sherpa required?

The percentage of college and university campuses where finding one’s way requires the aid of a Sherpa guide is astoundingly high. Since the vast percentage of campuses were not designed in the manner of a contemporary planned community, the logic of the campus’ layout is often not easy to discern.   In fact, to the visitor it is often opaque. While their charm often lies in their meandering park-like walks and randomly discoverable hidden treasures, the first-time guest is frequently badly in need of assistance.

Merely getting into the campus can be quite confusing. In conversations with first-time visitors on my own campuses, their tales of their initial moments of disorientation were often revealing and more than a little embarrassing to me as the president. “Is this the main gate or a service entrance?”  “Where do you suppose the Admissions Office is?”  “Are we permitted to park here?”

Frequently, signage is limited to signs on the buildings themselves, without signs indicating how to find the buildings. I know, I know, pick up a map in the Admissions Office, but which way to the Admissions Office??? No, helping our guests ”˜find their way’ is not merely a nicety, it is a business necessity.

Just recently I was on one of the more beautiful and beautifully conceived university campuses in the country, the University of Colorado at Boulder. It would be difficult to be critical of either the wisdom of planning or the accumulated design decisions that have impacted this campus. But still, I was lost. The building I was looking for was not immediately apparent and there was no signage readily available to guide me. While each building was clearly labeled, the challenge was finding the building in the first place. I know, I know, pick up a map at”¦”¦.   Since I was visiting over the weekend, the campus was relatively quiet and I simply wandered around until I could find someone to assist me. No harm. It wasn’t raining all that hard and I knew my clothes would dry out while sitting in the concert hall.

These are not earth shaking problems by any means. But for colleges that pride themselves on personal attention and care, as well as a spirit of hospitality, again, it is not good for business.

Wayfinding is, at once, a practical matter and, believe it or not, an aesthetic matter. Clearly, the primary purpose of strong, visible campus entries, well placed signage and intelligently conceived walkways and parking is to welcome people to campus and get them where they need to go. On this count alone, many campuses fail miserably. I can’t tell you how many times, once on a campus, I’ve stood looking at a large campus map that has stood in the sun so long all the details had faded beyond recognition.

We shouldn’t underestimate the aesthetic character of the signage that is chosen to assist our guests, either. Campuses are not industrial steel plants. They are homes and should reflect the ethos of a home in all they do. When possible, signage should be on a human scale in height and size. Faded, large stop signs are not needed when signs half the size will do.

Painting hundreds of yards of ”˜no parking’ curbs bright industrial yellow is not necessary when low scale signage will serve the purpose. When I arrived at Birmingham-Southern College this was one of the first ”˜small’ things we could address. All over-scale stop signs were replaced with smaller, friendlier signage. Hundreds of yards of tired, chipped yellow curbs were sandblasted and right-sized, European-style signs bearing the college’s logo and colors were installed. At a relatively low cost, we had begun to alter the campus’ aesthetic.

In short, wayfinding is about helping our guests and our customers find their way, while feeling good about where they are. It is both an issue of hospitality and good business.