Virtual hub: Yale Schwarzman Center celebrates ‘digital’ opening
Yale Schwarzman Center (YSC) is redefining “soft opening” in a time of physical distance. With the grand opening of Yale’s first-ever center for student life and the arts delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the YSC has spent the past several months redeveloping its website as a digital platform for programs and collaborative arts experiences geared toward audiences within and beyond the New Haven campus.
On Oct. 13 YSC announced the launch of the new website prototype.
The prototype is the foundation of a multi-tiered platform that will eventually be integrated with the center’s in-person programs, said Garth Ross, executive director of Yale Schwarzman Center. This formative step activates a virtual hub for students, faculty, visiting artists, speakers, and the wider community to begin sharing artistic and cultural experiences independent of physical spaces.
“Today’s launch of the YSC website prototype expands what it means to be a community-engaged center,” Ross said. “The new website positions technology as a high-priority conduit for human connection so we can build community as we explore the intersection of digital and live experience online, and eventually on-site.”
To encourage user engagement and provide a taste of both the experiential and collaborative aspects of YSC, the new website offers a peek into several digital programs currently in production, as well as a call for student artists to upload their original works for a forthcoming exhibition. The latter, which offers students an opportunity to reflect on life in pandemic, is hosted on the content-sharing tier of the website, Storyboard. A first-of-its kind offering at Yale, Storyboard is described on the website as “a virtual workshop for sharing ideas and making stories together.”
“During this prototype phase, the YSC will be inviting makers from across campus to share original works on various themes, or prompts, beginning with ‘off the grid: projects for the moment’ — a call for students to share thought-provoking music, film, photography, poetry, dance, and other genres of multimedia inspired by this complex moment in history,” said Jennifer Harrison Newman, associate artistic director at YSC.
Ross added, “We’d like Storyboard to evolve as a space where contributors can engage in interdisciplinary collaborations on the YSC website. Early user engagement will help us get there.”
“Interdisciplinary” is a word often used to describe YSC programming, and it’s not just a buzzword, noted Ross: It’s at the heart of YSC culture dating back to the center’s inception in 2014, when three student governments at Yale appealed to President Peter Salovey for “a campus-wide center that bridges the boundaries between undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.” The message resonated with Stephen A. Schwarzman ’69 B.A., Blackstone co-founder and CEO, who in 2015 pledged $150 million toward the creation of the YSC and the development of dining, arts, and meeting spaces in the domed building at the corner of Prospect and Grove streets — home of the iconic 2,000-plus occupancy Commons dining hall.
The YSC aims to leverage dining, conversation, and the arts as part of students’ educational experience, convening people across schools, disciplines, and communities beyond Yale for moments of discovery and connection. The YSC’s origin story and mission have been distilled into a set of core values — collaboration, wellness, and belonging — carefully woven into the website’s design.
For example, the opening homepage image invites visitors to “Break bread. Break boundaries,” kindling fond memories of lunchtimes at Commons, whetting appetites for new and refurbished dining spaces, and piquing interest in programs meant to engage people across differences. The words “Experience,” “Meet,” “Collaborate,” and “Eat” decorate subsequent images and organize the website’s main menu in a way that highlights the YSC’s layered mission.
Ross said that the decision to roll out a prototype — a website still under development — was intentional from the earliest phase of project planning. “Our approach to web development mirrors the collaboration and community engagement that underpins our approach to programming overall,” he explained. “Over the next several months, we’ll be soliciting user feedback and using it to inform both short-term improvements and longer-term web development beyond the YSC’s physical opening.”
The distinctive color-block theme for the new YSC website was conceived by New York graphic design consultancy Fay Design and is based on a visual design system created for the YSC by Pentagram. The inner workings of the Drupal 8 website and ongoing web development are the work of Four Kitchens with support and guidance from Yale Information Technology and the YSC management team.