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What Does it Take to Win 100 School Website Design Awards?
Angelo Otterbein

Alright! This is the blog where I get to brag extra because I had nothing to do with Finalsite actually winning the awards, and so can only sit back and admire the talent, take pride, and pause for just a moment to ask: how do our designers do it? It’s one thing to win an award, or maybe two awards. But 100? Two dots make a line; 3 dots make a pattern; but I’m calling 100 dots a full-on solar system. 

I should also point out that we throw our hat in the ring far and wide, and have won the top prize in almost every serious competition out there, Davey, MarCom, Vega, Summit, Web Marketing, and more. So to any skeptic who thinks we might have figured out a trick to the system, we haven’t. Did I say how proud we are?

awards on wall at finalsite headquarters

Let’s put a little meat on the bones, first. You don’t just win an award. You earn it. I asked our five senior designers just what it takes to win that many awards. Suffice it to say that it was hard-earned: they have designed over 500 websites collectively. That’s a lot of pixels to get right. 

Second, it’s not like we won 100 awards this year and none for the last 2 decades. Finalsite has been winning awards for many years, honing the craft, staying on top of the website trends while also providing leadership in the market to establish those trends. In fact, our first Webby was in 2004.

Another thing: we talk about “design awards” but that’s sorta like giving an architecture award to the best looking house by only looking at a picture. Good web design these days is all about execution, the interactive elements, the functionality, and the user experience. Our front-end development team and project managers are critical to winning.

Interestingly, one of our most recent awards was for “Best School Mobile Website” from The Web Marketing Association, thanks to Nathan’s great design and the team’s deployment for Saint Thomas Academy. So while we talk about websites, we sometimes tick the box on the mobile category too.

But here’s what gets me. While the above is extremely impressive, it’s all done in the context of school website design which is also awfully … specific. Right? How do you keep it win and fresh? Here’s what I learned:

1. Expand Your Horizons

“Our designers work within a culture of innovation,” said Kealan Duffy, one of the most senior designers in our UK office who has traveled to over 20 countries to visit schools and designed dozens and dozens of school websites over the past decade. “We are passionate about exploring new ways to help schools achieve their goals effectively. We do this by looking beyond the education sector, keeping our fingers on the pulse of emerging web trends and technologies to make a long-lasting impact that is a step ahead of the competition.”

In short, though, don’t just look at school websites.

Want to see a recent launch of his? Here’s a great new best-in-class website he just designed for Lady Eleanor Holles.

Lady Elenor Holles Homepage

2. Practice and Practice and Then Practice Some More

Kelly Wilson “thinks” she’s designed more than 120 websites, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a lot more than that when you account for redesigns, “major tweaks” and revisions. Kelly has also won over 35 awards for her work alone. Wow! That’s an Olympic class, I’d say. However, each of those designs comes with a lot of work — hours and hours. 

For our best-in-class website, it can be three solid days of design for the homepage alone. All told when you include interior designs, layout specifications and the like, Kelly’s put in over 12,000 design hours into her craft (by my rough 6th-grade math). Sometimes a school will ask us if we can just “quickly knock out a design” to which we say: “no, it doesn’t work like that.” 

3. Surround Yourself with Talent

“In general, I think we have a very strong team of designers at Finalsite,” said Kelly. “That in itself definitely helps when it comes to producing award-winning designs, but there’s something to be said about working alongside really creative people, being able to collaborate and share ideas, solicit feedback and push one another to do ‘better’. There’s healthy competition when you work with other really great people.”

So true. 

With a team of nearly a dozen designers, some young and some who are well into their career (and many with advanced degrees in design), Finalsite’s awards are a product of not one designer 100% — while each award is credited to a single designer, there’s a bit of everyone behind each one.

punahou school homepage

Kelly was the designer for Punahou School's best-in-class website. The website, along with its capital campaign website, have taken home a total of four web design awards.

4. Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

When I’m talking to one of our designers about a project that has gone particularly well, much of it inevitably comes back to the client — their interest, drive, involvement and, perhaps most importantly, willingness to roll up their sleeves and work hard. A successful project is absolutely hand in glove with a successful partnership. 

Julianne Hamilton, who has designed at least 50 sites and won 28 awards(!), described it best: “Working with Agnes Irwin (an independent day school in Pennsylvania) to design their award-winning site was a very collaborative process. The team at Agnes had a great vision and a lot of nice design details to start with, including their unique typography, brush strokes, and diamond patterns. I worked with them to translate – and add to – their existing aesthetic to create a great experience of the school online. While we had a lot of fun talking about the look and feel together, we also worked together to ensure that the design was meeting all of their needs from usability and messaging perspective.” 

agnes irwin school homepage

We love clients who appreciate great work, but we love clients who also appreciate — and contribute to — the hard work behind it. And finally, we love clients who understand their goals. 

“Our work is strategically driven towards the achievement of the underlying project goals that motivated each school's decision to redesign,” added Kealan. “The sites don't just look great; they help schools fulfill their marketing and communication objectives in a measurable way.”

5. Keep it Interesting

Here’s something I learned: one of our senior designers said that no matter what the design they try to do at least one thing that’s new or different or unexpected. “This might be a new scrolling technique, special effect, slideshow functionality or just a design approach that I haven’t really tried before,” said Kelly. “I think this helps me to push myself to research each project and find something cutting edge that I can incorporate into my designs to set each one apart.” 

Poke around our portfolio to see if you can identify just what that special “thing” really is. Keep an eye out on sites you like for an idea or a unique approach; we’re always game. And view the running list of award winners right here!


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angelo otterbein headshot
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.

 

 

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