Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

For most colleges and universities, signage is an ever-changing element of the campus landscape. As departments move and facilities are added, directional and informational signs must adapt. Changes to signage often occur piecemeal. New signs are typically created to solve a given problem, but may not be completely consistent with existing signage. Through years and years of this type of proliferation, some institutions may find themselves surrounded by sign clutter. Inconsistent messages, different sign colors, and even mixing of typefaces can affect the overall impression of a campus.

Make a Plan
A solution for many campuses is the development of a signage master plan. Most schools realize the benefit of master planning their campus development, growth, and facilities. Long-range plans help minimize surprises, keep abreast of trends, and allow for successful budgeting. A master plan document for signage can unify a campus through the use of common colors, typeface, and hardware. It can become an extension of the school’s branding by expanding the scope of institution’s visual identity. In some cases, a signage master plan can even play a part in the marketing of the college or university.

For the University of California, Riverside, development of a signage master plan grew out their process of creating overall campus design guidelines. Nita Bullock, campus physical planner, explained that, “An overall sign program was seen as a needed document to help create a navigable campus and to help give a sense of place.” During the course of about eighteen months, UC Riverside, working with Pasadena-based Hunt Design, went through the exercise of developing a signage master plan. The process involved conducting multiple meetings with user groups, reviewing several design iterations, and tracking hundreds of sign locations on plan drawings of the campus. In the end, the sign program provided benefits to the University that go beyond that original goal of just making it easier to negotiate the campus.  

Unifying the Campus
Many campuses have developed design guidelines to ensure a common visual approach to architecture, landscaping, and lighting. More are beginning to appreciate the benefits of a signage master plan in creating a visually cohesive and unified campus environment. In fact, for campuses that have grown through time without the benefit of architectural design guidelines, signage can become the common visual thread throughout the campus. The use of common colors, materials, and even sizes of signs can play an important role in the unification of a campus.

Signs also “speak” directly to the campus visitor. The words they use and the way they use them become the de facto voice of the administration. Every sign on campus is an opportunity for the college or university to say something about the institution. Restrictive information, while necessary, should be used with restraint. An overuse of negative messages on signs can create an environment that feels too authoritarian.

Consistency is equally important. Building names used on the campus directory should be the same as those on the directional signs. Even a slight variation in the way a building is identified can create confusion. It’s important to be aware of how the campus is identified on other forms of institutional communication as well. The map on the school’s Website should match the one on the campus directory. Consistency will provide clearer communication.

Branding the Institution
When it comes to expressing their brand identity, colleges and universities commonly use Websites, promotional videos, and printed material. Signage can play an equally significant role in reinforcing a school’s brand identity. Every aspect of a school’s visual communication should speak to its audience. Margene Mastin-Schepps, director of Marketing at UC Riverside, explained, “It’s important to know who your audience is and how they experience the brand. From the time they look at the Website to the time they visit the campus, the experience should be consistent.”

At UC Riverside, the creation of the signage master plan came on the heels of their development of a new branding program. The signage master plan served to reinforce the implementation of the branding program. “When a signage program builds on the branding of a university, it can make the branding effort more real for the users. The signage lends weight to the credibility of the branding program,” said Mastin-Schepps.

It’s not just the permanent signs that help express the brand. More ephemeral signs like banners and event displays can have a powerful influence on the school’s visual communication. Banners can give a sense of immediacy to an event. If they are changed as part of a regular program, it gives a feeling of excitement that new things are always happening around campus. How often they are changed, and who decides what goes on them, must be part of an overall institutional policy. As Mastin-Schepps explained, “We’ve found that there needs to be structure in place to manage and police the event signage. It’s a big job to coordinate all of the diverse entities that are vying for exposure on the banners.”

Cost Effectiveness

For schools currently without a master plan for signage, the establishment of one can make fiscal sense. The process of developing a master plan will involve distilling all of the various campus signs into a handful of standard sizes and shapes. By combining like elements, economies of scale can occur in the manufacturing process. Unit cost for sign elements can drop significantly.

Budgeting for future sign implementation also becomes easier with a master plan in place. College or university personnel can refer to the master plan and accompanying unit costs to determine how much they will be allocating for signage in the coming years.

The inclusion of interior signs in the master plan document has helped UC Riverside streamline its process of signing new buildings. As Bullock explains, “All new buildings are using the interior and exterior building signage standards developed through the campus-wide sign program.” The standardization of building signage has eliminated the need to design a new sign system every time a new building is rolled out — and the University’s construction department has appreciated the savings in time and cost.

Digital Signage
With costs dropping and quality rising, digital signage message boards are becoming increasingly popular on college and university campuses. The ease and speed with which messages can be updated makes them very attractive to schools with numerous events and announcements to display. For UC Riverside, the decision to include digital signage in the program was not taken lightly. Some members of the school’s signage committee considered having digital signage inappropriate for the institution. They felt it would not send the right message about the University. In the end, practicality won out over principles. A few tastefully designed digital signs ended up in the program.

With digital signs, the ability to display the information so easily can carry some risk for the integrity of the institution’s branding. The needs of the various entities vying for attention on a digital display must be balanced with the guidelines of the overall branding. “All of a sudden, everybody wants a piece of the action,” said Mastin-Schepps. “A strong leadership needs to take control and make it happen. Decision making authority for event management is crucial.” Much like developing a guideline for Website content, a clearly defined strategy for digital messages should be put in place.

The Process
Development of a signage master plan is a process that can take several months. Establishing the members of the advisory group is a critical part of the effort. For UC Riverside, the Project Management Committee was assembled from a diverse group of campus resources. Representatives from Capital and Physical Planning provided project management supervision; the office of Strategic Communications gave input on the University’s branding position; the Physical Plant Sign Shop provided expertise on materials, cost, and maintenance; and Transportation and Parking Services, as well as faculty representatives, rounded out the committee. “The committee members were all stakeholders in providing campus access to students, staff, faculty, and visitors,” said Bullock.

Conducting workshops with user groups can play a critical role in understanding the signage needs of various campus visitors. Input from these workshops will drive decisions on sign locations and messaging that make a real difference for users. From a branding perspective, it’s important to bring in people who understand the audience you are trying to reach. By soliciting input from a variety of sources, the signage program has a much better chance of success.

It’s also essential for the groups who contribute to the process to have a general understanding of the timing and expectations of the signage master plan. The enthusiasm that people bring to the process can easily be diluted by an unclear implementation plan. By keeping the stakeholders informed of the process, the momentum generated by the design process can carry forward through installation.

For institutions like UC Riverside, the benefits of having a signage master plan program have carried forward into other areas of the University. As the phased implementation of the program proceeds, the school expects to see continued benefits of this planned approach to campus signage.

John Temple is a principal at Hunt Design (, based in Pasadena, CA.