The Importance of Campus Branding for Universities and Community Colleges

Feb 14 2023

By: Amy Spruill, NVIDQ, LEED AP

When prospective students, current student, faculty, and guests step foot on your campus, what impression do you want to leave them with?

With thousands of universities to choose from in the United States alone, incoming first year college students and transfer students have an abundance of options to consider when finding the perfect place to continue their higher education. To make this important decision, many students look not just at academics, but also at the environment each school creates on their campus.

While walking through the campus or scrolling through pictures and videos online, prospective students can learn a great deal about each schools’ values and cultures through their branding. By implementing their unique branding throughout the campus, academic institutions can visually tell students what makes their school unique in every space.

What is branding?  

A brand is the culmination of images, impressions, and experiences a customer holds about a product, service, or company. Having a brand is a critical part of influencing what consumers think and feel about an organization and is key to setting a product or organization apart from competitors.

What steps should we take to develop a successful university brand?  

The key to a successful university brand is honest and ongoing communication of a university’s values and offerings to the institution’s stakeholders and its students. To achieve this goal, colleges and universities can start by examining their current culture and offerings, as well as gathering information on what both current and prospective students hope to gain from their experience on campus.

Once fundamental values are established a design team can help implement your vision and add definition to the identity of the campus.

“When the designers have knowledge about individual spaces on an institution’s campus, it helps them communicate an overall brand for a whole campus. Picking a firm that knows your campus and knows your community is a great first step to creating a campus identity.”
— Amy Spruill, MHAworks Principal & Greenville Director

How is community college branding different from university branding?  

A key difference in branding a community college versus branding a four-year university are the student populations a community college serves. When branding a campus, it is important to look at the types of students each campus serves, as well as the goals that students have when attending both types of learning institutions.

Community College

In a community college setting, potential students can come from a wide range of backgrounds ranging from recent high school graduates looking to obtain their associates degree full-time to professionals looking to gain certifications instead of a two-year degree. Many students at community colleges are looking to earn more technical degrees and certifications in information technology, culinary, cosmetology, dental hygiene, and the emergency medical services (EMS) profession. Educational spaces needed for these programs may need to more closely mirror the relevant professional settings rather than a higher educational classroom.

Alamance Community College’s culinary classrooms are designed to look and feel like a restaurant kitchen. Pops of the College’s blue are seen in the cabinets and doors of the stove.

Most community colleges also do not provide the residential spaces that four-year universities have for their students. When designing a community college campus, it is important to make sure there are plenty of spaces for students to relax in between classes since students may not leave campus during their academic breaks.

A lounge area for Pitt Community College’s Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) facility. This space provides students with a place to relax and talk in between classes and training.


Although there are students at four-year universities that do not live in campus housing, the residential component of four-year universities is what primarily separates them from community colleges design-wise. On a university campus, it is important to give thought to residential buildings and supporting outside spaces that make students feel at home.

The interiors of Greene Residence Hall at East Carolina University (ECU) underwent extensive renovations to reflect ECU’s high standards of campus living. The building is designed with a bright color pallette and many spaces for students to relax and collaborate.

One of the ways in which you can design your campus to feel like a home is by giving students plenty of space to collaborate and meet other students. By creating a sense of community on campus, your students will feel more like their campus is a “home away from home” because they will have that important support system around them. Community can be cultivated anywhere on campus, and with proper design, even the oldest, darkest spaces on campus can be transformed into a popular spot to hang out in.

“One of the first projects I worked on with Matthew Johnson, one of MHAworks’ senior project architects, was a basement in East Carolina University’s (ECU) Fletcher Hall. Originally, students only came down to the basement to grab a drink from the vending machines. After renovating and branding the space, data from the University’s card reader system showed that more students were using and staying in the space to study and to gather.” — Amy Spruill

Fletcher Residence Hall at ECU once renovations were completed.

How do we start branding our campus?

Your campus can achieve a brand-new look without having to undergo extensive renovations. Many colleges opt to work with an architecture and interior design firm to develop campus master plans that update interior design and furnishing standards to meet your campus’ needs and provide a modern, on-brand look.

Located in a small coastal town off NC Highway 58, Lenoir Community College serves more than 3,000 curriculum students and more than 5,000 continuing education students. As the campus continues to grow and evolve, Lenoir Community College decided to upgrade their look to provide students with an innovative learning environment that inspire their students and fosters collaboration and community on campus.

The campus branding process began with our design team meeting with representatives at Lenoir Community College. The goal of these informational meetings was to understand the client’s goals for their branding, what user groups the client was branding towards, and to address any questions or concerns.

Once the design team understood the campus and the college’s branding goals, they researched and documented existing furniture and interior finishes to develop an understanding of past standards on campus. After getting a full picture of the campus, the design team presented multiple options that were narrowed down into the new standards.

These final documents serve as the finish standards guide. These standards help to promote a campus brand.

Interior finishing samples from Lenoir Community College (LCC) branding project.

What are important design trends to consider when branding our campus?

Create environments that highlight the programs and experiences students will have on campus and in the community.

Students choose to continue their education for two primary reasons:

  1. To further their career with the proper education, training, and certifications.
  2. To experience student life on a college campus.

When picking out branded materials, it is important that those materials reflect the offerings of a school and the community it resides in. For example, if a school is in the mountains or on the coast, key geographic features could serve as prominent branding elements.

Graphic elements, style, and imagery that reflect popular programs at a school are also useful to incorporate into a branding effort. Schools emphasizing STEM programs can incorporate imagery associated with science and technology into their design.

A school’s spirit can also be incorporated into branding efforts. Inside of ECU Main Student Union, graphics give a nod to the school’s mascot, Peedee the Pirate.

ECU’s Main Student Union – incorporating graphics and school slogans or chants is a fun way to incorporate branding on campus.
ECU’s Health Science Student Center was created to give students on the Health Science Campus a place to relax and promote their wellbeing. ECU logos can be seen on the gym floor and through other signage.

Spaces that promote wellness.

Creating a work-life balance on campus is a crucial element to retain students. The ability to form lasting connections with peers and professionals is a huge element that separates the in-person learning experience from remote learning online. Providing spaces for students to relax and socialize is key. Including elements such as ergonomic furniture and biophilic colors, materials, and patterns in your branding design are a few ways to create a comfortable environment for learning, relaxing, and socializing.

The Health Science Student Center at ECU is a prime example of how universities can incorporate wellness design into their brand. In this strategically designed space, students have access to several dining options, places to relax and study, and a indoor basketball court and gym.

“The ECU Health Science Student Center was designed to emphasize movement. The slide and open stairs are meant to encourage users to use these pathways instead of the elevator. Having a central location on the Health Science Campus for students to exercise, eat, study, and relax was important to show ECU’s culture of prioritizing student well-being.” — Amy Spruill

Include creative design elements.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of designing a university or community college campus brand is coming up creative ways to implement the school’s branding throughout the campus. Students enjoy seeing bright pops of color around campus.

When collaborating with Pitt Community College on the renovation and modernization of their library, the designers decided to incorporate a playful color pallet and unique spaces to study to draw more students into the library and to separate this space from the classrooms.

Pitt Community College’s library was designed with a bright color pallet using the school’s “Bulldog Blue” to draw more students into the library.

Brand indoor and outdoor spaces.

Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is an iconic feature of not only ECU’s campus, but of the entire Greenville community.

It is important that students, faculty, and visitors feel like they are on your campus whether they are in a building, walking outside, or at an athletic event.

Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at ECU incorporates their branding both on and off the football field. When considering renovations to the stadium, it was important that fans felt a part of the campus community both at the stadium and through a TV screen. MHAworks was hired by ECU to replace stadium seating inside the 35-yard lines on both sides of the facility to purple chairback seats to better reflect the spirit of Pirate Nation.

Make sure your campus is photo and video ready.

Your campus is not only seen by visitors coming in person but also people finding your campus online or through social media. Intentionally creating photo opportunities and backgrounds for students and visitors to pose in front of and post to their own social channels can help promote an institutions online presence. Signs, statues, and murals are a few common pieces of branded materials students and visitors commonly take photos with when they visit campus.

Since there will be many prospective students that will not have the the ability to visit campus in-person during the college search period, it is important that each space on campus can be photographed or videoed well. Photos and videos of your campus will be the first thing prospective students see when they are researching and it is important that these photos draw prospective students in.

Family and friends take photos of incoming freshmen with the ECU letters at the Main Student Center during Admitted Student Day. (Photo Credit:

What are the benefits of campus branding?

Increased traffic to previously underutilized space.  

Branding your campus not only allows students, faculty, and visitors to understand your school’s offerings and culture, but can also transform an otherwise underutilized space into a new favorite spot for members of the campus community to meet and work in.

ECU’s Janice Faulkner Gallery inside of the Joyner Library was originally a vacant stack space. The space was transformed into an art gallery and event space that became so popular that the library had to change their room reservation system to accommodate the influx of people wanting to use the space. The bright pops of ECU yellow and purple in the furniture as well as the neon light display on the ceiling makes this space stand out.

Janice Faulkner Gallery at ECU’s Joyner Library. The bright pops of ECU yellow and purple in the furniture as well as the neon light display on the ceiling makes this space stand out.

The College of Business’ Student Technology Center provides multiple collaborative spaces, quick-use workstations, and multi-screen smartboards, all in an inviting interior that is branded in ECU’s colors.

Help attract new students to your school and retain current students.

Today’s generation of students are putting more time into researching their higher education options than previous generations because they do not have to rely on visiting the school for a tour to get all the information they need. Today’s students are discovering universities around the world through websites, social media, blogs, and reviews. It is important that your branding is memorable and remains consistent and present both online and in-person.  

Excellent design will help draw new students in and retain students already on campus. Investing into the aesthetics of your campus is one way to show current students how your institution is investing into them. Creating branded, comfortable spaces for your current students to learn, relax, and socialize in will help your student become happier and more productive. 

Attract and retain faculty and staff.  

Not only can your branding attract students to attend your university, but it can also help attract new faculty and staff. Your university is not only an educational institution, but it is also a place of work. Your campus branding will tell potential professors and other staff what it is like to work and educate at your school. A well-designed campus leads to improved retention, decreased turnover, and more interest in working at your school from professors and staff who resonate with the message of your branding.  

ECU’s Office of Faculty Excellence supports outstanding faculty in their teaching, research, and service through faculty development programming and consultation.

Your school brand is more than just a color scheme or logo, it is about how people feel when they step foot on campus.