Reimagining the Course Catalog


At the start of the year, I was made chair of a committee to reimagine the Williams Course Catalog for 2015-2016.  We were tasked with coming up with a “scheme and shape” for how the course catalog can be organized, and how different kinds of information can be visualized.  Instead of providing a list of design ideas, we decided to offer three concrete outputs, all focusing on the 2015-2016 academic year.

Currently, courses are available in the online catalog (and as downloadable PDF files), along with a modest search engine.  The design here is defined and partitioned by departments and programs, which serve in providing administrative structure and accrediting with majors and concentrations.  Under this design, the courses themselves are diminished.

Our goal is simple: elevate the courses through good design.  The three works below serve as (possibly, temporary) experimental works, aimed at helping reimagine the display of courses at Williams.  It is important to note that the current version of the catalog (available online at the Registrar’s Website) will be unchanged in format and style for next year, enabling the ideas below to serve as supplements rather than replacements.


In a simple, 4-page newspaper-spread format (that can quickly be scanned), we showcase every course offered in 2015-2016 based on two inputs:  Title and (a 140-character teaser) Description.  The courses are randomly arranged, with no other information, allowing a global glimpse of the entire academic year. The newspaper was available approximately two weeks before courses was officially listed on the Registrar’s webpage.  This was intentionally done, encouraging students and faculty to pursue the paper to get a glimpse of the future.


Funding for a printed version of the catalog had previously been budgeted for the 2015-2016 academic year.  Printing the catalog (from the full PDF file that’s currently available online) would have yielded a bulky, almost unreadable version.  By printing everything from honors programs to department policies, an opportunity cost is incurred:  The more text we allow the students to see, the less emphasis is placed on courses.  Thus, the current print version:

  •      Shows only courses offered in 2015-2016.
  •      Limits descriptions of courses to 500 characters.
  •      Does not include thesis and independent study courses.
  •      Only includes a short (1500 character) description of each department/program.
  •      Had a hard deadline of March 20, 2015 submission to the Registrar’s office.

The courses at Williams are robust and diverse, many of which do not naturally fit inside classical areas of study.  To segment them as such leads to cross-listing tensions, and repeating of course descriptions in the different departments.

The heart of the new catalog is the set of courses, arranged in alphabetical order (based on title).  A front matter is provided (with some basic contents from the Registrar’s office), and an index is given, based on major/concentration, pointing to the courses by their page numbers. Since the current body of students has never held a printed catalog, offering them a unique (enjoyable, readable) experience that is complemented by the online version seems ideal.

ONLINE Course Explorer

We also offered a distinct online version of the catalog (separate and distinctive from the current online version) which highlights methods of exploring the catalog in simple and intuitive ways.  We called this the “Course Explorer”.  Words in the title and description, along with other metadata tags, will be used to make connections between courses, displaying them in an interactive manner.  The main entryway to this online version will be a search bar, allowing search results across disciplines and divisions to naturally appear.

Moreover, this is integrated to a “calendar” view, allowing students to manage interesting courses in a visual manner based on time conflicts across Fall and Spring semesters.

All of these versions are experiments and ideas fleshed out in working models.  With something tangiable to hold onto, the hope is to use these ideas as starting points to make the Catalog more alive to both students and faculty.