Winner of the Best of the Web award at the Museums and the Web 2015 Conference

8th Light partners with international design firm IDEO to transform the Royal Academy of Arts' digital presence, bringing the venerable institution into the 21st century.

After conducting extensive field research, IDEO devised a website redesign that would provide a more holistic glimpse inside the world's premier artist­led institution, which encompasses one of London's most popular art galleries and the U.K.'s first art school. 8th Light then implemented the design, and built out the back­​end code so that the Royal Academy's staff and artists could easily manage the site's content in the future.


London's Royal Academy of Arts has a rich history that dates back to 1768, when King George III permitted Sir William Chambers and 35 other artists to establish an institution to ‘promote the Arts of Design.' In the nearly 250 years since, the Royal Academy has moved with the times, but is still led by the Royal Academicians—some of the U.K.'s best­known artists and architects—still runs one of the world's most prestigious art schools, and hosts some of London's most popular exhibitions.

The Academy's website had not evolved with its organization. "We had quite an old website that had suffered years of underinvestment. It didn't match the vibrancy of the organisation," said Nick Sharp, head of digital at the Royal Academy. "[The website] wasn't responsive. It had a poor user journey experience.""

The website also failed to adequately represent the breadth of the institution's ambition, including its dynamic educational arm. "People mostly know us for putting on these big art exhibitions," Sharp added. "But there is so much more going on, from our diverse Royal Academicians to the work of our students. One of the key things we've been trying to do is open the door to all the exciting activity that goes on in the Royal Academy.""

IDEO's London Location Lead Steve O'Connor, designer Juho Parviainen, and their team had a vision for how to capture "the living and breathing academy," while staying tied to the Royal Academy's storied history."

A New Vision

The IDEO team spent 11 weeks collecting feedback from visitors and exploring ways to enhance the public's engagement with the Academy. "We were really impressed when we went there and got a tour of all the amazing things that were happening," Parviainen said. But that experience served to highlight a problem in Royal Academy's image. "People think it's a museum, but it's not really a museum," Parviainen explained. Although the Royal Academy is a prestigious art school and membership organisation, many visitors were not aware that the Academy operated outside of their blockbuster shows.

After analyzing data and feedback from visitors, the IDEO team was able to trace this disconnect to the website's organization. "The whole site—the way it's utilized and navigated—used to be based very much on their organizational structure," Parviainen said. "Now we've done a structure that's based way more on how clients, customers, or visitors approach it." IDEO's designers crafted a series of design principles that more accurately represented the Academy's modern incarnation.

The most immediate example of this was the front page, which features many more images "bubbling" up to the surface of the site.

But IDEO did not want to completely overshadow the site's original focus, and took inspiration from movie trailers to revamp the individual exhibition pages in exciting ways.

After inviting two companies to feasibility workshops for their designs, IDEO decided to bring 8th Light onto the project to implement this new vision.

A New Platform

Although 8th Light has a London office now, visa issues initially delayed the move and forced the team to work from Chicago—six time zones and almost 4,000 miles from where IDEO and Royal Academy were located for the project's duration.

Intent on getting a good start regardless, 8th Light flew IDEO's designers to Chicago for about a month of intensive work and planning. During this time, 8th Light's craftsmen were able to build a positive working dynamic, and make more granular assessments of the technology required to create and maintain this new vision for the site.

Very early on, 8th Light realized that the website's reimagining would have to go deeper than just IDEO's design. Instead of retrofitting an existing content management system (CMS) to fit the Royal Academy's needs, they decided to build an entirely new CMS from scratch.

"They were expecting to utilize an existing CMS system," explained 8th Light craftsman and project lead Jim Suchy. "But I looked at it, and it would've cost so much more in the long run. There's no way we could've done the things that we did and reacted the way that we did... They would've been handcuffed if they had tied themselves to another system."

With a more precise plan in place and IDEO back in London, the teams experimented with other solutions for their distance.

"We tightened the feedback loop much tighter," Suchy said. Whereas most project teams would demonstrate the work they had accomplished each week, the 8th Light and IDEO teams would meet over Skype or Google Hangouts each working day. This helped the team stay focused and much more closely aligned on the project's evolving vision.

They also experimented with different working hours, in which "they would work late or we would wake up early, just so we would have more hours to contact them," said 8th Light craftsman Steve Kim.

While the developers built the custom CMS to handle the site's back­​end functionality, 8th Light design craftsman Chris Peak operated within his own set of constraints to align with—and adapt to—the Royal Academy's existing visual identity—originally designed for print. "They had very rigid rules for typography, color usage, and layout," Peak said.

This style created some difficulties for the developers, too. "On the technical side, they wanted a really immersive experience, so there's a lot of client­s​ide JavaScript. Writing that well and testing it was a bit of a challenge," Suchy added. "Also, it was very media­​heavy, mostly images, and some of them very high­​resolution images. So making that work wasn't simple, either."

All of this created a set of complications that strained the site when it was going live. Luckily, Suchy was working out of a shared office in London for the project's final months.

"In our longest days, Jim just came and squatted in our office," Sharp said. "[8th Light has] a dedication to making something that's really perfect, rather than something that will just ‘do the job.'"


Royal Academy's new website is modern and flexible, and has increased engagement both inside and outside of the Academy.

"I think it's a great step forward in terms of how we're able to present ourselves and tell stories about what the organization does," Sharp said. "We've really highlighted the editorial content that's on our blog, which is seeing more than ten times as much engagement as before."

This increased engagement owes much to the site's rei​magined organization. "I think the way the site is structured is quite different than how many other sites and how many other CMS systems are structured," Parviainen said. "It's super modular and very, very flexible."

That flexibility on the back e​nd has increased engagement from the Royal Academy's content creators, as well. "I think that permits what the staff at Royal Academy can use across the site," Parviainen added. "Basically, they have a lot more tools that help them do their job better, rather than having to adapt their needs to the tools."

This has helped emphasize the Academy's artists as well. "Now Academicians and students are seeing there's a platform for their use," Sharp said. "It's quite interesting to see them coming to us with ideas for their interesting art projects, editorial content, and so on."

Although control of these tools is currently limited to a handful of users, the Academy has the tools to begin spreading responsibilities and activities as they expand their site. "The custom­designed admin tools that [8th Light] built in were very effective," Sharp said. "The flexibility of it is very appealing, and the kind of modular design that 8th Light built is very helpful for our non­technical users."

This project is an ongoing one. While the first phase provided the template for the site and the tools it could use to move forward, the Royal Academy has hired 8th Light to continue expanding and enhancing its digital environment. "I really liked 8th Light," Sharp said. "They were quite astute—always seeking the best answer to whatever problem we threw their way. And they kept smiling throughout the project, too!"

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