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Archives > June 2014 > What Role Do Signs Play on Your Campus, and What Role Should They Play?

What Role Do Signs Play on Your Campus, and What Role Should They Play?

When most of us think of signs, whether in a campus setting or otherwise, we think of them merely from a functional standpoint. Signs identify places and tell us where to go, right? Pretty simple.

By: Dillon Cobb

Identifying, informing and directing are-of course-essential functions of signs; make no mistake about that. Signs are vital components of any successful campus wayfinding program, and getting people from point A to point B and then back again is the first priority. However, if you're not using signs for more than this, you're not taking advantage of all they can really do.

Signs, Brand & Image
Do you imagine signs don't have a significant impact, either positive or negative, on your school's image? Think again. Take a look at how many signs there are on your campus, both inside and out. As upper level students and faculty generally know their way around pretty well, most may not even notice signs on a daily basis. Unlike existing students and faculty, however, prospective students, donors and/or other distinguished guests who are visiting your school do notice all of those signs, so this is the audience you should consider when planning signs and their importance.

If visitors are already using signs for navigation, why not use signs as visual vehicles to communicate additional information as well? Why not include information that will help set your school apart from the rest? You can even reinforce your school's brand, display your team's colors, tell your school's story or-at the very least-convey an image of quality that's on par with the education and the overall experience your university has to offer.

Additionally, competition for new students and donors is fierce, so take advantage of every opportunity possible to put your best foot forward. Signs often make the first impression upon visitors to your campus, and that first impression may be all you get.

Once you realize that signs are a powerful medium for visual communication, there are many ways, and within a wide range of budgets, to implement a sign program that does more than just direct traffic.

Design Considerations for Exterior Signs 
Numerous factors should be considered when planning your exterior sign program, not only regarding wayfinding and placement of signs, but considerations with zoning, illumination, electrical planning, vehicular vs. pedestrian signage, incorporation of LED and other digital solutions, planning for future expansion, and more. It can be a complex, overwhelming process, so partnering with an experienced environmental graphics firm and/or sign company is step one to ensure the best possible solution is achieved.

For our purposes here, however, let's focus on some design considerations to help your exterior sign system do more than just tell people where to go.

Use High Quality Materials & Finishes
If you want your signs to convey a positive image of your school, then using high quality materials and finishes is a must.

As exterior signs are exposed to the elements 24/7, and also subjected to those post-sporting event celebrations or pranks for which college students are known, using durable components is essential to ensuring the desired positive image is achieved as well as maintained. Select signs constructed of pre-engineered aluminum extrusions whenever possible, and make sure the components are substantial enough to support the size of the sign and withstand the winds that are typical in your environment. Steel components are also a durable option and often needed for larger signs, but steel can be expensive and is accompanied by the risk of rust and corrosion, unlike aluminum.

It's also recommended to select finishes and/or paint coatings for your exterior signs that are graffiti resistant and able to withstand the elements. A manufacturer of a quality exterior sign system should warranty its finishes and construction for a minimum of 5-7 years.

Use of Modular Components
A system that cannot be easily maintained to accommodate future change and expansion will inevitably be subjected to piecemeal updates by school staff and/or local fabricators. When this happens, the initial image conveyed by the signs deteriorates. To prevent this problem, it's recommended to select a system fabricated with modular, yet tamper-resistant, components so replacement parts are always available for ongoing maintenance.

Incorporation of School Logos and Colors
Using school logos, colors and/or team mascots in exterior sign designs is a great way to build pride and unity among students and faculty and also to promote your school to you would with a business. Proper use of colors and colorful designs can also be a powerful wayfinding element for your sign program, helping distinguish different areas of the campus and provide a consistent design element to tie together all signs throughout the university.

One word of caution here though: Using school logos and colors can be powerful for branding, but don't let those design elements overpower the actual content of the signs. Wayfinding remains the top priority.

Compliment the Architecture
Designing an exterior system can pose a challenge, as most college and university campuses are comprised of buildings in a variety of architectural styles. Choosing a single architectural feature of a prominent or historical building on campus and then incorporating that into your signage design can be a subtle, yet very effective way, to convey your school's image. This can be done graphically or by incorporating certain shapes of posts, panels and/or decorative features into your signs. For example, square shape, silver anodized sign posts may be used in more modern university settings whereas circular or octagonal shape, black posts may be used for more historical or conservative campuses.

Design Considerations for Interior Signs
Making your interior signs do more than just inform, identify and direct is easier and more cost-effective than ever. With all the advancements in printing technologies in the past 4 or 5 years, including direct, full color digital printing to a wide range of rigid substrates, the design options for interior signs are vast. Not only can decorative elements be included in your signs to coordinate with the interior design features of a particular building, but colors, images, patterns, photography and school logos can be easily incorporated as well to add life to the otherwise rather mundane nature of interior signs. In a sense, these choices are narrowing the gap between signage and art.

Varying graphic themes can also be used to distinguish different classrooms, buildings, departments or floors, while specific school colors or logos can then be used throughout the entire program to maintain the consistency that is critical for successful wayfinding.

In addition to using signs as branding and design elements within your interior spaces, you want to make sure the appropriate image of your university is conveyed and maintained. For this, there are two essential considerations for school settings:

Select a Sign Product that is Tamper Resistant
We all know college students will tend to "play" with signs, whether out of boredom, curiosity or perhaps just to take away a little souvenir of their alma mater. For this reason, choose a sign product that includes tamper resistant features, with protected graphics and durable finishes.

Select a Sign Product that is Updatable
As with the exterior program, if your interior signs are not able to accommodate future expansion or changes at the school, you'll soon see a wide range of do-it-yourself sign creations lining your hallways. Nothing does more damage to the image a sign system conveys than having hand-written notes taped on the signs. The university then looks disorganized, cluttered and inefficient.

To prevent this problem, it is highly recommended to choose a modular sign system for your interior signage needs. Modularity will allow the system to maintain a consistent look and image for the long term and, in many cases, will even accommodate professional-looking graphics being produced at the facility level. Not only will this ensure a long-lasting image of quality, but this will save time and money as well.

Making Sure Your Signs Do More
By beginning to view signs as marketing tools and not just wayfinding and identification elements, you've taken the first step to making your signs do more.

We live in a visual world, and signs are most definitely visual products. If you need signs for navigation and ADA compliance anyway, and visitors to your school are already making a visual connection with those signs, why not use them to connect with those visitors on a higher level? Reinforce your brand, enhance your university's image and communicate what your school is about. 

Signs will do this marketing work for you 24/7, so let them do it. 



About The Author
Dillon Cobb

is the VP of Marketing & International at APCO Signs and has twenty years of sign industry experience. APCO has been providing innovative sign and wayfinding solutions since 1966. For more information, visit or contact Dillon at



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