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SharePoint 2010 and Branding

MOSS 2007 framework came with enough built in capabilities that could be exploited to make a SharePoint site look and feel unlike the typical out-of-the-box SharePoint site. Unfortunately, too often, developers either lacked the training or exposure to simple techniques that could be used to ‘brand’ their sites or there was not enough business justification to spend time working on that.

With upcoming SharePoint 2010 and related suite of products, the focus is going to expand from intranet and collaboration oriented internal sites to developing external facing web artifacts.  This was clearly highlighted by Steve Ballmer himself during the launch of SharePoint 2010 earlier last month. This will require higher level of attention being paid to branding aspects of SharePoint.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to share my insights into how SharePoint 2010 facilitates easier branding and building custom themes or skins. Idea is to understand how users can still tap into every built-in capability of this powerful platform without compromising on the design and branding aspects. Branding imperatives like establishing corporate identity and ownership, reinforcing the enterprise standards and creating a sense of place/connection with intangible brand values are key in making external facing artifacts successful and we will see how the new platform supports that

For this post, I want to share couple of thoughts about an ideal ‘end state’ I would like to see products like SharePoint reach when it comes to supporting branding work.

Reduce the burden on Visual Designer

Branding is a highly evolved and specialized area and visual aspects are just one part of that. It takes a while for a good visual designer to fully internalize the interplay between the tangible, visual aspects of branding and how design can be used towards communicating what the brand stands for.  Even the visual aspects are multi-faceted and logo (which tends to be equated with branding)  is just one - though important - part of branding work.  The role of visual designer critical in any branding effort. This is true of web sites, stands alone or developed using platform technologies like SharePoint.

With so much riding on visual designer already, I think the complexities of understanding what SharePoint permits and where it falls short (there are several things about master pages, layouts and dynamic nature of web part placements that I can think of in this category) place an undue burden on the visual designer.  Good designers are very mindful of constraints.  Rather, they distinguish themselves by their ability to internalize complex overlays of conflicting ‘constraints’. But if these constraints are relaxed it will give the designers more freedom and space to design the best solution for the problem at hand.

Allow developers to leverage commercially available Visual Design artifacts

Most SharePoint sites are built by development teams that do not have any one with formal visual or interaction design training. This is likely to continue in future as well as because SharePoint will still be looked as a ‘technology’ platform. In this situation, it is important that platforms like SharePoint come with built in templates, tools or other enablement capabilities that allow a developer to deliver a far better looking interface artifact than their native skill for doing so. Microsoft has been doing a good job on this front across their Office products since Office 2007 and my early dabbling with SharePoint 2010 shows that they have delivered some positive news on this front. One area that I am curious about and am personally investigating is how development community can tap into the ‘commoditized’ visual design artifacts available on the web – like icons designs, visual design templates and themes -  to quickly build high impact solutions .


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