higher education branding for west valley college

How to Achieve Higher Education Branding That Inspires Student Attendance

Published on: October 17, 2019

Successful higher education branding requires input from a variety of different disciplines. Social media marketing, traditional advertising, brand development/ positioning, graphic design, and environmental design all play a part in developing leads to potential applicants. Still, no matter how on-point your university Instagram page may be, most students won’t make their final college decision before setting foot on your property during an in-person campus visit. 

First, they’ll consider the big-ticket amenities your campus has to offer. They’ll marvel at your impressive stadium, imagine themselves living inside your residence halls, and feel inspired by touring their potential departments. But the main thing applicants are searching for is a feeling—the visceral experience that connects them with your campus and makes them feel at home.  

Environmental branding is the final touchpoint that allows you to communicate your message to potential students at the very moment that they’re making that critical intuitive decision. That’s why gateway signage, wayfinding, and graphics are invaluable tools in the higher education branding toolbox. By investing in high-quality signage, you very well could turn a prospective applicant into a guaranteed attendee. 

Tips For Successfully Implementing Higher Education Branding

Signage is a powerful way to communicate branding, improve navigation, and help students feel more attached to their campus. But not every campus signage program is designed around best practices—hence the hodge-podge wayfinding programs that can be characteristic of these constantly-changing environments. 

By keeping the following tips in mind, you’ll be able to avoid major pitfalls and invest in a successful campus signage design that truly delivers results: 

1. Plan in phases. Most higher education signage programs need to be implemented in phases over the course of several years in order to comply with budgetary planning. Make sure your signage consultant designs your program in individual phases that are each independently functional upon completion. The best companies are willing to complete the majority of these phases over the summer months or winter holidays to minimize challenges for new and returning students. For the most effective results, make sure these timeline discussions feature prominently in every bid you solicit and that the total cost of a new signage program takes these complexities into account.

2. Stay current. ADA regulations change frequently. Adhering to these changes is a primary concern for university and college facilities staff, especially when they’re charged with maintaining signs from a patchwork of different programs. The right design firm will ensure your entire signage program is in line with the most recent ADA regulations and is designed with the flexibility to be updated in the future. 

3. Unify your design. Due to decades of expansion, many higher education institutions include buildings with a wide variety of architectural styles. Wayfinding signs are the consistent element that helps students understand how to navigate your campus—but only if you maintain a unified and consistent signage design throughout. Sign standards are an absolute must for incorporating future buildings thoughtfully and effectively. With a determined set of graphic and material specifications in hand, you’ll have a much easier time maintaining consistency across all of your properties, both now and in the future. 

4. Universalize. Every year, colleges and universities in the United States develop growing multicultural language needs. Your campus signage program has the potential to be a primary selling point for multilingual student populations. By designing a signage program with universal language and iconography, you make a broader number of students feel welcome and capable while navigating your property—and you ensure your wayfinding strategy remains evergreen.

5. Strategize timelines. Signage is a powerful branding tool that should feature front and center in every higher education rebranding strategy. The key consideration here is time. Most higher education facilities require signage program updates to be completed over the course of 5-10 years or more. Rebranding projects tend to move much faster. If new signage is part of a strategic rebrand, you’ll usually want to shorten your timeline expectations to 2-3 years and communicate that change clearly with any potential vendors. 

6. Prepare for donations. Donor naming conventions often impact building identification and property signage for colleges and universities. You never know when the next major donation will come through and you’ll want to be prepared with a quick and easy way to update signage accordingly and provide appropriate recognition. Expect that new donors will change your current signage needs during the project and after its completion. And make sure your signage consultant will be on board to make those changes swiftly and smoothly as needed. 

When Southwestern College commissioned an exciting new Field House and Stadium, they invested in an environmental branding and wayfinding program that met all of these marks. The integrated branding program created a deep sense of pride in new and old students alike, and the exterior sign standards were adapted to connect seamlessly with other valuable campus assets as part of a continued plan for growth. The new signage elements helped Southwestern to universalize, strategize, and brand their new stadium for ultimate student impact.

higher education branding for southwestern college

Finding The Right Higher Education Branding Partner

Updating higher education branding comes with inherent challenges that go beyond the tips described here. In addition to securing a beautiful and functional program for today, most facilities departments are primarily concerned with planning for future growth—investing in a flexible, expandable, and repeatable signage program that can be just as effective in the future.

Budget constraints are the other major concern for higher education branding efforts. Thankfully, an updated environmental branding and wayfinding program costs less than most advertising and marketing campaigns—but allocating spend appropriately is still a challenge for committees across the board. But a proprietary Sign Profile Analysis™ tool can help institutions determine highly accurate pricing estimates upfront. 

With SPA™, the GNU Group team performs a comprehensive audit of your campus signage needs to inform a precise total-project quote. Based on that data, you can choose to focus spend on key signage opportunities and/ or break the project up into logical phases. Even over the course of a 10-year signage rollout, you’re always aware and in control of your budgetary outlays. 

With the strategies above, a tool like SPA™, and the right professional partnership, you’ll be well on your way to investing wisely in a higher education branding project that inspires student attendance for years to come. 


GNU Group is a premier signage consultancy firm with over thirty years of experience in the higher education branding industry. We’ve helped junior colleges and major universities revamp their environmental branding to accommodate constant growth and attract increasing numbers of applicants. If you’re looking for an expert partner to help guide your journey toward improved branding, connect with our team today.