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School Website Design & The Science of First Impressions
Connor Gleason

First impressions are a mind-blowing blend of cognitive processes, emotional reactions, and social evaluations that occur almost immediately when we encounter something new, be it a new person, a fancy meal, an expensive sports car, or even your school’s website.

These processes and regions of the brain work together rapidly and often unconsciously, forming a first impression within 50 milliseconds—about the time it takes to blink. A range of complicated factors, including experiences, mood, context, and biases, can influence the entire experience.

So, how is this all related to a school’s website experience?

Visiting a school's website for the first time engages a complex mix of sensory processing, emotional response, memory recall, and cognitive evaluation. Since 94% of first impressions are design-related, these processes can have a lasting impact on your perception of the school.

Let's explore what happens in the brain during this first encounter and how you can tap into this chemistry to improve your website.

Hang on, it's about to get nerdy....

Visual Processing: The First Glimpse

The moment a prospective student, parent, or employee lands on your website, their brain's visual cortex gets busy. Just like noticing someone's appearance, your visual cortex processes the website's design, layout, colors, and imagery. A clean, attractive design with eye-catching images can make the website visitor feel welcomed, much like meeting an outgoing, friendly person.

How to do it: Engaging and Relevant Content

    •    Clear Messaging: Your school's mission, vision, and unique offerings should be clearly communicated on the homepage.
    •    Updated Information: Regularly update the website with current news, events, and achievements to keep the content fresh and relevant.

With a similar strategy, Montgomery Academy's visuals pair nicely with its visionary word choices: nurture, create, and develop. Visitors to its homepage can immediately sense its mission to support students in their journey to become leaders.

young students cheering

Keep Reading: 6 Seconds — Making the Most of Your School Website’s Written Content

Emotional Response: The Feel of Your Website

Immediately, the amygdala, an emotion center in the brain, kicks in. A welcoming, informative, and user-friendly website might evoke positive emotions, just as a friendly face would, while a cluttered or outdated website might lead to frustration or disinterest.

How to do it: Appealing Visuals

    •    Attractive Color Scheme: Use colors that reflect your school's spirit and ethos. The color palette should be pleasing to the eye and not overwhelming.
    •    Quality Images: Use high-quality, relevant images that represent your school's environment, community, and activities.

Fountain Valley Homepage

Fountain Valley School’s site features truly unique designs that capture the sense of adventure and excitement of its outdoor classroom, mountain vistas, and picturesque landscapes. Its stunning visuals, interesting textures, and creative design elements perfectly complement the user experience it delivers to its visitors.

Judgment and Decision-Making: Making Sense of It All

Here, the prefrontal cortex—your brain's decision-maker—comes into play and thinks about the website's content and how easy information is to find. Users consciously (and subconsciously) evaluate the website's content, functionality, and usability, much like they assess someone's behavior and speech.

How to do it: User-Friendly Design

    •    Simple Website Navigation: Ensure your website has an intuitive layout. Menus should be easy to locate so visitors can get the information they need.
    •    Responsive Design: Your website should look good and function well on all devices, including mobile devices and tablets.

Wyoming Seminary Homepage of a girl on a laptop

For a website with a good user experience, look at Wyoming Seminary’s homepage. It features a vertical scroll, seemingly keeping users within the same frame but delivering lots of valuable information about its programs, encouraging students to discover their passion, strengths, community, and ultimately, their future.

Keep Reading: 13 Schools with Attention-Stealing Homepage Introductions

Memory Recall: Comparing Experiences

The hippocampus, our memory bank, then gets involved. A user’s experience with other websites, including other schools, influences their expectations and perceptions. If your website stands out positively compared to other designs, content, and user experiences, it should leave a lasting, favorable impression.

How to do it: Consistent Branding

    •    Unified Theme: The website should reflect your school's branding consistently across all pages. This includes logos, colors, fonts, and the tone of your messaging.

Marian High School Homepage

Marian High School's pages tie the look, feel, and user experience together with cohesive branding. The fonts, visuals, and navigation create a similar feeling from page to page, all working together to create a unified theme.

The Power of Human Connection: Mirror Neuron System

Even though a website isn't a person, seeing images or videos of people on your site can activate the mirror neuron system. This part of the brain helps with feeling connected to what we see. For example, photos of students engaging in activities or teachers deeply involved in lessons can trigger empathy.

How to do it: Focus on Emotional Connections

    •    Stories and Testimonials: Share success stories and testimonials from students, teachers, and parents, which can help create an emotional connection with prospective families or donors.
    •    Virtual Tours: Offer virtual tours of the campus to give a better feel of the school environment.

La Salle Together as Brothers

La Salle College High School’s microsite is a great example of stirring up excitement and support for its capital campaign, “Together as Brothers.” Virtual tours help imagine the facility upgrades and additions, while success stories and testimonials help share the impact of a gift.

The Reward Factor: Dopamine and Satisfaction

When visitors find what they're looking for on your website, like information about programs or success stories, it can trigger the brain's reward system. If your website provides valuable information in an engaging way that reduces friction and removes obstacles, a streamlined experience leaves visitors feeling satisfied and connected deeper to your school.

How to do it: Increase Readability

    •    Optimize for Speed: Ensure your website loads quickly. A slow-loading website can frustrate visitors and lead them to leave before exploring further.
    •    Easy-to-Read Fonts: Use fonts that are easy to read and of appropriate size.

Sluh Educating men screenshot

St. Louis University High makes reading its site easy. With bold visuals and text, it’s straightforward and cuts right to the heart of its missions and distractions. There's no fluff, just meaningful statements that are easy to read, engaging imagery, and a quick-loading site that brings it all together for a pleasant user experience.

Social Understanding: The Temporal Parietal Junction

This area helps us understand the social aspect of what we see. On your website, this could mean how well you present the 'social' aspect of your school, like its community involvement, student life, and educational philosophy.

How to do it: Social Proof

    •    Testimonials, Profiles, and Real Stories: Share meaningful stories of success, transformation, and the impact of your school’s experiences.
    •    Social Media Integration: Include links to your school’s social media profiles and integrate social media feeds where it feels appropriate.

SCH voices screenshot

A beautifully designed panel of testimonials from students, families, and alumni helps share Schaumburg Christian School’s impact on its community both far and wide. Social media integration toward the bottom of the homepage also brings in the latest social media posts to keep content fresh and relevant.

Balancing Act: Orbitofrontal Cortex

Finally, the orbitofrontal cortex helps moderate and balance our reactions, telling us not to judge a book by its cover and to dig a little deeper. This part of the brain helps the visitor keep an open mind. Your website is your first impression, but when it's time for your target audience to take action, your site needs to be ready.

How to do it: Contact Information and Calls to Action

    •    Visible Contact Info: Make it easy for visitors to find a way to get in touch.
    •    Clear Calls to Action: Encourage visitors to take action, like scheduling a visit, applying, or signing up for a newsletter.

After a great user experience, it’s time to take action. Oaks Christian School’s admissions page is thorough, yet it caters to a range of families at different stages of their school search. Offering multiple calls to action is a great strategy because there’s a “next step” for every family, whether it’s submitting an application, visiting campus, gathering more information about financial aid, or scheduling a meeting.

Oaks Christian Admissions screenshot

Key Takeaway

When someone visits your school's website for the first time, their brain goes through a remarkable journey, processing visual cues, forming emotional responses, making judgments, and comparing. So, use your brain — create a website that not only looks good but also connects emotionally, communicates effectively, and leaves a lasting positive impression.

website redesign playbook

Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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