Website Design for the Department of Labor Job Corps program.
Job Corps is the the largest residential educational training and job training program for young adults in the United States. It benefits 60k students a year by providing them education (including GED and ESL programs), stipends, and job training.
The Initial Design
The original Job Corps website had not been updated… in a long time. It was running on a proprietary and outdated CMS. Our job was to give it a refresh, while also migrating all of its information over to the Drupal 8 CMS.
I was brought on after the first round of redesigns had been proposed and passed over. Below is an example of the initial redesigns that had been proposed by my predecessors.
The initial redesigns were fairly clean but lacking, especially when considering the 16-24 year old targeted demographic.
There were a number of challenges to this project. The first most fundamental one was how to present a government jobs training program to disaffected youth in a way that was engaging. Job Corps had seen a radical drop in applications in the years leading up to this redesign. Job Corps offers a lot for disadvantaged young adults looking to better their lives, but it can’t do them any good if they never hear about it, or it’s not presented in a way that’s exciting and highlights the boosts it gives them.
The difficulty of this challenge was increased by structural issues that were beyond our control as designers and developers. The main one being that we were not allowed to do any user research in our initial design phase. Surveys of the target demographic, A/B testing, usability testing, diary/camera studies, or even former/potential user interviews were not allowed. So we were tasked to design a meaningful experience without necessarily knowing to whom we were even talking.
We all contributed to the solutions but since this is my case study, I’m going to focus on my contributions and how it affected the final product.
First, we had to deal with the lack of user testing. We were not allowed to contact any former alumni of the program. We did get to talk a little bit with a guy who shared our office space who worked for the DoL now and had gone through the program, but information was thin on the ground. Thankfully, we live in the information and smartphone age, and it turns out there are a whole lot of young former, current, and prospective students putting up their opinions and thoughts about Job Corps on Youtube.
Honestly, the kids’ videos surprised me with their sophistication and media savvy. Some of these kids should have been taking over the Job Corps’ ghost-town social media presence. Their content was unfiltered, raw, and gave some amazing insight into the program and what life was actually like for them – no marketing or jargon to get into the way. They drove home what they cared about, what they saw they could get out of the program, and what their aesthetic and personality might be like.
Now that we knew who we were talking to, we needed to draft a message:
The solution I felt was two-fold.
- Appeal to the pragmatic concrete advantages of job skills training that empowers the participants in the program, and made their work seem valuable and worthy of respect.
- Present the existing website information in an easy to follow way, that was structured such that it reinforced the overall message and values of Job Corps through it’s presentation, rather than being incidental to it.
The final product of my design pitch for the website is shown below, and then I’ll go over how I arrived at this solution, and how it informed the final execution of the website.
I started my design process by putting together a moodboard of diverse influences that I felt would help communicate the values and goals of the Job Corps program well. The biggest thing lacking from the original website and presentation was a positive presentation of blue collar jobs, and an emphasis on the dignity of hard-work and labor.
College is lauded in our society, and while welding on an oil rig can pay pretty well, it’s not something that people really give a lot of credence to. It reminded me of a TED talk by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe, in which he talks about the lowered opinion of blue-collar work in America. If you want kids to buy into a jobs training program you have to present their work as important and valuable.
I looked to influences from the WPA and FSA photographers during the Great Depression with their clean simple and American graphic design supported by photography which depicted pride in the roughness of real life.
Inspirational quotes from leaders who laid the foundation for these programs.
The typography used in fitness motivational Instagram pages that are also very popular with our demographic.
The websites of blue-collar friendly companies like tool manufacturers and craft breweries.
And in the vein of craft breweries, I looked for depictions of young people engaged in their work in a “craftsman-like” fashion, particularly emphasizing a diverse and “alt” representation that would appeal to young people. Men and women, people of color, tattoos, bearded guys with dirt on their face etc. The emphasis here was on the ownership of the job as craft that the young person could take.
Job Corps isn’t just offering a training program. It’s offering a new identity. The opportunity to reinvent yourself, make something new.
This visual design is not superfluous aesthetic to the purpose of Job Corps. Rather it is the medium through which the message is transmitted.
This brings us to the second goal. Visual design can transmit the values and promise of Job Corps, but the information still needs to be organized in a rational and accessible way. This is where visual design meets systems/information design.
I found a website made for the Air Force that I felt did a good job of presenting its values and goals through it’s visual design, and decided to draw from it’s method of breaking up information into different aspects of life in the Air Force.
We had a lot of existing information that needed to be transferred to the new website from the old, but by breaking this information into 4 topics, similar to the Air Force website, I hoped to make it accessible and not overwhelming in its presentation.
Find Your Purpose: The brass tacks of what should appeal to the user about their identity with the program. The military does a great job of instilling a sense of purpose in its recruits. It creates a narrative of their purpose and meaning in the world. Job Corps needs to convey that information to its possible recruits if it wants to be successful too.
Master A Trade: This was primarily focused on the education and job training aspects of the program, taking that sense of purpose and identity and then wedding it to a clear concrete game plan to improve one’s life. The focus here was on the diverse possibilities and exciting things one could learn and also a pragmatic appeal to one’s desire to make more money. Kids want to make a living wage. If they’re apathetic about job training, a lot of that is because they haven’t had the monetary differences emphasized to them enough. So that’s where we would have salary comparisons etc.
Live your Life: Getting even more pragmatic, this section would focus on lifestyle on campus. The amenities, free food, all the perks experienced while at the program. This would also help disseminate a lot of practical day to day information that a possible recruit visiting the website would be most interested in learning.
Start your Journey: This was where the application information and process would be started. The application website for Job Corps was sadly not under our contract, but we could stock them with the information they needed to apply, deadlines, addresses, etc, and then send them off to the application website feeling confident in their desire to apply.
I think it’s also worth noting that while I was hired as a Senior Web Designer for this job, I was also involved in the technical implementation of the design on the front-end. I very specifically focused on the animation for the website, prototyping the first version of the menu in code so that I would have full control over the motion graphics design of the interface. Learning code has empowered me as a designer to create dynamism and movement. I’m not tied to static mockups or required to laboriously fake animation in After Effects. Instead, I can build the animations myself, which then provide a more robust starting place for front end engineers who translate the design into clean optimized performant code.
A website of this size is built by many people, so obviously my initial design pitch did not make it to our production side of things, but I think if you look below at our final designs, you’ll see the influence of my ideas and how they informed the choices we ended up making as a team.