Noah Shrader

A Ten Second Story

February 8, 2019

While rummaging through books, I found a program from a past American Advertising Federation invitational. A website I designed for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (where I previously worked) was nominated and eventually won an ADDY. Immediately, reflections of those long project meetings and creative conversations began flooding my mind, inspiring me to want to share some of the learnings from that unique experience.

As designers of digital spaces, we know we have only a brief period to capture attention. In that time, there needs to be a narrative to demonstrate that we understand and can empathize with our visitors, which in turn establishes connection and eventually a relationship.

Being narrative-focused in our approach, we were able to build an engaging e-commerce website around selling dedication bricks, plaques and rooms.

For quick context, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is one of the largest pediatric cancer research centers in the world. Not only do they treat cancer and other catastrophic diseases, but they also lead the research into finding the cures. The organization is funded largely by donations which can be done through a variety of means — one of those being through naming opportunities whereby someone donates to have their name inscribed on a brick that becomes part of a campus walkway, or a plaque that gets placed on one of the hospital walls. They can even dedicate entire rooms and spaces.

The goal of the project was to redesign an already established, albeit outdated experience. Considering its revenue impact on the hospital, I had my work cut out for me, but I had a talented team to help drive it to success. I remember when I first started the project, I thought to myself, “How do you make bricks and plaques interesting for people?” Then came a deeper curiosity: “Other than the desire to make an impact through a greater cause, what were other motivating factors influencing people to invest so much financially into these entities?” With those questions (and others) in mind, I set out to research.

Long story short, I discovered that people ultimately craved connection. With donations, people obviously want to make a difference and many want to be remembered in the process, which is largely the case with dedications. But in diving deeper, I found that these physical objects were essentially representations of the people themselves. They were a manifestation of their presence on campus — being in proximity to the patients, their families and the doctors. It was a fascinating realization that led to a simple idea that became the centerpiece of this project.

At that time, one of the most widespread digital trends was website video backgrounds (short, soundless video clips playing behind content on a webpage). When done purposefully, they’re incredibly effective. Video continues to be one of the top drivers of traffic and engagement, and is also one of the most powerful mediums for storytelling. I decided to leverage this trend to put the experience into the perspective of the donor.

As a donor looking to connect themselves physically to the hospital/mission, how would it feel to watch an actual St. Jude patient (your reason for the connection) touch your name on a brick, or on a plaque? What might the impact be of watching a mother lovingly hold her patient child in a hospital room that you dedicated? Could we could bring all of this to life in a quick, ten second video loop?

Of course, the prospective donors’ names weren’t used in the video, but by keeping the brick and plaque names visually out of focus as much as possible, it made it easier for people to envision their own names being there.

So, the video team and I set out to film three specific scenes — each covering one of the three product offerings. The first scene shows a St. Jude patient walking down a brick walkway. The patient comes to a stop, bends down, points to and touches a name inscribed on a brick (3 seconds). The next scene reveals another St. Jude patient, this time walking down one of the hospital hallways, carefully eyeing and grazing the names written on the plaques as she makes her way down the wall (3 seconds). The last focuses in on a plaque at the entrance of a hospital room, then slowly shifts focus to inside the room where a mother holds her patient child (3 seconds).

The entire effort was a deeply emotional and perceptive undertaking. The final compilation was eventually placed on the homepage as an immersive video background, and the very first thing you experienced when visiting the website. It was a big success. Within a brief and compelling ten second story, you not only see the end product in context, but far more importantly you get an immediate visual of the why. Your contribution goes far beyond being just another name on a path or on a wall; it becomes your lasting connection to a cause that helps children fight for their lives every single day.

While this was only one detail of many when it came to this project, it was by far the most impactful. Some of the key takeaways:

If you’ve never had the opportunity to tour St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I highly recommend that you do. To be able to summarize my perspective and appreciation of the mission, particularly having worked there for three years would take countless hours. Day to day, hearing first-hand from the doctors about new discoveries and all the intricacies involved in the research, as well as listening to patient stories, both the good and the sad told from the perspectives of the parent and the child was often more than I could fathom. Truly a life-changing experience.

I invite you to learn more about St. Jude’s unique impact in this space, in the world and in the life of each child struggling to win their fight.

A page from the AAF program. Our project received Best of Web and Gold in Interface and Navigation.