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I'm working on an upcoming large project for a company that has many entities. They've recently decided that they want a master website to rule all of their entities. Each entity would have a section within the site perhaps. We were actually leaning on the idea of having a general overarching look and feel and then having each entity follow that, but be separate. One example I know of is gap.com and how Gap, Banana Republic, Piperlime, Old Navy all have the general same look and feel and have a site selector ribbon at the top. Each site though has a bit different colors for branding, a different logo and different ads. Are there any other sites out there follow this type of pattern that I can look at? Another example is toysrus.com and Babies R Us. Is there a name for this type of pattern in design or UX?

Also, does anyone have any other recommendations for having many entities under one umbrella and keeping both a singular brand presence but not making them all identical?

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stackoverflow.com, superuser.com, serverfault.com and to a lesser extent all the other SE sites. –  ChrisF Apr 6 '11 at 20:33
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4 Answers

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I'm not wholly sure what you mean by "UX examples" of a pattern where subsites are similar to a parent site. Isn't it just called consistency?

Subsites aren't really things your average user clicks through going "oh, look, they all look the same! How nice!". Only the owners do that. And user interface designers.

You could say it's brand consistency and that's what the user experiences so by way of having a consistent brand throughout, the UX is consistent. On the other hand, the consistent visual design is what the user actually sees, and the consequence of that is that the user interface is recognisable and therefore presumably more intuitive to use because you don't have to figure out the navigation each time you visit each subsite.

That said, I've always liked what 37signals does with its products' marketing sites. Although Backpack and Campfire differ from Basecamp and Highrise because the sites are in the process of being redesigned, the navigation bar and footer are consistent across all the sites, so I always know where to go for the basics (i.e. features, pricing, support, sign in, etc) and for links to general 37signals stuff and other products (the footer).

The takeaway for me here is that these are the two key elements that you want to design to be consistent. It feels in sync with the likely mental model of visitors: I might have multiple accounts with several of their products and therefore visit various product homepages when I want to sign in. If the sign in button is in the same place, it's easier for me to do that. Or I might have a Basecamp account and be considering signing up for Highrise; similarly, I know where to find the pricing page. And if I'm looking for more info about 37s or I just want to explore, I can go to the footer on any site. This makes sense, but doesn't force 37s to fill in the "content" of the site in the exact same way everywhere as this wouldn't necessarily add much. I know they're doing it anyway, but it doesn't feel like they need to if they get these navigation elements right.

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One example very recently was this very place. Stackexchange.com . Taking note that careers.stackexchange.com is not much different from the expert sites in terms of functionality and familiarity but visually quite different. The same can be said for area51.stackexchange.com.

And yes as @Chris just said look at TC, and additionally the gawker network.

If you can be bothered to quantify elements have a look at http://latenightlondon.co.uk it is owned by http://urbium.com who own every bar/pub/diner listed on the former. (As well as the rights to the childrens classic Noddy!)

LNL.co.uk comes across as if its some kind of hip-authority, a Lonely Planet for London bars if you will but when you really look into it you realise urbium = LNL = all linked websites. (i.e. http://www.village-soho.co.uk/) and how similar they all are when you strip away the styles.

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and now there are rather a lot of Stack Exchange sites and a company goal to provide the same sort of functionality and quality knowledgebase to virtually anything. I think an excellent example. –  ColinSharpe Jul 5 '13 at 13:57
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http://techcrunch.com/ - great example - very similar look/design for their other properties.

I think this is great in situations like techcrunch where your user base can cross the thresholds and you want them to recognize the site, but know there is a difference.

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Actually - if you look at 37signals and their product sites - that is a great example of managing multiple sites. With the caveat that I think they are in the process of redesigning all of them and basecamp has a new design. –  Chris Kluis Apr 6 '11 at 13:17
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A good example (not where I work) is a college here in BC. If you go to http://www.langara.bc.ca/index.html and click any of the main sections in the header you'll see that page structure and architecture remains similar, but the main colour palette of the top-level section changes. Core site stuff is burnt orange, and everything flows out of that.

However, the branding, layout and visual design makes it pretty clear that it all belongs to one parent design.

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