Last weekend, the blog underwent a serious overhaul, with a new look, new design, updated content, and a sign-up for a newsletter if you want even more from Research Degree Insiders!
I did not do all of this work on my own. Instead, I’m really lucky to have worked with Dr Bronwyn Eager of Ivy Tower who did all the design and technical work.
I’d been putting off refreshing the blog because I’d been dreading the work, so it was such a relief to be able to work with someone else. Also, Bronwyn was fun to work with, and you know how much I like a collaboration!
This post tells you about Ivy Tower, about Bronwyn, and about our design process. As always, it’s about the insider tips! It’s formatted as an interview, and it’s been edited to be readable!
About the designer
Bronwyn, tell us about your academic insider knowledge.
I completed a Masters of Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and went on to do a PhD in entrepreneurship. I then landed a full-time academic role as a Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Swinburne University and have since moved to University of Tasmania teaching entrepreneurship and small business management.
So you don’t just build websites for academics, you are one! Where does the creativity and design aspect fit in?
I’ve always had a passion for design. After high school/Year 12, I was accepted into graphic design and also engineering. I chose engineering because I thought it was a ‘safe option’. But a few years into it, I realised I’d made a mistake and that creative work was what I truly loved doing.
Subsequently, much to my parents’ horror, I dropped out of engineering and started a creative business designing jewellery and running resin jewellery making workshops. The workshops ran in major cities around Australia and my design work was sold through retail outlets including The National Gallery of Victoria.
After years building the business up, I sold it as I moved back into academia. But I still love design. Recently I started reconnecting with photography, which later turned into a tongue-in-cheek website selling leggings with photos of discarded trash and graffiti in Tasmania printed on them https://toxicdaisy.com/.
What prompted you to move into designing websites?
Even though Tasmania was relatively sheltered from COVID, by the end of 2020 I was feeling burnt out and increasingly concerned about the fate of the higher education sector (‘Would I have a job in the near future?’, ‘Is this what I wanted to do for the rest of my life?’). When you start Googling ‘What’s the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack’ you know that something in your life needs to change.
My PhD was about burnout, stress, and coping, so I knew I needed an intervention or that I’d end up in a pretty bad place. Taking the photos and building the website has brought me joy and has helped to improve my mood which has positive flow-on effects for how I’m engaging with my academic role. I decided that one solution was to bring creativity and design back into my life.
I also began to seriously learn how to build websites on WordPress. I took a month of annual leave and spent every day learning the technical ropes and building out a portfolio. I loved every minute of it. I think one of the reasons I love it so much is that it combines design, problem solving, and entrepreneurship – some of my favourite things.
That sounds like fun! What made you think websites was something you wanted to turn into a business?
Because I can’t help myself (I’ve got the entrepreneurship bug) I started wondering if my little side project could benefit others. I sat down at my kitchen table with a big sheet of paper and post-it notes and started mapping out how I could use these skills to start a side business.
I used a tool called the Business Model Canvas (BMC) to help frame my thinking – it’s a tool I teach in my entrepreneurship and small business classes. With the BMC, you always start with a customer segment (i.e. who you want to help) and examine their pain points to see how you can help them achieve their goals.
I now have a passion project on the side which fills my evenings and weekends which brings me joy and helps me feel more connected to academia (i.e. reduced feelings of burnout) I also draw on my talented friends (videographers, photographers, graphic designers, copywriters) to assemble teams to help deliver tailored projects for academics.
Tell me about why you chose to focus on academics, we’re a pretty niche market!
‘Academics’ was the logical customer segment for me. I spoke the language, loved the community, and realised that while academics are brilliant at their research they are not always best placed (due to lacking skills and/or time) to design their own websites – I could help.
Additionally, academics are increasingly being asked to demonstrate impact and share their research with the world. Websites are a fantastic answer because they are highly accessible (unlike Journals) – all the data you need to evidence your impact is available (page views, geographic location etc.) I could help with this too!
Why call your business ‘Ivy Tower’?
After I felt confident that I could design websites and knew who I wanted to design them for, I posted a tweet about offering web design services to academics… and landed my first client! Since then, I’ve built several sites for academics, which have all happened through word of mouth.
I named the business Ivy Tower because a) ‘Ivory Tower’ (i.e. academia) and the need to make the information that comes out of universities more accessible, and b) my home is surrounded by ivy vines.
Moving on to the design process
How much does a website cost?
This is the most common question I get asked. My response is always ‘it depends’.
I try to start by encouraging a conversation to get an idea of what someone is trying to achieve through their site and the required level of complexity.
I imagine a multi-page legacy blog like Research Degree Insiders is more messy than a nice project website! What’s the next step for you?
After the initial conversation, and an agreement to proceed, I’ll create a mock-up of the design and work with the client to get this right before building out the actual website – it’s much easier to make changes at this stage compared to later.
This was part of the process I really appreciated. Bronwyn send me three different possible directions for the blog to go in: one very bright and vibrant, one quite formal, and the one we chose which was about cool calm colours. I am not particularly good at design myself, but I know what I like when I see it!
I also used my experience building eLearning platforms and university websites to explain things that mattered to me like an easy user experience, clear navigation, and accessibility.
Bronwyn was really easy to work with. She really got what my blog was trying to achieve and suggested sensitive design ideas. She also responded really quickly and creatively to any input or suggestions I made.
Once the design has been signed off, I then build the website in WordPress. To build websites, I use a builder called Elementor Pro which integrates with WordPress. The design process starts on pencil and paper and then created in Adobe XD, Illustrator and Photoshop.
I try to keep the website design simple and clear. Animations and heavy video content can look cool but isn’t the best from an accessibility perspective.
I definitely appreciated the simple clear approach. I feel like it’s something I can work with, when it’s my turn to keep the blog on the road.
If you’d like to talk to Bronwyn about getting a beautiful website of your own, you can find her at: