The Package is the Product

John Jackson :: Friday, March 12th, 2010

Recently the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) sponsored a fascinating webcast about campus design called Campus Landscaping; Impact on Recruitment and Retention.  The session was presented by Phil Waite, a professor of landscape architecture with Washington State University. Waite has spent a considerable amount of time researching what effects the appearance and design of campus landscapes has on the recruitment of students and faculty.

As a part of his introduction, Waite shared research from Shankar Vedantum which shows that we are all influenced by things that we never consciously register – what Vendatum refers to as “The Hidden Brain.”  This means that even people who aren’t trained to look for, or think about the quality of character of place – and what impression it may have on them -  are continuously being influenced by how environments look and feel whether they know it or not.

The aesthetics of a place don’t just make us feel good or bad – in higher ed settings, it has a direct effect on the quality of an education.  Some of the most thorough research on the subject has been conducted by James Banning and C. Carney Strange.  In their book Educating By Design: Creating Campus Environments That Work (2001), they document that the physical features of a campus can hinder or promote learning.

This theory is underscored by research performed by E. L. Boyer in 1987 that documented that 62% of high school seniors based their choice of where to go to college on the appearance of the buildings and grounds alone – and they formed this opinion in the first 10 minutes on campus.  Consider that; as designers and/or university administrators focused on recruitment, we have 10 minutes to either capture a prospective student’s attention or lose them to another institution.

In spite of this research – and much more – funding for campus landscapes has been on a steady decline since 1930.  This is in stark contrast to the level of attention that society in general is placing on design and the quality of exterior environments.

Consider what Waite referred to as the “democratization of design:” retailers like Walmart, K Mart and Target are selling inexpensive toasters, lighting, furnishings and other utilitarian objects created by people like architect Michael Graves and designer Todd Oldham. Design makeover shows abound on cable TV. Open-air lifestyle centers have replaced enclosed suburban malls as the preferred retail shopping environment. Lifestyle centers spend on average $30,000/acre on their exterior environments compared to $12,000/acre on average that enclosed mall’s budget.

The result is that Lifestyle centers generate an average of $500 per square foot in profit compared to the $330 per square foot on average that enclosed malls generate. The difference is in the attention to detail and the heavy visual interest in the lifestyle centers – they are more interesting places to spend time in, and the longer someone spends in a retail environment the more money they spend.

Campus designers and administrators need to give lots of thought to how retailers attract youth and strive to apply many of the same principles to campus environments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that campuses must become gaudy or “Disney-fied.”  It just means that, as Waite put it, “The package is the product.”

Before a student meets professors, spends time in a classroom, or gets to know their roommate, they will experience the “product” – the quality education they hope to receive – through their initial impression of the “package” – the campus.  This package must be a physical expression of the ideals and the values of the institution.

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Friday, March 12th, 2010 Landscape Architecture

1 Comment to The Package is the Product

  1. John,

    After reading your post, I wonder if architects firms are starting to contemplate Inbuilding solutions for large campus and corporate buildings? As our life moves around our smart mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.)seems to me that contemplating a Distribute Antenna System is becoming a must while desiging new facilities, but not sure if architects shares thes vision as well.

    Thanks!
    Gabriel

  2. Gabriel Guevara on March 31st, 2010

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