Especially in the digital workplace, our digital tools create an important shared context that ‘defines’ the organization.

When I taught my MBA elective Leadership 2.0: Leading in a Digital Environment, I had a teaching case about an organization establishing its intranet.

The pressing question: What should the physical interface on employees’ computer screens look like?

The design challenge was to make the home page ‘work’ while helping keep the organization’s defining characteristics in the minds of the user/members.

201106151111.jpgOf course, ten years ago “intranets” were really simple affairs. In this case, we were really discussing the ‘frame’ — the sidebars, top navigation menu, and background image. (Once someone clicked into email, or to the library data base, all that was left was a half-inch frame all around.) There wasn’t much variation in functionality, just in the ways that things were presented visually.

But, even though the available options & decisions were small, these little design choices made a difference.

For example, the out-of-the-box default color scheme was light blue and navy blue. Meanwhile, the organization’s colors were green and white. The default frame had the vendor’s logo, a basic typeface, and generic names for features. In contrast, the organization had its own logo, a defined typeface for its printed visual materials, and its own names for tools and features (e.g., “MixxMail”, not “Outlook”).

Research in organizational identity, organizational symbolism, and office environments has shown that triggering a sense of specific place (e.g., this organization, this community) helps to keep the values of the organization salient while people go about their work. Wouldn’t the same triggering and salience be important as people used their computers as portals/terminals to do any variety of tasks?

With this case in mind, I was intrigued by Toby Ward’s post on Social Intranet Design.

Ward, a noted intranet expert, outlined his 7 Principles of Intranet Design: (summarized from his post)

  1. Less is more.
  2. An intranet is a business system, and the design should fulfill business needs (no creative whim).
  3. Follow a design process that includes thorough input by management & employees
  4. Soft corners
  5. Soft colors
  6. Employees love employee photos, not clip art.
  7. White space is good.

Do these design principles help to reinforce organizational identity?

The 6th principle, ‘Use employee photos’ makes a lot of sense, since this is an easy way to break up space in an attractive way while making the intranet look like it belongs to a specific organization.

But the 2nd principle troubled me just a little bit.

‘Business-like’ design or Organization-specific design?

While I do agree that “an intranet is a business system, and the design should fulfill business needs”, I disagree with the idea that designers should dispense with creative whims. (By whims, I’m assuming ‘insights’).

There is always a way to be both ‘business-like” and creative, especially if that creativity is used to express the organization’s identity. Were I the manager overseeing the intranet design, I’d explicitly request that the intranet’s aesthetics (and functionality) reflect the identity (or corporate ‘brand) of the organization itself.

Every intranet– heck, every organizational tool — should reflect, express and reinforce the values of the organization.

Every digital tool should pass the ‘below the header’ test– if the logo or headline is taken off, users should still be able to “know” that this tools belongs to their organization, that it is ‘of’ their organization.

Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing your organization and its tools to become generic, unspecial, unspecific, less meaningful. You’re missing a chance to evoke, demonstrate and reinforce what the organization stands for .

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One Response to “Social Intranet Design and Organizational Identity: Design for functionality and character”

  1. Geoff Garcia says:

    Speaking of usability, can you darken the font on your blog?
    Reading such light colored text on a white background hurts my eyes!