Collaboration Makes Perfect: OAEC Non-Profit Redesign

Yes, some projects are better than others. Every once in awhile, there is a magical convergence when a project comes in the door for a great organization serving a visionary cause with sufficient budget to make a real impact. Such was the story of our year-long engagement with the highly esteemed Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC).

OAEC is a world-renowned 80-acre sustainability research, demonstration, education, advocacy and community-organizing center in Sonoma County, California. In order to up their game with funders and to influence the change they seek, the OAEC’s democratically organized staff realized that they needed a modern website and a re-branding that established them as a sustainability think tank–professional and clean, but with an earthy, organic feel.

Information Architecture for Diverse Constituencies

A website redesign for OAEC, whose former site was nearly a decade old, was no small feat. The old site’s navigation had not been designed to accommodate the long-term growth and expansion of the nonprofit. As new projects and programs had been added to the site, they overflowed from both left- and right-hand side bars that cluttered every page. The website certainly wasn’t assisting users in finding the information they were looking for. Furthermore, one of OAEC’s largest programs had broken off from the mothership and had created its own website, which needed to be integrated into the new organization-wide site. OAEC knew that it had to tell the story of its diverse yet interrelated projects in a more cohesive way.

As lovers of clear information architecture and effective UX/UI, 1stWave was up for the challenge. Working closely with the Communications Director, we spent almost three months on identifying OAEC’s target constituencies and envisioning a simplified top-down flow of information that would serve each of those groups. In contrast to the often-rushed site launches of for-profit companies, OAEC saw a critical investment in spending the needed time synthesizing OAEC’s work into a user-friendly web experience.

Earth to Branding!

When nearing the wireframing and design phase, we got serious about exploring colors, fonts, and an updated logo that maintained the artsy-but-unassuming earthiness of the old version, yet brought it to a whole new level of clean professionalism. “Organic” became our mantra when pairing colors and creating shapes for the site, influencing everything from the subtle curvature that softened the edges of calls-to-action buttons to the leaves (yes, leaves) we scanned and made into “text boxes” on the original homepage design.

The branding work we did for the website eventually translated into other design collateral, such as a PowerPoint slideshow template for presentations to funders and an e-newsletter template that matched the look and feel of the OAEC site.

Collaborative Wireframing & Design

One of the interesting and inspirational things about OAEC is the organization’s democratic decision-making process. This cultural precedent requires deep collaboration amongst staff members as well as with outside consultants. Working on the OAEC website, then, was like assisting at the birth of a child of 18 mothers.

1stWave worked especially closely with OAEC Communications Director Janel Healy, whom the organization wanted intimately involved in every step of the redesign process. Instead of shelling out funds for 1stWave to do all of the wireframing, for instance, OAEC wanted Janel to be empowered with the knowledge of how to think through and lay out webpages herself. She was a quick study, and ended up loving the solving-a-puzzle feeling of the wireframing process. Foregoing wireframing software for pencil and paper, Janel delivered many suggestions for potential webpages to 1stWave on taped sheets of recycled paper. Whatever works!

We love the experience of co-creating websites with clients who want to participate every step of the way. The more minds solving a problem, the better. Where this became challenging with OAEC, however, was the start-and-stop process of getting the rest of the organization’s staff onboard for every major design tweak. But receiving feedback and approval from OAEC’s multiple stakeholders was a humbling reminder that the secret to happy, trusting clients is not being egotistically attached to our ideas as “the paid professionals.” Flexibility and the ability to adapt are key to sustainability and resilience–both ecologically AND in the design studio!

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If you have questions about pricing, timelines or what to include in your RFP, contact us.