The faces behind Duke’s drones: How the digital and brand strategy team captures the college experience

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Have you ever wondered how Duke’s websites and social media pages always feature exquisite images of campus? These photos are produced by a little-known team that works in a building on Chapel Drive rarely visited by students.

Led by Blyth Morrell, Assistant Vice President for Digital and Branding, the Digital and Branding Strategy team is made up of multimedia producers and designers who capture the events, classroom learning and scenes of student life. on the campus. They are also responsible for institutional web initiatives; digital asset management; and overall brand strategy, design, standards and style guides.

If you’ve ever seen an epic image of Duke from above, you’re probably familiar with the work of Bill Snead, digital asset manager and college drone pilot. He trained as a photographer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and joined Duke as a human resources employee before joining University Communications.

As a teenager, Snead was fascinated by both aviation and photography. As photo drone technology became more widespread, he was able to merge his two passions to produce a new kind of media for Duke. He said he wanted to take pictures of the university with drones so that not all the pictures were from his height of 5 feet 10. He finds that having 20 to 30 feet from the ground allows him, as well as viewers, “to explore campus again. “

Working within the DBS team means flexibility and innovation. Senior media producer Megan Mendenhall, who has worked at Duke for over 15 years, said she doesn’t have a typical workday as she and her team are always working on new projects.

“I like the variety,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of my job is meeting new people from all over the university.”

Another senior media producer, Jared Lazarus, who joined Duke after a career in the newspaper industry, said his team are actively researching events, campus scenes and projects to cover. They also partner with departments and groups within the University who want their initiatives documented.

Lazarus and his teammates also help train students interested in photography, including students from the Instagram team at Duke Students, The Chronicle, Duke Photography Club, and North Carolina Central University.

While most of the DBS team is made up of media producers, Sam Huntley and Caroline Pate are information designers and web developers who design virtual experiences that share what happened at different events. Huntley and Pate are developing pages for unique events, such as the Veterans Day ceremony and presidential awards, as well as longer-term initiatives such as the redesign of the Duke homepage.

The impact of the pandemic on DBS

As with most aspects of the University, COVID-19 has changed the way the DBS team works.

In a way, the pandemic has been a godsend. Photographers and videographers are not allowed to fly imaging drones over people, so when fewer people were present at the start of the pandemic, there were more opportunities to capture images and videos with drones.

Mendenhall said the onset of the pandemic has brought about the need to capture new types of images that University content producers can use, such as students and administrators following temporary school procedures. Obtaining these images, such as those of people wearing masks and being tested for the coronavirus, has required content creators to come several times a week since the virus began.

According to Schoonmaker, the video has become a crucial way for Duke to share his updates on pandemic protocols. The team also created material to educate students and faculty about these protocols, from articles on sanitation stations to the Duke United website where announcements were posted.

With no in-person events to photograph, the team focused on helping people enhance their virtual events and chronicle those events. They also sent images to community members to use as virtual backgrounds on Zoom and other video conferencing services.

The team’s central focus since the onset of the pandemic has been “to find new ways to be innovative within the parameters in which we currently find ourselves,” said Schoonmaker.

Everyone on the team seems to get along well.

“I really appreciate my colleagues,” Mendenhall said. “We really work as a team. If any of us are shining, it’s because we’ve all been working in the background to make it happen.

Or, as Snead said, “We all seem to be able to read other people’s minds. ”

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