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Photo of former United Nations Ambassador and former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice in conversation with Ford School Dean Michael S. Barr

Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

Increasing impact for the public good

Furthering community for multiple audiences

Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

The Ford School inspires and prepares diverse leaders grounded in service, conducts transformational research, and collaborates on evidence-based policymaking to take on our communities’ and our world’s most pressing challenges.

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The Ford School at the University of Michigan engaged Palantir to make their site more welcoming to prospective students. This primary aim leveraged the strong visual brand identity of the University and improved the user experience, internal and external, through the upgrade of the content management system from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8.


Design and migrate content concurrently to meet a tight timeline.


Fully redesigned site that the client can scale and maintain.

The Situation

Academic websites are rich content resources celebrating student engagement, faculty research, even news and events for the general public. The Ford School, with an international reputation has deep and rich content on its site to celebrate and needed a website to match its stature.

“We wanted to have a site that represented the mission and vision of our school as a community dedicated to the public good,” said Ford School dean Michael S. Barr. “It was important, too, that our site convey the energy, innovation, collaboration, and impact that are hallmarks of our school. The new site beautifully captures who we are and how we go about our work.” 

The Ford School, ranked #1 in social policy and #2 in policy analysis, according to the U.S. News and World Report, confers bachelors, masters and PhDs in a supportive and vibrant community that applies rigorous study to some of the world’s most pressing issues. 

It’s worth noting that the project kicked off mid-March 2020 on the first day the Ford School team began working fully from home due to the pandemic. While we are delighted with the outcome of the site, we are especially pleased that the team didn’t miss a beat during a time of disruptive change.

We made a few adjustments because we were not able to meet in-person so that, as it often does, our effort could begin with research to understand the unexpressed needs of users. Surveying a range of user types, we suggested main navigation updates that position the site’s content to prospective students interested in public policy. One suggestion that was implemented was changing “Academics” to “Programs & Courses.” After surveys and top task testing, users let us know that “Academics” was not their first choice when seeking information on the types of degrees and course work offered. 


Image of two wireframe concepts
Image of two wireframe concepts
Initial Ideas


“Using data helped us drive the process forward confidently,” said Laura K. Lee, communications director.

As the discovery continued, we began a two-pronged approach to the design and development of the site in order to meet a tight schedule. Simply, we designed as we migrated existing site content to the new Drupal 8 environment. The client worked tirelessly to refine and develop their content and did so in the web environment, on test servers, making a launch date at least a month earlier than normally possible. We migrated 10,000 pages, nearly 8,000 terms, and 20,000 records. Keeping this all together was a team lead and product owner who tracked progress against goals and helped the client prioritize work, making the most of their budget with an eye on the launch date.

Migrating content so early in the process was a new way of working for both Ford School and Palantir. Critical to that success was the iterative development of components and prototypes that showed how pages might be assembled and what they would look like once the front-end development work was completed. It didn’t hurt that we had formed a collaborative working relationship characterized by an entrepreneurial and experimental spirit.

“We can’t say enough good things about Palantir’s work on our project,” said Chris Myers, Ford School assistant director for digital strategy. “They’re among the world’s leading Drupal developers, and their project management, design, and strategy services were all first-rate. Plus, they’re completely comfortable working remotely: it didn’t faze them at all to be working under a tight deadline in the midst of a pandemic. They truly were the perfect partner for this project.”


"After" image of the new Ford School homepage After


While our design efforts focused on key pages, we also thought in terms of designing and building components that are reusable on a range of page types. This empowers the site’s content editors and creators to compose pages to best fit their editorial needs. Lest that the site become a mish-mash of pages, we created prototypes and coached the client through how to best assemble their site to make a navigable user experience and still be flexible enough for special content needs. One benefit of components is that the site can be updated easily and quickly. For example, configuring a page to talk about COVID-19 or to address how the student experience was going to be different in the fall. 

We are delighted with the outcome and perhaps most delighted by the client’s success with composing their pages.

“The work you did helped revolutionize the overall look of our brand,” Nick Pfost, Communications & Marketing Specialist

Image of home page with style guide elemnts

A Sustainable Site

An imperative in our work was to collaborate with the client’s expert technical lead to ensure the site could be adapted and maintained following our departure. We tailored decisions and processes accordingly knowing their maintenance capacity from both a technical and content point of view. For example, calls to action in dropdown menus were made so that changes to them were less prone to human error that would break the code.

We improved how they handle media and videos. On the previous site, content editors had to reload an image every time they created a page. For example, they no longer have to upload frequently used images, such as the dean’s portrait, every time they use it. And, Drupal allows content administrators to resize in-browser the high resolution images in their library— no need to go to Photoshop to resize an image. For videos we were able to adapt their current Kaltura hosting service so that they wouldn’t have to change hosting vendors. 

To help affiliate departments’ sites be part of the Ford School brand, we developed a way for alternate branding and layouts to be easily applied to subpages. We created a theme override that allows branding of certain affiliated pages so that they feel like the Ford School and create a seamless user experience without having to create a new theme or design strategy. 

The site launched at the end of August 2020. 


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