Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute is a grand experiment. Home to some of the most brilliant scientists of our time, the mission of the Institute is to decipher the brain — a staggering effort that requires intense collaboration across many disciplines.
To enable that collaboration, the new Institute has become the home to over fifty principal investigators and their labs across a diverse range of fields — from neuroscience to molecular biology to computer science. All members of the Institute contribute in their own way to understanding the human mind. The hope is that the design of the building itself will nurture serendipity. An overheard conversation while getting coffee could be the start of a new study. Shared resources also translate to improved efficiency. State-of-the-art facilities and services make scientific resources from virology and molecular tools to advanced research computing easily accessible to members of the Institute.
The site had to be credible to peers, welcoming to everyone, and interesting to people who love science.
The Institute is part of Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus — the largest physical expansion to the school’s campus in over a century. To introduce the Institute, the Zuckerman Communications team came to us seeking a platform capable of reflecting the caliber and relevance of the work.
Our shared goals were to showcase the work, build public enthusiasm for science, inspire a new generation of scientists, and support the development team’s efforts to attract the funding necessary to continue this vital work long into the future. The site had to be credible to peers, welcoming to everyone, and interesting to people who love science.
The website will be the first place people look after picking up a postcard or reading an article in the New York Times. It must make sense not only to the scientific crowd, but also to journalists, donors, and to the community living in West Harlem and the South Bronx curious about the Institute’s public programs. It’s tough to make basic research exciting while it’s in progress. It’s the type of work that requires decades of investment to bear fruit but serves as the foundation of tangible benefits to society. Our question was how to make the work of the Zuckerman Institute accessible.
Most online neuroscience resources are written for expert audiences. Even if the material is clear, it exists on sites the general public does not know about and would have no reason to visit. Siloing science off from the masses will only create bigger problems down the road for science and society. This is not a new challenge for the scientific community — it’s ongoing. Research for research’s sake is important work and is lately under constant threat.
Siloing science off from the masses will only create bigger problems down the road for science and society.
What astrophysics makes possible is space travel, which looks like this:
Making space interesting to the American public was a serious branding effort. NASA persuaded citizens that their hard earned tax dollars were well spent, even though the work that had to be done to get to space wouldn’t translate to immediate results. In fact, their work was so successful that not only did they meet their immediate goals, they spawned a whole generation of scientists. We looked to NASA to figure out what to steal.
Who researches the researchers
We began work on the design of the Zuckerman Institute’s new website as we begin every project — with our own research. In order to accurately represent the work of the scientists we began with interviewing members of the Institute about their work. Pursuing a career in science is daunting. Running your own lab as the principal investigator is tantamount to becoming a star professional athlete. It takes grit and ambition to reach that level. The scientists we met demonstrated an enthusiasm for their work we have witnessed few other places.
The building wasn’t quite finished when we started interviewing the scientists who were preparing to move in. To say they were excited would be an understatement. They were giddy and their giddiness was contagious. They couldn’t wait to play with their new toys with all their friends.
That enthusiasm was matched by the science readers we interviewed later on. From a car salesman who loves space, to a woman who spends her vacations visiting volcanoes, we found that people who love science share an intense curiosity that sometimes borders on obsessive.
Our research revealed that avid science readers seek out primary sources to make sense of science articles in the news. They turned to Wikipedia and other reference sites to understand the context and import of new discoveries. Their science news browsing habits differ from the rest of their media diet. In general, they might read science news less often but they go much deeper. Neuroscientists and high school science teachers alike love science Twitter.
To provide paths for both the scientific audience and science enthusiasts, we structured the work by theme. The amazing thing about the Zuckerman Institute is that their work in neuroscience is extremely comprehensive relative to other Institutes. We wanted to take advantage of that, so the starting points we created, revolved around different areas of scientific inquiry.
This organizing principle provides enough structure to make the information easy to dive into while also being sufficiently flexible to accommodate the scale and growth for the years to come.
Connections make meaning
The Institute was founded to enable collaboration. Creating contextual links reflects real-world connections between scientists with different expertise across subject areas. The website enables and represents collaboration by establishing connections between people, ideas and resources. For every area of inquiry, the site visitor is invited to explore related work:
The articles, events and researcher profiles that populate these modules are linked because they relate to the same scientific questions. The associations are modeled on how people disappear down Wikipedia rabbit holes. We wanted to enable that exploration with a clear and accurate model that could expand over time.
Thanks to our Drupal development partner, Kanopi Studios, the complex backend connections work seamlessly from the perspective of visitors to the site. The complexity of Drupal configurations required for each page type was a huge lift and you’d never know it from looking at the site.
The connections across the work of neuroscience and related fields will expand exponentially in the years to come. This site’s flexible architecture and setup will accommodate that expansion. Connectivity and collaboration is also visible from each scientist’s profile page, where they have the option to list their collaborators.
Letting the scientists shine
For the design of the profile pages, we wanted to position scientists as explorers to establish a human connection and avoid the clinical distance typical of academic websites. This was right out of NASA’s playbook.
The profile pages offer an opportunity to pull in all the areas of work and connections to the wider scientific community. Academic websites are often static and rarely promote connections across organizations. This is a missed opportunity to demonstrate and facilitate active collaboration.
We worked with Columbia Communications to help establish the Zuckerman Institute within the brand and communication strategy of Columbia University as a whole.
Columbia blue frames and highlights the site throughout. We carefully calibrated the type style and weight of the names in the header to represent the relationship of the new institute to the established university.
Type played a critical role in this design system. We aimed to provide a clean, efficient reading experience across devices while accommodating the typical length of a scientific article.
We linked multiple levels of reading experience — from an engaging article about a recent finding, to information about all the scientists involved, to parallel papers in the field. The deeper you go, the more connections reveal themselves.
Launch is just the beginning
In 2017, we know more about deep space than we know about the human mind. We’re still very early on in our understanding of how the brain and nervous system work. This is a truly exciting time and we are proud to be even just a small part of that progress to come.