often navigating. Isenberg Projects is a connector between these groups, working to foster shared value and equity through place-based work.
The real estate industry is confusing! It has a lot of jargon and is constantly evolving. While transparency has improved, navigating the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s Article 80 entitlement process (let alone the BPDA’s website) can be incredibly difficult for all stakeholders involved. Everyone from the average citizen, to the development team, to the local nonprofit wanting to ride the wave of investment, is looking for the latest information.
IP approaches the problem of scattered information in a very tangible way: through our “unbranded brand” project website. Instead of relying on the BPDA’s “search and you shall find” model, where information can feel buried and hard to find, we work with development teams to create a transparent, public-facing website. We call it the “unbranded brand” because it usually exists before the property has an official name or visual identity: the brand before the brand.
This website serves as a centralized digital portal where all stakeholders can go to find consolidated, approachable information about the proposal or get in touch with the development team. Each site is carefully crafted and specific to the project. Read on to learn what we at IP believe goes in to creating successful digital presences for development projects at any stage.
Use A simple navigation system
The easier it is for people to navigate through a website the longer they are likely to interact with it. People may get easily overwhelmed if the flow of information is unclear. Additionally, visitors are likely familiar with the project and come to the website looking for answers to specific questions. Making those answers easy to find will create trust and transparency.
- Use vocabulary and terms that are predictable and specific to the audience.
- Keep drop-down menu options to a minimum.
- Up to 70 percent of web traffic comes from mobile devices so responsive design is key. Make sure menu bars are adaptable to different screen sizes, to ensure the website will look great on every device.
Create Clear calls to action
Engagement is key. We know it’s important to build in opportunities for visitors to take action, rather than just scroll, read information, and move on with their day. Websites can operate as a tool to gather feedback and generate conversation. Providing multiple opportunities for people to interact with a site and get connected with the project on a personal level, is a valuable strategy.
- Collect email addresses to build an audience for future mailings
- Build contact forms with custom fields to filter inquiries and capture interest
- Link out to community meetings or drive people to a dedicated calendar of events where they can RSVP or follow along.
- Conduct a community survey to inform research and future activation areas. Ask people what is important to them and what they would like to see happen at any given phase or location.
Stay up to date with timelines & benchmarks
Help visitors understand where the property is in the process of development.
- Create a big picture timeline or organized list of updates so people can navigate through the steps that have already been taken and learn what they can expect to see in the coming months.
- Create opportunities for the community to be involved in the process. Let people know if there are any public hearings, or ways to get involved. Find the calendar plug-in that is right for you. Adding regular events and benchmarks doesn’t need to be difficult if you are using an automated system like The Events Calendar or EventOn.
Transparency is paramount. The BPDA archives videos of public meetings along with presentation slides, but how many people who missed the meeting will go back and watch an hour-plus long video on their own time? On the flip side, how many people would be able to understand visuals and plans presented in presentation slides without having someone explain what they are seeing?
- Add presentations with context that can be accessible after a meeting.
- Synthesize information from community meetings so people know what they are looking at and can understand if they miss the original presentation.
- Provide summaries from different benchmarks in the process so people can quick get up to speed and digest the key takeaways.
Focus on Accessibility
Websites should be optimized so that they are compatible with all browsers and devices, and in line with the standards outlined in the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Accessible websites ensure that all potential users, including people with a wide range of disabilities — including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual disabilities — are able to access your information with ease.
- Using Alt text with images is a key principle of web accessibility. Alt text is located within the HTML code to describe the appearance and function of an image on a page. Not only does it read aloud to users who are relying on screen reader software, it displays on the page if the image fails to load.
- Structure content carefully using proper heading tags so that content is well-organized and easily interpreted by screen readers.
- Use icons, written content, and other visual elements to reinforce clear communication of content.
- Designing for individuals who experience visual impairments includes careful color selections, appropriate sizing of text, and intentionality behind contrast ratios relating to both text and graphics throughout a website.
- Compliance with WCAG standards will not only improve digital accessibility, it will help with search engine optimization. Including image descriptions, meta tags, and keywords throughout every website will help you achieve a higher ranking in the eyes of popular search engines. There are tons of evaluation tools to become familiar with on the road to building accessible websites.
Choose imagery & renderings carefully
It goes beyond words. Looking at a wall of text can be informative, but it’s important to provide visual context for the project. If someone scrolled past all of the website copy, could they still understand what’s being built and what benefits the projects provide? Visuals should communicate just as much as the text, and together they will effectively weave together a project’s vision.
- Choose imagery that can help tell the story.
- Consider a mix of photos, renderings, and infographics.
- Use simple captions under renderings to state what a user is looking at. This will provide context and capture the attention of those who rarely stop to read.
- Pay attention to the size of images used throughout, as the speed of your website and amount of time it takes for pages to load is heavily dependent on the content.
Project website for 1234 Soldiers Field Road, a mixed-use project proposal put forth by The Davis Companies.
What Not To Do
Don’t Be prescriptive: Whether you’re creating content before the entitlement or you’re already halfway through, you should be listening and responding, not prescribing a path forward.
Don’t complicate the design: The process of branding does not happen overnight. It requires a deep understanding and exploration of your property’s identity, values, mission and target community. If you are undergoing a larger brand haul and the elements of your identity are inevitably going to shift and evolve, we strongly suggest that you do not introduce any symbols or complicated logos into your brand identity until you have a clear direction. You don’t want people to start associating a signature look and feel, only to do a complete 180. Trust the KISS method – keep it simple, stupid. Set up a platform using a simple wordmark that plays on the address or street name of the future site, stick to a limited color palette, and rely on messaging to tell the story.
Don’t use jargon: Website information should be presented simply without jargon like unexplained zoning codes and abbreviations, so that people across the spectrum can understand – from people attending community meetings, stakeholders, developers, advocacy groups and the general public. And please, for the love of all things holy, please avoid using cliche and overused taglines like “if you lived here you’d be home” in your marketing materials!
No matter the stage of development, it’s vital for every project to have a website that serves as a home for important information and accessible content. Websites are designed to be flexible. They will grow alongside the project with every update, idea, and visual. The structure and transparency of such will begin to create a mutually beneficial relationship and evolving communication tool for the public to become a valued part of the process.
Don’t feel like there has to be a perfectly formed brand or set of marketing materials before information can be shared. Let what you learn through the unbranded brand process drive those guiding principles, help build a reputation, and inform the future.
Senior Design Director