Aspen Ideas Festival
A platform for big ideas
Once a year, leaders from every corner of political and cultural life gather in Aspen for conversations that span and shape the public interest. The ideas shared over the course of these few days highlight a path forward in politics and the sciences, business and the arts.
Though the event is open to the public, not everyone is able to participate in person. A new web platform offered the potential to expand the Festival’s audience and its impact. Responding to this opportunity, we examined each of the content components that make up the in-person Aspen Ideas Festival – and then assembled them into a user experience that matches the habits of browsing, binging and exploration specific to digital audiences. Our goal was to transform a once-a-year physical event into a dynamic, evergreen editorial and media experience – an effort that required precise alignment between product strategy, content strategy, modular visual and user experience design, and a custom CMS capable of powerful powering it all.
The Aspen Ideas Festival site is made with Twill, our open source CMS for Laravel.
Speakers at Aspen share their ideas at talks and panels called ‘Sessions.’ Befitting the Festival’s emergent style of conversation, these sessions are often loosely formatted and wide-ranging – and thus not always in line with the ‘TL;DR’ brevity web audiences expect. As such, a primary challenge was to rethink what ‘sessions’ could mean in a digital context.
Through a modular design system and Twill-powered block editor, we provided Aspen with the tools to recreate the narrative of a session as seen through individual ‘ideas.’ Admins can highlight sections of a video, key quotes, takeaways, and exchanges between videos – arranging these pieces into a narrative outline of each session. Individual components can also be pulled out and used as enticing entry points in feature areas across the site.
Framing our narrative sessions is a rich media experience that offers users the ability to browse content at any depth they choose. Video and audio players follow the visitor around as they scroll so they can listen and watch content while they skim. ‘Jump to’ actions and a list of ‘Featured highlights’ allow you to click right to particular Key Moments within a session. Meanwhile, a full-screen media experience is almost always a click or two away for full immersion.
On the ground in Aspen, serendipity is key. Over the course of attending talks on wildly divergent themes, festivalgoers discover surprising intersections and compelling new concepts. To ensure this feeling of serendipity carried over online, we employed several key tactics. A new content type called ‘Collections’ allows the admin team to explicate hidden connections by curating related ideas from across sessions into a single narrative. Elsewhere, thoughtful recirculation and a comprehensive tagging taxonomy direct users from individual pages to wide-ranging hubs of varied content – Sessions, Collections, Blogs, and Podcasts all grouped by topic and subtopic.
Aspen might be better known for its ski slopes, but there’s nothing quite like being there in summer, nestled beneath the mountains and 70-degree blue skies. This screensaver-like scenery is key not only to the Festival’s appeal but also to its easygoing mode of conversation. To help capture this feeling, we employed thoughtful use of whitespace and a few tactically-placed ‘Wow’ moments that give users a visceral glimpse into the splendor of the on-the-ground Festival experience.
To bring our content strategy to life, Aspen’s admins needed to be able to author modular narratives and then reuse these modules elsewhere, on related pages and in featured areas. Thankfully, Twill, our open-source CMS, was up to the task. Aspen’s custom Twill implementation pulls Festival data live from multiple third-party APIs. Twill then allows this to be composed into a range of modules and saved into a ‘Content bank’ for reuse in different contexts later on.