The first thing you notice about the previous FAO Schwartz site is the color. Bright, vibrant color. Colors that fit well with your average toy store. But this isn’t your average toy store. This is FAO Schwartz, one of the world’s oldest and most recognizable toy stores. FAO wanted to take their unmistakable charm and massive market share to the web, looking to duplicate their brick and mortar success online.
The Previous Site
Their first web site was exactly what you would expect from FAO Schwartz. It had the visual appeal of a traditional toy store, with the inventory that FAO has become famous for. They used bold, bright colors, and an eclectic mix of toy imagery and branding efforts interspersed throughout. They chose a traditional navigation left/content right design layout, a tested and familiar design direction, to separate navigation from content. Although the layout gave them a consistent and familiar visual direction, it left them with little flexibility to do anything else visually.
Although the site was moderately successful, both in marketing as well as sales, FAO decided it needed to tweak the site to make it more accurately reflect their reputation. After a pre-holiday launch in 2000 fell well short of expectations, FAO approached Macromedia for advice about a redesign. Macromedia pointed them to web solutions experts Mindseye Inc.
When FAO approached Mindseye, they had specific changes in mind, but after their talk, the FAO staff left with a fresh perspective and a new direction.
“FAO recognized that the current site did not meet their goals, and that it needed to be rethought from the ground up,” remembers Creative Director Marc Sill.
“Coinciding with the Web initiative was FAO’s new luxury lifestyle branding initiative, which was launched to bring greater appeal to their target audience. They wanted their online presence to have the same brand appeal and richness as their brick and mortar establishments. When we began discussions with FAO, their initial specifications were to create a splash page and redesign the home page to reflect the luxury lifestyle look and feel. Beyond that, FAO was only anticipating a few design and usability changes in their checkout,”.
Sill continues, “FAO referred us to popular sites like Polo, Bulgari, and Tiffany & Co. as examples of the look and feel they were after. After listening to their needs, researching their customer profile, and reviewing their brand, we realized the limited scope of the redesign would fail to meet the objectives FAO wanted to achieve.”
“We proposed starting from the ground up. The old site had a very “childlike” quality, but children are not really the primary purchasers of toys on-line. FAO’s site really needed to speak the same language as the intended consumer audience – the adult -- and accommodate his or her expectations. Color usage, images, placement, animation and technologies were discussed for several weeks, looking for the right combination for the best user experience.”
“Our primary goal was to make the site sophisticated, efficient, fun, and, most importantly, easy to use. We wanted to create a site that was there for the shopper, as a concierge is always there for a hotel’s guests,” says Sill.
Mindseye saw two significant hurdles that often present themselves during the process of a redesign – How much of the previous site design can, or should be salvaged, and how much of the content is still viable within the context of a new design direction. “When designing a site from scratch,” states Sill, “there is no ‘site history’, and clients are generally more willing to experiment with design. With a site redesign, the client is often reluctant to let go of the old look. The client’s identity may be tied to an existing site, or people on the client’s team may have had a hand in the existing design and are reluctant to part with their creation. In FAO’s case, the company’s re-branding effort necessitated a new web interface instead of trying to unite two drastically different styles.”
“The organizational process for a site redesign is also somewhat different. Clients often want to incorporate some of the existing elements into the new design; however, clients are traditionally too close to the site to be able to objectively assess it. We feel it’s important to lead the client through a walk-through of their current site to help them identify the site’s strengths and weaknesses,” explains Sill.
Answering the questions of reusability, Mindseye determined that most of the content of the site could be used, but would need to be altered to accommodate the new design direction.
They viewed the redesign in 3 distinct projects, interface design, content, and management. “While we reused most of the content (product descriptions and images) from the previous site,” Sill accounts, “most of the content had to be altered or modified. From a visual design perspective, the site was completely redesigned. The previous site used the design semantics of a child’s toy box or playroom, using pastel colors, cartoon figures and a comic typeface. Our redesign was based on the concept of the sophisticated ‘luxury’ lifestyle approach that FAO was seeking with their re-branding effort. The new site is now the apt online ambassador to the company’s Fifth Avenue headquarters, using clean lines, bold colors, urbane imagery and a sleek type treatment. We also completely redesigned the site’s content management system, which is an essential component because it allows the online team to keep the content up-to-date and fresh.”
Traditionally, clients tend to be more involved in the development of a redesigned site versus a site designed from scratch. They have a more astute sense of awareness, both in their own personal online preferences as well as the overall design process. They’ve now been through the process before, they have learned the lingo, they have a deepened understanding of the time involved, and they now have an opinion of what has worked and not worked for them in the past. This involvement will almost always produce a better product and a happier client. They’ve learned what to expect, so they are less surprised at the end of the project. This was certainly the case with the FAO site. “FAO played an active role in the design process to ensure the design conveyed the company’s desired look and feel,” recalled Sill. “They have a great team of designers that take care of the design needs from a store and print perspective."
“FAO’s team showed us several web sites that they felt successfully promoted the lifestyle and image they wanted to project. They also presented some initial ‘directional’ sketches. We analyzed and presented web sites that were comparable to FAO’s target audience. We then spent a good deal of time flushing out the semantics of color and image, and focusing on emotional branding issues to create just the right personality.”
Sill elaborates: “Our goal from both a design and development perspective was client empowerment. Our philosophy is to design sites that we can ‘walk away from’. What most clients truly want and need is the ability to be self-sufficient and maintain their web presence. FAO is a business that changes everyday. They should be able to make the changes to the images and the text with the same ease of use anyone expects from their favorite application. To address this goal, we designed and built templates and style sheet documents that help FAO keep their site running, looking fresh, and remain visually consistent with the design direction.”,
The New Site
The new FAO site certainly has the “luxury” appeal. The new company mantra is “The Ultimate Toy Store”, and they needed a site that reflected that confidence. The overall design is considerably cleaner and more purposeful, with particular areas of the design that carry visual precedence. In lieu of the previous navigation bar, the new site uses a horizontal navigation area along the top. This provides more visual space for content, and allows the designers to include thoughtful, well-implemented drop down menus for subnavigation. The Flash “Product Parade” replaces the image thumbnails that dominated the homepage of the previous site, both freeing up area for branding and content purposes and allowing the client to easily change those images on a regular basis.
This feature is the stand out feature to the Mindseye team. “We love the ‘Product Parade’ area,” Sill proudly admits. “It’s instantly understandable from a visual standpoint and works very well for the FAO web maintenance team. They have the ability to push certain products to a user based off of his or her personal preferences. This is great for the collector who visits the site often.”
What is most important to the team at Mindseye is that the site has enabled the client to do more than they could before. By redesigning both the visual as well as functional parts of the site. Mindseye has created a useful and practical space for FAO to do better business. “The site is now a clean, well organized, and easy to navigate site that is both stylish and serviceable,” Sill says. “The advantage to this new design is extendibility and speed. The client has the ability to add to the site in a seamless and consistent manner, which allows them to maintain a competitive edge. The consumer advantage is ease of use, which ultimately translates into trust. And, as many e-commerce usability studies are now proving, trust is a major component when enticing consumers to purchase online.”
“Overall, we’re most proud of how well we integrated FAO’s new branding effort in the redesign. The redesigned site is clean, sophisticated, well structured, and easy to use. It’s a unique space and experience, like their stores, and that was the primary goal when we started,” Explains Sill.
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