Signing the Way

A prospective student visits your campus. What’s the first thing the student looks for? Signage. He needs signage to direct him to a visitor-delegated parking spot, to direct him to the correct building and, finally, to direct him to the appropriate office. That’s three kinds of signage. If the signage fails, you may lose that student.

Feeling the pressure? Not to worry. A signage plan can help improve campus navigation and your image.

Signage for Way Finding

Bill Coleman, associate vice president for Facilities at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, understands the value of a signage plan. Five years ago, a landscaping master plan was developed for his campus.“Among the many things the plan highlighted was the fact that we had to improve our way finding on campus,” he says.“That’s where it began.”

Administrators contracted with Fairview, PA-based Howard Industries, which designed a signage program. “Included was a book of different types of signage we could use for different situations, based upon the look we had chosen,” says Coleman. The book is a tool administrators refer to as they implement the program.

“Like most campuses, our capital funding is very tight,” says Coleman, “so our program initially allowed us to hit specific areas and, as funding is available, we work the plan. It’s by no means finished. Each year, using the program, we work a little farther down the priority list. The campus entrances are clearly marked and look nice. We probably have half of our building signs and half of the way finding signs at roadway intersections done.”

In addition to way finding, Coleman points out that the main benefit of the coordinated signage program is the consistent, pleasant look that makes a positive statement about the campus.

Coleman’s advice to administrators desiring to implement a signage program is to look at the campus as a whole rather than considering building-specific issues. “Know that it is a long-term plan that is achieved through a number of years,” he adds.

Signage for Identity

In addition to way finding, signage is critical to developing an image, as Coleman already indicated. For instance, if a prospective student visits your campus and is able to navigate via inconsistent signage, then you’ve accomplished your job. But, if your signage is consistent, plus includes extras like engraved pavers or historic building markers, then the student finds his way and has a more favorable impression of your university. “When you think of signage, you think of way finding,” says Jane Cady Wright, AIA, CEO of Norfolk, VA-based Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company. “But,” she emphasizes, “a campus is filled with symbols and icons. They become more about the identity than strictly information on how to get from point A to point B. So your signage can accomplish a sense of identity and tradition that is evident in every way. Symbols are a great way to do that. They’re visual reminders about where you are and what’s going on.”

Baylor University’s North Village Living/Learning Community provides an example of Wright’s point. The community is a composition of four buildings that includes a connecting path. On the path are a series of scriptural verses engraved on pavers. “The verses were selected by the students about what it means to live in the community,” says Wright. The pavers work to link the buildings and add to the community’s identity. Similarly, some of the university’s buildings boast emblems that provide historic references to various elements of the institution. “It’s a coat of arms,” Wright notes.

Because signage is a critical dimension of the university infrastructure, it’s important to plan for the image you want to convey. “For instance, red signage on gray buildings is probably a huge mistake,” Wright says. And Wright also suggests taking advantage of architectural elements, which are frequently used as a means of way finding. For example, a visitor might be directed to turn left at the steeple or turn right at the tower. Feel free to use pictures of those architectural elements ? in addition to words ? on signs. “Visual clues, as well as written clues, can be very important,” she sums.

A signage program accomplishes way finding and enhances your campus identity. When putting together your program, forget the pressure, and concentrate on the message you want to deliver and the image you want to achieve.

Planning for Your Signage Program

Ready to embark on a comprehensive signage program at your institution? Here are some tips to help you get started.

1. “Administrators should not only weigh the architectural and aesthetic value of any signage plan, but also look for a signage system that is modular and accommodates future changes and growth that all campuses encounter during the expected life span of exterior signage. A good plan is one that incorporates identification and way finding into an architecturally sensitive, easily maintained and cost-effective system, yet has features that make it unique to the college/university, providing a consistent brand image across campus(es).” — Erin Kidd, program manager, Howard Industries (

2. “The first thing to consider is who your sign will be messaging: pedestrians or motor vehicles. In case of the latter, the speed of traffic impacts the sign’s size. Local sign permitting restrictions also affect what size sign you can put up. Finally, sign materials such as rustproof aluminum and vandal-resistant covers should be taken into consideration.” — Ron Teeple, marketing director, Robson Corporation (

3. “Look for the selection, quality and longevity of the signage options a single company provides. Being able to organize your signage needs with one company, as opposed to several vendors, allows you to create a unified look on campus. From architectural letters or identification signage at a residence hall to an LED sign at the student union, that relationship is key in addressing the unique needs of your college.” — Christine Mercado, assistant marketing manager, Stewart Signs (

4. “Make sure you meet with the signage company directly to see all their options, because the architect won’t be aware of all the manufacturer’s resources. This will allow you to fully develop your concepts.” — Eric Peterson, Vendor Programs manager, Sign-A-Rama (

5. “The people using the signs are visitors and prospective students, not students, so think of exterior signage as part of your overall campus design because if a prospective student gets lost, it’s not attractive. Signage should be accurate, easy to maintain and attractive. And the design should be consistent throughout campus because while signage’s main function is to get someone where he wants to go, it also functions as branding.” — Andrea Blackwood, Promotions manager, APCO Sign Systems (