Telling your institution’s story visually

by Alex Budnitz for Call to Action (Inside Higher Ed)

Article four in an eight-part series on how to craft an authentic, differentiating brand.

Now that you have an understanding of the process to create a compelling brand, have gotten calibrated through thoughtful research, and have developed resonant messaging, you’re ready to turn an eye to design. It’s time to develop a visual tool kit that will work in tandem with your verbal framework to tell your institution’s story. You can get started by focusing on five areas informed by your research that will, in turn, inform how you present yourself visually.

What are your brand attributes and points of differentiation?

What are the attributes (qualities of character) that define your institution, and how do they help you differentiate yourself from your competitors and connect with your constituents? The positive perceptions should be reinforced, while negative perceptions should be acknowledged and then managed away.

What are your institution’s assets and capabilities?

What unique assets, both physical and intellectual, does your institution bring to the table? Your design choices should reflect and elevate the unique personality that draws people to your doors.

This is also a good time to consider your capacity for developing design assets, and taking stock of any that already exist. For example: do you have a significant photography library—and if not, are you willing to invest in new photography?

What are your audience’s expectations—and how far from them can you stray?

It makes sense that a research and technical university would communicate differently from a small, liberal arts college, but staying slavishly within those norms won’t you help tell a differentiated story. However, if you push accepted understanding too far, you risk confusing or alienating your intended audience––or worse, looking like you’re trying to be something that isn’t achievable or believable.

What are your key strategic goals?

What strategic goals does your approach to visual expression need to advance? Do you have to reach a wider or different pool of prospects? Do you have to be seen as part of a different peer group? As with words, trying to say everything to everyone at the same time will dilute your message. Your approach to visual expression should focus on promoting your most critical aims.

What are your visual conventions now?

Through your audit, you’ve examined how you’re presenting yourself across media. The key question: is what you’re doing advancing or detracting from how you want to be seen? Answering this will tell you how much work is needed.

Evolving your visual system: explore all of your available tools

Thinking through the questions above is important before digging in to design decisions. While a choice of typeface or color can’t, on its own, manage away outdated perceptions, speak to a new audience, or make clear your areas of focus, design decisions can certainly reinforce desired attributes and help you to connect with target audiences.

It’s the totality of your choices—and the interaction of your choices—that people see. You’re building a system.

Each choice you make is important, but your institution is perceived and understood not by this typeface here, that color there, and a certain approach to composition. It’s the totality of your choices––and the interaction of your choices––that people see. You’re building a system.

To make choices that truly advance your institutional goals, you’ll need to take a deep dive into some of the symbolism and cultural references reflected in each element of visual expression. This will help you understand and be in control of how the different elements work together to project a clear, differentiated, and authentic visual voice.


The forms of serif typography are derived and adapted from the quill and pen strokes of scribes, and carry an association with tradition and humanistic inquiry. Sans-serif typography matured during the industrial revolution in response to dramatic social and technological change—thus their association with technology and industry.


There is an entire science of color theory and how approaches to the spectrum affect our mood and comprehension. Generally speaking, warm hues (yellows and reds) are dynamic and energetic, while cool hues (blues and greens) are stable, calm, and reflective. However, the relationship between colors can be tuned by adjusting value and saturation.


The old adage is true: images speak volumes. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of approaches to photography, and each choice or approach will offer different clues about the personality of your institution. Positioning a camera to be a participant in a seminar is very different than recording the class from the doorway.


Psychology plays a role in your approaches to layout or composition, too. Symmetrical designs convey tradition and gravitas, while asymmetrical design can feel modern and lively. Simplicity versus complexity is another balance to strike.


Many academic institutions grew out of ancient faith traditions, fraternal organizations, or trade guilds rich with associated symbols and images—thus the prevalence of the seal or shield in higher education. The idea of an abstract symbol as logo—like sans-serif typography—is a more contemporary construction.

Putting it all together

This is where the fun (and tough) part begins: developing your unique visual voice from largely open source components, each of which can send their own message. The most important thing is to recognize the opportunity each choice offers and the different aspects of who you are that you can express through your type, palette, imagery, and more.

That’s how to ensure your visual language adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Articles in this series