5 ways architecture defines the university brand

People gravitate to brands for many reasons. Campus architecture and landscape are fundamental influences on the college brand, writes Perkins+Will's David Damon.

October 16, 2015 |
Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings
5 ways architecture defines the university brand perkins+will

Image courtesy Perkins+Will

Brand permeates our culture. Look no further than Apple and Starbucks. People gravitate to brands for many reasons—values they share, status and prestige, or counter-culture platforms.

Within the complex world of Higher Education, many institutions’ names are synonymous with brand for an equally broad spectrum of reasons. When top-tier institutions are discussed, the names are often regional, but the benchmarks often start with the Ivy League schools—for example, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, and Oxford. In most cases, the brand is strengthened further with a visit to campus. Take Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance; this incredibly beautiful and well-planned campus main street is enough to seal the deal for a student making a final choice.

Campus architecture and landscape are fundamental influences on the college brand. From picturesque heritage buildings nestled on a manicured campus green to innovative industrial maker-campuses that are integrated with research communities, the college mission and the mission of place are one.

Here are five ways campus architecture defines the college brand that higher ed administrators should consider when making plans for their campuses:

1. History and heritage matter. The stories of the births of universities, famous alums who have found their voice on campus, and the quirks that have occurred across time all factor into a brand. Students form an immediate bond with the university when immersed in this history. Creating a well-crafted story that describes the unique heritage can be integrated at multiple levels of perception at your front door. History cannot be created from scratch for relatively new campuses, but tailoring a clear message can achieve the desired effect.

2. Quality of an institution. This factor is sometimes a silent brand, one that can spread without advertising. To achieve quality in all aspects is truly aspirational for most. Top-tier quality of campus architecture and landscape can be obvious when viewed in context with peers—and it can be a differentiator. Immaculate lawns, rich natural materials, and technology that enables progressive pedagogy can all contribute to an institution’s level of quality. Quality of brand is powerful; quality at every level through an increased commitment to quality starts at the top and then infiltrates the campus mindset.

3. Innovative design. Demonstrative physical expressions in innovation have become brand statements. University missions that push past the envelope leverage their entrepreneurial spirit through the built environment. Trends in pedagogy, learning environments, student life, and sports can be teaching labs that accelerate new ideas about the spaces they inhabit. Not every building on your campus has to have the “wow” factor. Focus on what matters most to the university and its students, and celebrate it with a statement of physical innovation.

4. Connection with the surrounding environment. Fitting into the broader context of society can define a university’s alignment with its community. The knitting together of town and gown reflects the cultural nuances, demographic profile, and sharing of ideas that support the surrounding community, as well as a shared vision for integration. Brand can reflect context in a seamless story that binds its roots. Find common ground with the community in a way that can be physically present in branded identity at the campus edges.

5. What’s on the inside matters, too. Transitioning campus infrastructures to zero fossil fuels and teaching the philosophy and tactical genius that underlie these changes to those behind the scenes is happening—maybe not as fast as we would like, but it’s happening. These changes on the inside have given a voice to those who want to bring about change that is both practical and environmentally -conscious . The term “sustainability” has passed, and progressive institutions are now looking toward regenerative futures. Now is the time to change your course toward a more progressive infrastructure by establishing and broadcasting your goals with an ability to measure results.

What is next for brand on campus? Will universities hunt down prospective students through social media? Will universities continue to script their front door tour paths with a Hollywood-ready scene? Will institutions with lesser brand appeal push a new niche? The answer to these questions is yes, because while brand evokes many messages for universities and for students, it is also about competition, marketing, and survival. Architecture and the influence of the physical environment affect first impressions and lead to lasting memories—and these influences drive the power of the college brand.

About the Author: David leads Perkins+Will’s Residential Life practice, having built a national reputation in visioning the future of the built environment in higher education. He is a strong advocate for pushing the boundaries of sustainable planning and design. David is an active member in contributing thought leadership on student life and sustainability to ACUHO-I, ACUI, and SCUP.

Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings | Perkins+Will

Perkins+Will is a firm of remarkable people who are driven by discovery – through their relationships, research, and design. In the simplest sense, our ideas are the precursors for all of our design work. Ideas + Buildings, Perkins+Will’s blog, features emerging thought leadership from across the firm, inviting an even greater global dialog around learning, wellness, workplace, sustainability, and everything in between. Visit the blog at: http://blog.perkinswill.com.

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