This design firm may have just the branding blueprint you need to appeal to Gen Z

"[Gen] Z has a very acute B.S. detector," says Erica Buss, senior associate of management research and insights at Ankrom Moisan. "They can see through brands that are being performative rather than making it a genuine part of the college university culture."

Incoming traditional college-aged students from Gen Z might seem as complex to understand and appeal to as the state of today’s rapidly changing world. Their personalities are so unique and nuanced that off-campus residencies hoping to attract them should rethink their standard for an adequate living design, Ankrom Moisam declares in its latest report.

The nationally respected design firm identifies the key aspects that define a generation marked by its pandemic-era development and all its characteristics exacerbated it: intuitive technological use, observational shrewdness and concern for societal advancement.

Colleges and universities interested in creating more engaging branding materials may have as much to gain from the report’s analysis of Gen Z culture as any residence facility designer.

Ankrom Moisan is a design firm that works across eight sectors, specializing in architecture, interiors and branding. Its research team surveyed nearly 400 Gen Z students to help inform its report.

Below are Gen Z’s five core needs for modern interior designs and how each relates to Gen Z’s broader cultural interests and development.

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Authentic expression

The key to connecting with this audience is not to abandon your authenticity, the report asserts. To earn their trust and intention, one must be proactive with messaging and, most importantly, embody it. For example, the best way to commit to diversity, inclusion, and sustainability lies in the designs that show it, such as through zero-waste programs and gender-neutral bathrooms.

“Platitudes on posters won’t cut it,” the report reads.

They have a keen eye for marketing that tries too hard to promote intimacy. They expect brands to be more earnest in presenting their services and courageous enough to recognize everyday challenges without virtue signaling.

“[Gen] Z has a very acute B.S. detector,” says Erica Buss, senior associate of management, research and insights at Ankrom Moisan. “They can see through brands that are being performative rather than making it a genuine part of the college university culture.”

Connecting to Gen Z culture: Students can smell phony from a mile away. Gen Zers are among the first to grow up entirely within arm’s reach of powerful technological devices, which has exposed them at a very young age to a multitude of programs and advertisements vying for their attention. On top of that, algorithm-driven content curates what they’re exposed to based on their interests, fine-tuning content to a deeply astute level of interest at a rapid pace.

Avoid pandering to what you may believe their interests are, or attempt at your peril.

Pragmatic spaces

Students prefer lowkey and multi-functional spaces that can adapt to their changing needs. They’re interested in minimalist designs rather than “Disney-esque” luxury amenities that occupy space for a specific activity. Shared living areas should cultivate spaces for individual focus, group work and one-on-one interactions in interconnected areas. This requires designers to create spaces that minimize students’ limitations in how they can or cannot use the space.

“While millennials were into a more polished, perfectionistic approach in their visuals and their branding, [Gen Z] is much more comfortable with things not being perfect, with things being messy,” says Buss. “Gen Z is comfortable with owning mistakes and images, graphics and messaging not being so polished.”

Connecting to Gen Z culture: The cross-section between online and in-person models for learning, living and socializing has cultivated simultaneity in students’ behavior. With the flick of a finger swipe, students can navigate between multiple college websites and back to their social media platforms.

Adaptive wellness

Create spaces that promote a slower pace and less high stakes of living that resonate with an audience confounded by the rapidly changing world around them. To promote well-being, students seek areas with fresh air and ample natural light, prioritize sleep, and support cooking at home.

Connecting to Gen Z culture: Gen Z is among one of the most stressed student cohorts and has one of the highest rates of mental health problems. Consequently, the subject is less stigmatized, and many students expect brands to engage the issue head-on and provide adequate services.

Inclusivity and belonging

Choose materials, amenities and space plans that welcome students of various cultures, personalities and identities. These safe spaces should be highly accommodating to individuals’ different needs and promote natural light, transparency, openness and color.

“Though Gen Z culture may move at a rapid, seemingly indecipherable pace, accommodating them and their needs is not rocket science,” the report reads. “It can take active listening and flexibility, but at the end of the day, they just want housing that they feel comfortable in and can afford.”

Connecting to Gen Z culture: The students landing on your campus in the coming years are interested in adequately representing all possible identities. Ensure that your brand is not associated with excluding a certain group of people, even if it’s unintentional.

Connection to nature

Gen Z is interested in the integration of natural elements into the facilities where it’s appropriate. They enjoy natural light, visual connections to nature and fresh air. Colleges should find sustainable, environmentally friendly ways to implement these facets into their building design.

“One thing that’s fascinating about Gen Z is that while they are digital natives and spend a lot of time on social media, a lot of older generations don’t give them credit for their real desire to balance between digital and analog,” says Buss.

Connecting to Gen Z culture: Despite students’ heavy reliance on technology in their day-to-day lives, they are still partial to the natural world. As a result, they are vigilant about humanity’s impact on the planet and are deeply interested in eco-friendly services. With 80% of Gen Z respondents saying that sustainability impacts where they decide to live, it’s vital to leverage a brand that champions going green.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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