From village to front door: Branding as wayfinding

As campuses grow, they develop smaller 'neighborhoods' with their own identities
Luis Bernardo is the senior principal with Design Collective. Jessica Pagan Aello is an architect and associate with Design Collective.

With growing enrollment and on-campus housing demands, larger living and learning communities are being designed. These larger communities, often multiple buildings in scale, are creating neighborhoods within the greater campus.

Because of the scale of these new housing communities, it is vital that the communities have a sense of identity and are easily navigable. The seven-building village, at the University of South Florida (USF), achieved this goal by integrating branding and wayfinding into the landscape, architectural, interior, and signage design. Here are key aspects of the project including its active outdoor network of spaces, distinctive signage and integrated interior/exterior design, as well as insights for higher education leaders.

The Village at the University of South Florida

The University of South Florida (USF) is a public university with over 50,000 students across its entire system. The main campus consists of approximately 42,000 students and is located on a sprawling 1562-acre site in Tampa, Florida. The size of the main campus left many incoming students feeling overwhelmed and lost. In an effort to address student concerns and improve the freshman and sophomore experience, USF sought to replace their outdated and disconnected north campus residence halls with a new 2200-bed freshman and sophomore village.

This village would boast all the amenities of home—dining, wellness, retail—while providing students with a sense of community and identity at a variety of scales.

In master planning this large living and learning community, the design team organized the seven buildings around an extensive open space and circulation network that ties existing natural features to a variety of active public spaces and adjacent program. The four to six story residential buildings step in massing to create diversity and identity in keeping with a village-style aesthetic. The dining center, named “The Hub,” and the wellness center, named “The Fit,” provide a sculptural counterpoint to the housing, making these more public buildings easily distinguishable.

The placement of the retail, dining, wellness, and recreation components of the program creates a connected spine of social space that activates the green spaces and frames prominent circulation paths. This critical synergy of retail, restaurants, dining, wellness, and outdoor amenity creates an engaging student-centered environment.

Memorable and active outdoor spaces

The Village open space network is experientially rich, functional, versatile, and sustainable. Major public spaces are designed to create a series of unique addresses known as the Promenade, the Village Terrace, the Overlook, the Village Commons, and the Plaza. A tailored planting palette weaves a variety of texture, color, and patterns throughout these spaces to enhance the user’s experience and create a cohesive system of natural features.

  • The Promenade. The Promenade is a prominent east-west pathway that organizes the Village. The paved pedestrian path is flanked by corner active lounges, which will serve as a well-lit beacon at night, creating visual interest for those walking along the path or driving into the campus. The framing of this primary entry signalizes arrival and invites pedestrians down towards the Dining and Wellness centers. This east-west pathway is further celebrated by pairing a bull statue on a landscaped brick pedestal with a trellis that features flowering bougainvillea vines.
  • Village Terrace. The Village Terrace is a defining element of the University’s identity and experience, connecting off-site amenities to the heart of the Village through a large stair and ramp. This space transitions from an open air lawn with dispersed benches to a formally arranged bosque of trees. Activated by amenity and recreational uses, the Village Terrace is a prominent gathering space for students, staff, and visitors. It contributes to the University’s unique sense of place, unifying and enhancing the visual, functional, ecological character of the campus.
  • The Overlook. The Overlook anchors the Village Terrace on the southern end of the community and provides a commanding view of the central spine that runs through the Village, terminating at the dining center. Activated by various retail, restaurants, and dining frontage, the Overlook will accommodate a plaza space for students, staff, and visitors to congregate. Raised planters, seating, decorative paving, USF logos, and bull sculptures add interest and mark this critical entry point. The Overlook is a visually iconic space and gateway to the Village that fosters a collaborative environment for students, staff, and visitors.
  • Village Commons. The Village Commons is a formal lawn and stormwater feature, serving as the front door to the community from the north and providing a visible entry point for visitors to access the Village. The open green provides the flexibility for a wide-range of activities, including outdoor dining, passive recreation, seasonal festivals, and opportunities for academic engagement. Positioned adjacent to the dining and wellness centers and anchored by several flagpoles, the Village Commons serves as the hub for residential and village community life, welcoming thousands of students, parents, alumni, and visitors to the campus.
  • The Plaza. The Plaza is located at the heart of the Village, serving as an active node that connects the two main pedestrian paths. It is activated by the adjacent residential amenity program and by the dining and wellness centers. Decorative paving and a large canopy structure marks its central location while providing a flexible hardscape space for seating and large events. An interactive fountain provides an opportunity for students to cool off and an iconic spot to snap a quick photo. The wellness center’s mesh tower acts as the plaza’s campanile, serving as a strong vertical marker and beacon for the entire Village.

Celebrating architectural features and signage

The Village consists of seven buildings including five living-learning buildings which each boasts its own distinctive accent color and entry tower.

Each perforated metal entry tower proudly displays a custom graphic inspired by the USF logo and University imagery to identify and brand each community. A glassy recessed slot further distinguishes the main entry with a curvilinear metal canopy welcoming students and visitors. This recessed slot is connected to the transparent and vibrant ground level amenity space. This creates a dynamic and light-filled ribbon of activity along the main pedestrian paths. Additional building signage above the canopy, along the amenity glass, and above the illuminated corner lounges enhances visibility and wayfinding.

Each residential building steps in massing with a taller 6-story or 5-story central portion over the amenity space and smaller 5-story or 4-story wings on either side. This step in massing provides not only hierarchy but also highlights the distinctive colors of the residential amenity and entry.

Freestanding entry gateway signs build on the graphics of the building entry tower signage to celebrate and create a cohesive palette.

These 14-foot tall and illuminated perforated metal pylons mark five critical entry points to the Village district and help orient pedestrians. Each of these signage pieces draws from USF branded graphics, adds vibrancy to the Village, and helps to distinguish each building and community.

Integrating Interior Design

The color and graphic design informs an interior finish palette that seamlessly blends the architecture, landscape, and interior experience.

Each exterior accent color reappears on the interior at the entry booth and at other critical junctures along the main interior circulation. These bright color accents reappear in fabric, carpet, and furniture selections, providing each building with its own unique character. To further distinguish each residential community and provide students with a sense of identity, a custom vinyl graphic was designed and placed at the communal tables. This graphic picks up on the interior finish palette and exterior graphic signage design per building.

Key insights

The combined effect of the Village’s qualities – outdoor space, signage and integrated interior/exterior design – offers insights for higher education leaders.

  • Balance scale and student experience. Today, few universities have dealt with projects of this scale, and achieving a sense of community for students while keeping the campus cohesive and coherent is no simple task.
    To achieve the necessary density without sacrificing the sense of community and the student experience, university leaders and planners can envision a communal living situation that doesn’t feel like a heavily populated urban center. This approach also eases the transition for students, many of whom are coming from single-family homes and are not accustomed to living with this level of density on campus.
    USF leaders demonstrate a savvy solution—they added several thousand beds while also comfortably transitioning students into communal living. To achieve this balance, leaders emphasized green space and detailed buildings with transparency that creates a feeling of openness and interconnection.
    They also created common areas that centered around amenities like dining and wellness, giving students the feel of a hometown, complete with a grocery store component.
    At the same time, dining and wellness are accessed at the pedestrian level in smaller, one to two-story buildings, creating strong ground floor connections while also creating more intimate spaces that contrast the mid-rise residences.
  • Build a sense of community through mixed-use. There is a trend towards placing dining, wellness, and other mixed-use program components on the bottom floor of a residence hall. While this level of integration promotes a sense of community it also poses security issues.
    To build a sense of community, university leaders can consider integrating mixed-use. The town’s students have grown up in are a varied mix of retail, public, and residential buildings, and extending that diversity of uses into the campus community not only eases the transition but also creates a vibrant campus life.
    USF leaders developed a unique, horizontal application of mixed-use buildings that are integrated into a residential village, creating pockets of programmed space resembling a city block. These buildings are broken out separately to reinforce scale, which feels similar to a village experience. By pulling out and celebrating these public components, security issues were alleviated.
    Beyond student housing, the city block concept cultivates campus culture, incorporating both physical and mental wellness for transitioning students, and creates a sense of place through varied mixed-use options.
    Leaders at USF had the available land to make this work and, because of their pre-cast systems for campus buildings, this was the most cost-effective solution for this project.
  • Develop branding that supports intuitive wayfinding. Students entering their collegiate years today have grown up with cell phones and GPS and are often understandably unfamiliar with reading maps and self-navigation.
    Project leaders can emphasize the importance of making their campus inherently legible, especially for students who are away from their support system, and first-generation college students.
    University leaders can make the process of navigating the campus simple with clear branding of the residential buildings. This integrated approach to branding also gives students a sense of identify and pride in their own place to live on campus.
    At USF, leaders developed branding that supports wayfinding that is unique and modern. Freshmen, in particular, find the branding helps reduce the scale as wayfinding elements make the spaces distinguishable, memorable, and inviting.

Creating a Destination

By the thoughtful integration of landscape, architecture, environmental graphics, signage, finishes, and color, the village creates an exciting destination that advances the USF brand while providing the community and each building with its own sense of identity.

This approach to wayfinding and branding allows a richly integrated and active village to emerge—a village that encourages the best and brightest to flourish and want to keep coming back.

Luis Bernardo is the senior principal with Design Collective. Jessica Pagan Aello is an architect and associate with Design Collective.

Luis Bernardo
Luis Bernardo
Luis Bernardo is the senior principal with Design Collective.

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