Signs of the Times

It could be said that today’s K-12 schools are being squeezed between a hammer and an anvil. These days, traditional scholastic requirements, such as fostering academic excellence and molding good citizens, now go head to head on the priority list with heightened security needs, diversity issues, and the need to brand and differentiate to compete with the increasing roster of schooling options from which parents can choose.

One key area that both spans and addresses virtually all these issues is the school’s physical branding, i.e. environmental graphics, wayfinding, and signage.

And just as the requirements schools need to meet have expanded, correspondingly, the requirements for what signage must accomplish in a K-12 environment have expanded as well.

Given these increased pressures, there are new concepts and strategies to apply to school signage. For starters, let’s review the main goals of wayfinding, signage, and environmental graphics for school environments.

The top four goals of wayfinding and signage for schools include: 1) Navigation; 2) Security; 3) Welcoming and Creating a School Experience; and 4) Branding.

Navigation: The Practical Side of Wayfinding and Signage
Given the often sizable acreages associated with schools, and the potential for multiple campus entrances and multiple school entrances, savvy signage strategies are key to successful campus navigation. Particularly for exterior signage, there’s a set hierarchy of how information should be prioritized.
  • Exterior Signage Priority 1: Identify the campus as a whole (This includes visually setting the boundaries for the campus and making it clear to outsiders where the campus begins.)
  • Exterior Signage Priority 2: Identify the main entrance to the campus (This should include visually compelling, high-profile signage, usually with a fair amount of height and mass, to make the main entrance location crystal clear.)
  • Exterior Signage Priority 3: Identify where to park (This should include clear, easy-to-follow directions that lead drivers with a series of “signage breadcrumbs” to designated parking areas.)
  • Exterior Signage Priority 4: Identify the school’s main entrance (Typically, the main entrance of the school is called out through architectural detailing, but this is not always the case. Good signage will clearly direct visitors and students to the main entrance, so they can go through security and not get lost.)
  • Exterior Signage Priority 5: Identify ADA parking and ADA entrances (With more stringent ADA requirements, signage which clearly identifies ADA parking locations and the location of wheelchair access points is key to adhering to federal mandates.)

Security Requirements: The New Reality at Schools
Good signage strategies can, and should, assist with maintaining security. First and foremost, good signage alerts visitors where they are supposed to go, and if you don’t have it, people will literally enter the school where they can and wander around till they find what they are seeking, which is NOT good for security. Typically, you want to direct visitors through a main screening point at the school.

In addition to calling out the main entrance, another signage need related to security is to highlight after-hours school access points. If you think about it, after-hours access often is accomplished by simply locking all the doors and leaving one open. Then, parents and visitors who visit the school after hours have to start trying all the doors to get in. When they find one that’s open, the unspoken message is, “It’s ok to come in here.” Still, that approach leaves people feeling like burglars, and it’s simply not necessary. To provide after-hours access information, create an affordable but professional-looking sign, or adhere vinyl lettering on the inside glass of an after-hours access door. (Hand-made signs for this are typical but contribute to visual anarchy.)

One other consideration for maintaining security at K-12 schools — you should not post maps and directories of locations because this makes it more difficult for intruders to find their way around. Since children in a K-12 environment typically are more vulnerable than, for example, college students, it’s better to avoid big signs and directories that map out the various classes and departments, and where everything is located.

‘Welcome To Our School:' A Key Signage Need
One other area where schools often miss the boat for signage is the opportunity to truly welcome and embrace visitors. For cash-strapped schools seeking to maintain current loyalty from parents, as well as the students themselves, creating a sense of welcome is as key as keeping students safe. And the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. Part of the trick with good signage is to find the balance between security and a sense of welcome. And frankly, if parents have to choose between the two, they will feel better knowing their child is protected… in a fortress if you will. Then, the sense of welcome has to extend to the students themselves.

One area where a sense of safety and normalcy can reign is inside the school with areas involving signage that often are left to individual teachers to manage, rather than an using overall signage scheme and graphic standards.

For example, one area where cohesive signage can play into a sense of safety, camaraderie, and pride are “art walls.” Often, you’ll see artwork from Mrs. Johnson’s third-grade class pasted on a wall, typically with a hand-written note or computer print-out. These areas pose great opportunity for standardizing and upgrading the quality of the signage without a lot of cost. These art wall displays can be depicted as the “XYZ School Art Gallery” with appropriate pre-developed signage, rather than hand-written signs. The signs don’t have to be expensive… simple vinyl signs are fine as long as they’re professionally produced.

Another area of signage that can create a sense of welcome and safety for students is to incorporate school colors and use of the school mascot. School colors can, and should, be woven into overall signage schemes, with friendly messaging and images. For example, if the mascot were a grizzly bear, a school could incorporate playful messages of strength in the gym with messages such as “Grizzlies roam here.” Or, the cafeteria might feature a “Honey Pot” dessert area to fulfill the grizzly bear theme.

The point is, provide parents with the sense that there’s plenty of security to get into the building, thus keeping their children safe. But once the children are inside, then the messages and signage need to be more friendly, playful, and colorful.

Branding: Another New Reality for Schools Facing Increased Competition
When it comes to choosing schools, there are a wealth of options out there for parents. Thus, schools seeking to keep their students need to brand the school and brand the experience. Signage can help.

The first step is to determine the branding goals. If the school in a 100-year-old brick building with a rich history of academic excellence, then the signage should reflect that. Specifically, that would mean use of more traditional serif typefaces, more traditional materials for the signs, and imagery that supports ideas of tradition, history, and quality.

If a school were looking to be more progressive, regardless of the building architecture, then more modern, catchy signage using modern sans serif typefaces contrasting with traditional architecture would fit the bill. If a school were in a brand new building, with the latest technology, then ultra modern signage using modern materials, such as brushed aluminum that blends with the new atmosphere, would make sense.

The bottom line is, before embarking on a cohesive signage program, school administration should determine their specific branding goals, and then incorporate those goals into their signage program.

Finally, signage solutions do not have to cost a fortune. Spend the big money on signs that have high traffic and high impact, such as the entrances. But for other signage needs, as long as there is an over-riding theme, style, and graphic standards, humble materials such as foam-core and vinyl can go a long way in helping a school provide navigation tools, enhance security, provide an experience to the student’s themselves, and help the school brand and better compete in the market.

Marty Gregg, president and founder of Arthouse Design, in Denver, CO, is a recognized expert in wayfinding and signage strategies. He can be reached at 303/892-9816 or