Guest blogpost by Michael Courtney of Michael Courtney Design of Seattle WA on designing an iconic landmark and thoughts on how to measure the success of this, or any, design project.
This is a story about our design firm’s experiment to measure the success of a wildly popular project. And a way to translate that success to show the power of a placemaking element to other organizations.
In a meeting with the President of the University of Washington, our firm was challenged to design an element to connect with a broad range of people, “… a memorable, photogenic landmark, distinctive to the UW campus. Something visiting students and their families will remember, where we can bring staff we’re recruiting and where I can end my ‘Money Walk’ with donors as a powerful symbol of the University.” We proposed using the newly adopted school wordmark, and designed a seven-foot-tall “W”, standing on a 3 foot stone base, placing it at the main entry to campus. Our design was quickly approved and the Big W was fabricated, installed and dedicated.
As we showed our portfolio to current and prospective clients, we began to hear stories: 1. “Oh, you designed the Big W? Love it. My daughter (uncle, cousin, nephew, coworker, neighbor, spouse, Mom, college roommate’s daughter from out of state who applied to the UW) has posted photos of themselves at the Big W on Facebook (Instagram, Snapchat, Google images).” and 2. “Did you know the UW is using photos of the Big W in their marketing collateral and videos?”
As we looked around the internet, we saw hundreds of photos of the Big W. This showed us our work had been successful, and we began a plan to measure the effectiveness. We developed a student focused social media campaign, asking UW students to submit their favorite photos at the Big W.
For this purpose, we used Snapchat to reach out to our audience; it was an easy and fairly inexpensive way to engage the students. The students could select the filter for their snaps that they would be sending out to friends. The filter itself featured a purple W (school colors) and the hashtag #mybigw.” The campaign was timed to coincide with the end of the school year and graduation, when families and individuals shoot photos at the landmark. We sat up a geo tag at the Big W to make it easy for photographers to quickly upload photos on the spot.
Success: we receive photos ranging from sweet to enthusiastic, with individuals, groups of friends and families with 2-3 generations of graduates posing together. often along with captions highlighting what the university means to them.
Design firms and clients want to know effectiveness of the project and track the user engagement. Our technique of social media engagement allowed us to measure success in a meaningful way. The campaign received a variety of enthusiastic responses from participants, and it was in the breadth and depth of those responses that we began to understand how powerful the project had been. Whether they were a fifth-generation UW alumni or a first-in-the-family graduate, we realized that the W resonated with everyone in different contexts, facilitating connection, self-expression, and a sense of pride.
Looking more broadly at the question of quantifying the value of design and the role of social media in that process, intuitively we can see a project is working and we get can get feedback from our clients. However, we (as a profession) often don’t measure the effectiveness. Two reasons come to mind: finding the tools to measure this has been elusive; or the client doesn’t express interest in collecting the data and we move onto our next assignment. With this project, we could see with our own eyes the numbers of people taking photos of themselves and their friends at the W. We observed their photos scattered across social media. We saw the University using the W in their marketing. This encouraged us to find ways to measure the success.
Why Does The ‘Big W’ Landmark Work?
The W is a simple, physical, accessible element the students, families and alumni can ‘own’. It’s something that represents them personally and the photos across social media show it generates happy thoughts about their campus life. Thinking philosophically, we live in a digital age and we still pass through the physical world every day. Landmarks and placemaking elements can make an emotional connection with the intended audience. Humans are incredibly tactile and our main motivation is to connect. That’s why the digital world is so compelling, because it allows people to connect with anyone anywhere in the world. What helps us connect is the physical world. People often look for places that they have “checked in” or “tagged” before to see what others have shared from the same place. This creates a connection point and shared camaraderie. Having a physical connection point propels digital connections.”