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Signage and Wayfinding Systems for College Campuses

This post was written by a colleague at our sister company Kelmscott Communications, Kelly Voss. Kelly has a wealth of knowledge regarding all things wide-format and signage.


Each year, as a new class of juniors advances through high school, they and their parents begin the process of identifying and applying to colleges they want to attend. As the parent of twins entering their junior year, I’ll be doubling down on this. Part of that process involves a campus visit to the school or schools your teenager is most interested in attending. The campus visit includes a guided tour that will introduce you to the highlights and milestones that the school is most proud of. After the tour, it’s important to spend some time away from the guide and get a feel for the campus for yourself. Campus signage and wayfinding plays a big role in your ability to find your way around.


The process for developing signage and wayfinding systems for college campuses really encompasses much more than simply creating signs and maps. Ultimately, the factors that influence this process contribute to the overall experience of any user to want to be on the campus. The goal is for ease of use of course, and for users to have an overall feeling of comfort, welcoming and acceptance—a sense of belonging on campus—as opposed to a sense of discomfort and lack of orientation, leading to unease and desire to leave. Of course, there is much more that contributes to that feeling, but good wayfinding and signage can contribute to a positive experience, or create a sense of confusion and frustration if done poorly.


A tremendous amount of planning, effort and thought goes into creating an effective way-finding and signage system at the institutional level. Many administrative offices will have an interest and will provide valuable input, including facilities management officials, department directors, etc. To ensure a universal perspective, most colleges will form a steering committee that will engage and garner input from all departments. It is important that the needs and objectives of the various points of view are fulfilled with uniformity and effectiveness, within a comprehensive system.


The experience of finding one’s way around campus for the new student or visitor should be relatively effortless and intuitive. Beyond signage and wayfinding, elements such as building architecture, landscaping and grounds, and overall appearance of the campus can contribute to the visitor’s impression of the institution.


Campus wayfinding systems also increasingly encompass mobile apps that work as an aid for navigating campus, coupled with LED programmable signage that can be edited and modified remotely by campus IT staff. In a world where students increasingly look to their mobile device for answers to any question, it is second nature for them to look to their device to find directions as well. As an element of preparedness, many of theses students will have already discovered and activated the app before they even get to the campus. These programs also lend an element of credibility to the school, as an institution that is “in tune” with the needs and habits of each successive generation of prospective students.


There are many factors to consider when contemplating signage and wayfinding systems, most notably, the architectural and environmental settings of the institution itself. Universities in urban settings such as NYU, University of Chicago, or Boston University will face considerably different issues than a college in a more picturesque rural setting such as the University of Virginia, or a Southwestern environment such as the University of New Mexico. One additional issue schools with urban settings face is identifying the edges of the campus. Where the does college end and what is the transition from college campus to city streets? How does the campus signage mesh or differ from the city signage?


Americans with Disabilities Act requirements is another important consideration when designing a wayfinding system. Most schools are fully aware of these requirements and encompass them in building design and construction. ADA requirements call for the design of systems that encompass usage accessibility for all people, at any stage in life, regardless of ability. It encompasses more than just “accessible by wheelchair.” Uniform accessibility ensures that, not only individuals who may be living with disability can have confidence that they will be able to use the system, but that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, will be able to navigate and function comfortably within that environment.


The amount of involvement in the planning and execution stages is directly inversely proportionate to the ease, simplicity and clarity it provides for its users. If the system is planned and executed properly, students and visitors will be easily able to navigate the campus with a minimal amount of effort. That’s the goal. A well-designed system will seem natural and intuitive, and easy to follow. In most instances, the system will be used heavily for the first few weeks of the school year, but as students become familiar with campus and where their classes are, locations become committed to memory and they won’t need it as much. However, visitors will always need to consult signage to find their way around campus.




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