As some of the UK’s best-known private schools open international schools across the globe, could universities learn more from their approach to creating a ‘brand experience’ for students.

Do we design universities back to front? Is it right to start with architecture and end with education? David Judge, group creative director at Space Zero, believes this order could be reversed, having applied the strategy, alongside a team of 60 specialist designers, strategists, technicians and managers, to the design of independent schools. “We look at how spaces interconnect with each other in terms of community, culture, proximity, size and brand,” Judge says. “Once this is agreed, the building can be formed around this fundamental structure and arranged into the campus. We call this ‘inside out design’.”

Wellington College China, Shanghai
Photograph: Tim Franco

As education becomes increasingly international and the number of campuses abroad grows (in 2018, Britain’s 136 universities had 39 international branch campuses abroad) brand experience is key to strengthening the identity of an institution and reassuring students that their experience is equivalent to that of the ‘home’ campus.

Recognised broadly as sensations, feelings and behavioural responses to brand-related stimuli, it is this notion of brand experience that guides Space Zero’s approach when designing international schools, most recently delivering a high quality, British independent school brand experience for Wellington College in China.

“We have been consulting and collaborating with leading academics and consultants from retail brand experience design over the last 18 months and have developed a unique approach,” Judge says. “At the heart of this strategy is an analytical tool called relevant differentiation.

The main question for any commercial organisation to consider when approaching the market is – how are you relevant to your customers but different from your competition?”

Wellington College China, Shanghai
Photograph: Tim Franco

Wellington College China is, in essence, relevant differentiation in action: a marriage of traditional values and progressive education which is unique to the institution.

Space Zero is applying this process to the design of learning environments for the first time in history, but while such an approach has been revolutionary in designing international public schools, can it be interpreted for universities?

Wellington College China, Shanghai
Photograph: Tim Franco

The idea of a school as a brand experience as much as an educational experience has been central to Space Zero flipping the order of priorities within spatial organisation, and it could have interesting results within a university environment, particularly when guided by experiential retail design methodologies.

Good brand experience articulates and reinforces what an institution stands for, allowing students to experience its values as they interact with the space, whether walking the corridors, enjoying the social spaces or sitting in a lecture theatre.

Universities already recognise themselves as brands and we see it in their visual identities across websites, prospectuses and social media. But Spaze Zero’s fresh approach to brand experience design ensures the essence of the brand transfers and is brought to life in full when expanding into international markets.

Placing student experience at the core of design could well offer an opportunity for engaging a new generation of students with new priorities, particularly as prospective students are increasingly making decisions based upon a university’s campus. In fact, research by EAB’s Enrollment Services found that campus environment is more influential than both academic reputation and cost in attracting students.

Just as ‘inside out design’ has been fundamental in exporting educational brand experiences to overseas campuses for independent schools, it could well be the key to a new era in university campus design.

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