The Signs Say It All

Signage systems on college and university campuses communicate explicitly, implicitly — and importantly. Devising such systems can also be opportunities to fortify relationships on and around campuses.

First things first. Pat Sutton, president of Howard Industries, puts it this way: “When we discuss signage with colleges and universities, we stress that signage is for the first-time visitor.”

Sutton says exterior signage on campuses typically consists of signs of identification (including roadway signs to campus), wayfinding, parking, information (such as campus maps), and regulatory (including speed limits, pedestrian crossings, or ADA-accessible entranceways).

This “family of signs” should direct and inform first-time visitors, “be durable, yet changeable,” and identify the campus and its brand, explains Sutton.

Show Me Where to Go
Sutton says that you arrive on a campus, “the questions begin: Where do I enter, where is the building I want, where do I park, where is Admissions, what direction do I go after I’ve parked? All these questions add to a visitor’s ‘travel stress’ level. Effective signage will answer these questions clearly and quickly to eliminate wayfinding anxiety as visitors drive or walk the campus.”

Sutton also says, “Signage should achieve a balance between aesthetics, durability, and flexibility.” If signs are constructed with quality, fit the campus environment, and are well designed, they last and can lend themselves to affordable changes as needed.

In terms of a campus’s brand, “signage (also)…needs to market the institution. The consistency of the signage in design, color, and construction creates a visual identity establishing and reinforcing the institution’s ‘brand,’ making it highly recognized, especially in multi-campus environments.”

Branding is one aspect of signage that speaks to factors beyond campus grounds. In fact, strategically designed and positioned signage can get campuses and municipalities working together. “In a way, good signs, like good fences, make good neighbors.”

Mark Vanderklipp, president of supplier Corbin Design, says that wayfinding systems can play a key part of concerted efforts to reduce issues between such neighbors. “Signs can do so by clearly delineating campus boundaries and entrances to reduce the flow of misdirected vehicular traffic, keeping residential neighborhoods free from overflow,” he says. “Signage can direct visitors and identify on-campus parking opportunities to reduce the instance of parking in front of private homes. Additionally, signage can direct pedestrians along public circulation routes rather than through residential neighborhoods,” according to Vanderklipp.

The effect can be amplified, he says, by coordinating signage systems with city parking and traffic policies. And the process of putting a signage master plan together with involvement by neighborhood groups not only results in better signage programs, the process itself is also an opportunity to fortify town-gown relationships.

Make a Plan
As for campus itself, Vanderklipp recommends that educators form a diverse committee to think through the design, logic, and language of the signage; oversee and review the project; and guide ongoing maintenance.

According to Vanderklipp, that team should include members from:
  • Facilities
  • Marketing/college relations (including PR, foundation)
  • Student affairs and student government
  • Faculty senate
Support services (including parking)
  • Human resources
  • Athletics
  • Information Services
Chancellor’s office
  • University housing
  • Alumni association
Involving such a wide range in the signage process on campuses is likely a change from years ago. Another change: trends in what campuses are seeking today for their exterior and interior signs.

APCO Signs’ Dillon Cobb, vice president of Sales and Marketing, reports that clients interested in exterior signs are asking for “traditional looking, yet easily updatable” signage, and for systems that can incorporate LED displays.

Such a system has been installed at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, to take one example, where the “signs are durable and tamper-resistant, yet can be easily updated for future campus expansion and/or change,” says Cobb.

Include Technology and Sustainability

Additionally “we are definitely seeing more and more requests for dynamic LED displays in a campus sign program,” he notes. “As competition among colleges and universities is becoming greater every year, schools see LED displays as a way to promote their campus and school events in a dynamic fashion.”

An LED display promoting campus sporting events is at work at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Cobb points out that the system does its thing, “while still presenting a design consistent with the rest of the campus signage.”

Granted, signage has just a small impact on the LEED certification process, Cobb acknowledges, yet related inquiries are “still coming in, and more and more sign manufacturers are having to ensure they are offering the greenest solutions possible.”

Accordingly, a kiosk in an interior system for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga consists of a 50-percent recycled content aluminum frame, Cobb notes, while a system for the Georgia Institute of Technology had the same kind of frame along with “a recyclable, laser-printed paper insert that can be updated by onsite staff and a tactile graphics header insert with 40 percent recycled content.”

Vanderklipp points out technological changes in terms of “interactive signage systems tied to mobile applications has been exploding over the years.” So campuses should focus “on mobile technologies that tech-savvy students and others will be using. Most students, faculty, and parents have made the investment in technology already — take advantage of that!”

Vanderklipp says to “also focus on existing social media and microblogging opportunities to reach these audiences with current information. Make sure that this content is regularly refreshed and managed daily by internal departments, such as College Relations or Marketing.”

Know — and Show — Who You Are

Whatever the technology, marketing is part of the equation. As Sutton adds, “Campus signage…creates a visual identity establishing and reinforcing the institution’s ‘brand’ making it highly recognized, especially in multi-campus environments.”

Thus, clear, informative, and well-designed campus signage systems communicate to visitors, including tech-savvy students and prospective students, to that the campus.

Vanderklipp puts it this way, “As a parent of a 2012 college freshman, I’ve seen this firsthand as we’ve toured about a dozen college campuses in the past year. We can certainly see that some do it well, and others not so much. It played an important role in his college choice.” 

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.