Creating immersive experiences through experiential branding and wayfinding

Experiential branding and wayfinding have become integral parts of an institution’s architectural expression.

The needs of those who work and learn in institutions of higher education require environments that reflect their preferences and culture more than ever before. That’s why experiential branding and wayfinding have become integral parts of an institution’s architectural expression. While the brand—the story of who you are and why you exist as an institution— builds distinction (beyond curriculum choices) in the marketplace, wayfinding serves to direct, inform and inspire. Together they provide a spatial orientation in what can be an extremely complex and overwhelming environment, especially for those who are new to the campus or who have physical or other disabilities.

Integrating experiential branding and wayfinding

Experiential branding and wayfinding are processes for engaging people as they interact in and with their environment. It is the practice of communicating a brand through a combination of graphic, architectural, interior, media, landscape and industrial design. Experiential branding connects people to places through distinctive, informative and memorable experiences. Likewise, wayfinding identifies, orients, and guides decisions about where people are in their journey using visual cues that include, but are not limited to, signage.

When used together, experiential branding and wayfinding are part of a unified representation of an institution’s brand expression. As such, they need to be designed to be flexible, accommodate tradition and, when necessary, reflect transformation. Successful experiential branding and wayfinding programs enhance and reinforce an institution’s identity by leveraging established equities, including recognizable architecture and landmarks. These programs assist faculty, staff, students and visitors in identifying buildings by name, realizing where they are in a building and figuring out how to get to specific classrooms or other areas. These tools enhance their journeys, enabling all visitors, faculty, staff and students to feel positive about their experiences as they find their destinations.

Here’s one example. Consider the admissions tour, usually the first campus visit by prospective students. The ultimate goal of the tour is to influence students’ decisions to apply to that institution. Yet, visiting a campus for the first time is intimidating. If they drive to the campus, they need to figure out how to get there and where to park. Then these potential students and their family wander around campus trying to find the admissions’ office. It can be stressful for students at a time when the campus seeks to persuade them to enroll. On the other hand, guiding students through these experiences via effective wayfinding and enriching their initial encounter through experiential branding provides a more positive cognitive experience. The visual cues assist in linking the students to the institution emotionally, allowing them to imagine themselves on the campus for their college careers.

The importance of branding and technology

Higher education institutions are similar to other enterprises struggling to stay ahead of the competition while figuring out how to attract their target audience. An institution’s brand dictates the appeal of the campus to the prospective audience through every touch point, from the website to the admissions materials to the physical environment. While it’s relatively easy to control the brand in a marketing brochure or at a recruitment fair, it’s more difficult to do this throughout the campus setting. Campuses are dynamic environments with new structures erected, old ones razed and classrooms and offices moving to different locations. Creating a balance between consistency and messaging in experiential branding and wayfinding supports a positive experience as change occurs. Additionally, interactive technologies and other information delivery systems are being incorporated into campus buildings to enhance the user experience. These programs allow for interaction to engage students, faculty, staff and visitors. At Miami University (Oxford, OH), the new Armstrong Student Center is equipped with technology resources to aid in individual and group work. Additionally, this building was designed to facilitate productivity and social interaction. The building’s design, materials and contextual narrative allow users to feel as if they received a relevant guided tour through the space. The Center both reflects Miami University’s brand and the end user to support an expressive, memorable and interpretive journey.

Shaping experiences through brand execution

The branding and wayfinding narrative is part of what excites incoming freshmen, fosters engagement with all stakeholders, and creates loyalty in graduating seniors. A campus experience built on the brand’s touch points strengthens and reinforces this bond. As colleges and universities seek to differentiate themselves through their environment, experiential branding and wayfinding are proven, cost-effective strategies to create engaging, enlightening and memorable immersive experiences.

Paul Orban, AIA, LEED AP is the higher education market leader and Tim Smith, AIGA Fellow, is the design leader of experiential branding for BHDP Architecture. For more information, contact BHDP Architecture at 614 486-1960 or visit the website at


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