September 30, 2019

Four Key Factors to Ensure Your University Welcome Center Reflects Your Mission

Designing Experiences

By Abigail Smith Hanby

As you are planning for the future of your higher education institution the design of your spaces can make a big impact on students, prospective students, visitors, and alumni. The look and feel of buildings can leave a lasting impression. One of the first places prospective students visit is the welcome center. It can be challenging to decide the direction of your welcome center to ensure that it meets expectations.

Welcome centers are being built on colleges or universities across the country in very different ways. They’re known as student unions, visitor and alumni centers, or information welcome desks. Some show what it is like to attend their school by putting prospective students in the middle of student life. Other centers are integrated with admissions, financial aid, the registrar, and alumni relation services. They might showcase the school’s brand, athletics program, or thought leadership via high-profile events.

When planning a welcome center with our clients we frame the decision-making process by asking what will most effectively connect with the emotional needs of both prospective students and alumni.

Using Education Space Design to Reflect Your Institution’s Mission

We frame welcome centers this way because our research shows that successful welcome centers mix aspiration and nostalgia. Done right, a welcome center is a reflection of a school’s mission and a projection of a school’s vision. Bringing together these dimensions of a school’s brand caters to the emotional needs of two key university audiences: prospective students (and their parents/guardians) and alumni.

Segal Visitors Center, Northwestern (Credit: Perkins+Will)

To determine the appropriate narrative, tone, and atmosphere for a welcome center we facilitate collaborative workshops to analyze and evaluate the following factors:

  1. Brand graphic language: How does the university present itself graphically? What is the appropriate degree of branding for this space?
  2. Key messages: What messages does the university regularly communicate to prospective students, faculty, and partners — and alumni? How does the university communicate its story? What are the key messages this space should communicate about the university?
  3. Vernacular of campus architecture: What is the overall tone of the campus and its architecture? It is urban, suburban, rural? Modern, Georgian, neoclassical? To what degree should this place blend in with or stand out from the rest of campus architecture?
  4. Operational needs: Other than welcoming prospective students and providing a space for alumni to connect with the university, what other functions does the space need to provide?

To kick start space design planning and give you a sense for how brightspot works, let us walk you through our approach to addressing the factors listed above.

Brand Graphic Language: What colors, textures, photographs, etc. does the school use to express its brand? What is the history of these choices? We believe embedded in a single color choice is a world of history regarding a school’s legacy. For instance, deep colors like navy, crimson, and hunter are typically associated with the Ivies. Pops of bright color signifies “we are modernizing.” A full palette of bright colors signifies ”we are contemporary and committed to making bold moves.” More often than not we find that a school’s brand speaks to the now and the past, more so than the future.

At brightspot, we begin every planning engagement by asking the institution to articulate a vision for the future.

Depending on the nature of our assignment this is done formally with workshops or informally through desktop research and interviews. Either way, our objective is to help the institution understand where they want to go so that we can help position their building project. Questions we look to answer are: What is the vision for the future of your institution? Does your brand express this vision? To what degree should your vision for the future alter your brand so that this vision is reflected in your future center?

Key Messages: Audiences typical to a welcome center are prospective students and their caregivers, alumni, big game day visitors, the institution’s local community, and current students. We recommend prioritizing audiences into three buckets “primary” and “secondary” there can only be one for each and “tertiary” which can have many. To identify messages your welcome center should communicate we recommend considering each audience’s rational and emotional needs. For instance, the parents of a prospective student rationally need to know that your institution will lead to a fulfilling and well-paying career, and emotionally they need to know that their child will find a healthy social network to plug into. Messaging doesn’t have to be explicitly communicated through written words, it can be expressed in the overall tone and personality of the space, services provided in the space, and service providers.

Vernacular of Campus Architecture: How is the personality of your institution presented through its architecture? Are you neoclassical, modern, post-modern? The vernacular of the architecture on your campus sets up expectations for what a prospective student expects from their collegiate experience and (most likely) is what your alumni will want to see again and again upon their return to campus. We have seen welcome centers designed to be a new space of significance whereby the architectural design is a whole-hearted departure from other campus architecture. We also see welcome centers harken back to a school’s legacy whereby the architecture is designed to either fit into an existing iconic building or be crafted with materials and details that express the overall quality of buildings on campus.

Ford Alumni Center, University of Oregon (Credit: TVA Architects)

Operational Needs: What key spaces and services are missing on your campus? How can you couple welcome center functions with other functions to maintain a steady buzz? Coupling welcome center functions with other university functions can be opportunistic for building a strong case for your welcome center. We ask our clients to first conceptualize their center as a stand-alone entity and build upon our standard set of “must haves” for a welcome center. Building upon this, we then ask “how can these functions be coupled with other functions on campus to create a place that is active beyond regular hour of operation? We take this approach because we have observed that spaces on campus that truly express the nature of a collegiate community are the ones that have a constant buzz.

In Practice: How Welcome Centers Can Support Other Programming

Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University recently opened a great example of a welcome center embedded in a showcase building. During the planning process, we discovered that the geographic siting of the building and mix of programs created the perfect condition for introducing the CMU value proposition to prospective students, faculty, and partners. While a welcome center was not a premeditated expectation for this building, by thinking opportunistically about how the building communicates the values of the institution we were able to help CMU identify this opportunity.

Coulter Welcome Center, Carnegie Mellon University (Credit: MRY Architects)

We hope that our education space design approach will help you develop a vision that clearly defines the future of your welcome center. We believe an inclusive planning process that points toward your clear and strategic vision for the future will inspire excitement throughout your campus community.

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