Branding for the University:
Creating Productive Spaces

“A positive learning climate in an university for young students is a composite of many things. It is an attitude that respects students. It is a place where students receive guidance and encouragement. It is an environment where students can experiment and try out new ideas without fear or failure. It is an atmosphere that builds student’s self confidence so they dare to take risks. It is an environment that nurtures a love of learning” – Carol B. Hillman (20th Century)

Beyond inspiring architecture and functional spaces that are a prerequisite for any good institution, how can its environment become more conducive for the spirit of inquiry, learning and collaboration? This is a vital question that we as designers and architects need to answer. India is a land of diverse cultures where people come from different religious, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The design of spaces thus has an important role to play wherein it becomes extremely important as to how the space is unified. It is also important for an learning environment to provide people with the same sense of comfort as one would find in his or her home so that people can be their natural selves in spaces away from home. And this becomes very critical in the context of large universities where students come in and reside from all parts of the world. It becomes extremely important for the space to offer them a sense of comfort as well as inculcate the desire to study and stay in a particular university not only because of its name but because of the environment it offers.

It is interesting to look at a university as a place that shapes itself and serves as a transforming agent, eventually helping us become who we are and what constitutes our value systems. Since the target users at a university come from a much younger audience and are increasingly becoming stronger in their opinions, it becomes important to mould their thinking in the right way. A positive environment that acts as a catalyst for them to always have a sparkle in their eyes will act on them and make them believe in themselves to grow and become something in life. At the same time, a university can play a huge role in getting the best out of its students by making them aware of their strengths and aiding them to channelize these attributes. In the words of Nevin Fenneman, “The purpose of primary education is the development of your weak characteristics, the purpose of university education, the development of your strong.” It thus becomes important for a university environment to be inspiring enough for its students to get the best out of them. This is where the role of environmental graphics comes into play, as it can stimulate and offer a space which inspires the students to be continuously engaged to be productive at the university. Taking a leaf from Jeff Kinney, “On the first day of school, you got to be real careful where you sit. You walk into the classroom and just plunk your stuff down on any old desk, and the next thing you know the teacher is saying, ‘I hope you all like where you’re sitting, because these are your permanent seats.” It is very true that schools and universities are places where one spends a considerable fraction of their lifetime and they leave an enduring imprint. It becomes increasingly important for us as designers and creators to create spaces that make students feel attached to the place and help them find a place for themselves within a large institution so much. So much so, the chair a student sits on becomes a part of his identity.

Image source: “LiYuan Library/Li Xiaodong Atelier” by Forgemind ArchiMedia [CC BY 2.0]

An interesting example of a space that offers an encouraging environment for learning is the LiYuan Library in China. Built in a small village on the outskirts of Bejing, this beautiful library was designed by Li Xiadong. The 175-square-meter building’s interior is spatially diverse by using steps and small level changes to create distinct places. The wooden sticks temper the bright light and spread it evenly throughout the space to give a perfect reading ambience. Here also the environment has been designed to provide a comfortable space for reading which feels like home and encourages one to spend time at that place.

Image source: “Northwestern Campus” by A. Baile [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Another fine example of environmental branding is the Northwestern High School interior artwork done by the schools’ AP Art Studio students. Northwestern is divided into four distinct “sub-schools” and each wing can accommodate 600 to 700 students. Earlier the students were not to be permitted to interact with students from other sub-schools, and were to be isolated within their sub-school for the majority of the school day but later the idea of smaller learning communities was brought into play and the institution became less restrictive and isolating in nature. Adding creativity to the environment added to intermingling of students and greater conversations happening accross the corridor.

The three core pillars of any university, i.e. peers, teachers and environment are the ones that ultimately shape the ideology and thereby the future of its students. These become encompassed within the larger circle of what is termed as the ethos. This ethos when consciously reflected in the environment becomes manifest as the university branding. The student is constantly connected to the place as the environment which speaks volumes will draw him or her into finding meaning. We at Lopez Design believe that it is important to build such environments and thereby brands that encompass all the value systems of the institution and encourage students to feel a sense of belonging to the place as well us take up challenges to achieve great heights in life and find their true purpose. Our past experience in building environments tells us that meaningful environments can be adapted to learning spaces as well thus making the experience for students as well as staff members immersive and engaging.

Ruma Dhingra with inputs from Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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