Back to School and Decoding Success

KIPP NYC College Prep, a charter high school in the South Bronx, strives to create an environment of success, providing students with the academic knowledge, real-world skills, and character they need to thrive in life. Just in time for the start of the new school year, a Pentagram team led by Michael Bierutcreated a high-impact graphics program that amps up the school’s “Knowledge is Power” message using puzzles, games, and riddles integrated into the learning environment.

The first high school in the KIPP NYC network of 11 public charter schools, KIPP NYC College Prep serves 900+ students in grades 9 through 12. Its students regularly outperform their peers at other New York schools, boast higher graduation and college matriculation rates, and an extraordinary 100% go on to apply for college.

Bierut’s team extended the mission of educational empowerment to the building’s graphics, which encourage students to think, learn, and problem-solve as they encounter a series of codes, puzzles, and riddles that have been integrated into the environment.

Bierut and his team worked closely with KIPP NYC and its co-founder Dave Levin, as well as the Robin Hood Foundation, which helped fund the school, and Gensler, architect of the new state-of-the-art building opened in 2013. Pentagram had previously collaborated with Robin Hood on environmental graphics for other schools it helps support, including Achievement First Endeavor Middle School and Uncommon Schools Excellence Charter School, as well as 46 public school libraries in its L!BRARY Initiative.

Levin wanted the building itself to be an integral part of the educational process, to be a fun and inviting place that would engage students and foster a sense of constant discovery and surprise. He loves codes and puzzles and had the idea to incorporate these into the environmental graphics. Pentagram has its own longstanding love for games and puzzles, so its team loved the challenge of developing a variety of visual strategies for the signage that would both convey essential information and give students something to think about.

Pentagram associate Britt Cobb and researcher Julia Lindpainter worked with Levin and KIPP NYC teachers to devise the challenges. Many of the puzzles focus on the school’s values, or are inspired by elements of the curriculum. Some are located in only one spot, while others require an experience of the whole building. Levin wanted to keep the students guessing over their four years in the school, so some puzzles are hidden away or show up in unexpected places. Several of the codes are extremely challenging, and there are no posted solutions or clues--Levin and the Pentagram designers are the only ones who know the answers. The varying degrees of difficulty parallel the students’ own educational progression; the building seems to evolve along with them.

Students see their first puzzle as soon as they enter the school, where the name has been rendered in a colorful supergraphic of positive and negative space that plays with perception. The negative space of the letterforms is raised, creating a figure-ground effect. There is no exterior signage on the building, but the mural is visible through the façade. Like all the signage typography, the mural is set in Flama by Mário Feliciano.

Below the mural, a “sawtooth” wall welcomes students with one of KIPP NYC’s motivational phrases, “Go. Graduate.” On the reverse of the wall’s accordion fold—visible as students exit the building—are photos of the high school’s first graduating class (2013), throwing up their mortarboards at the ceremony. (KIPP NYC College Prep was founded in 2009 in temporary quarters before moving to its new home, which opened in September 2013.)

The project’s centerpiece is in the library, the perfect place to highlight information systems. The glass wall fronting the library features 10 unique codes, each arranged as a pattern on its own panel of glass. The sequences use a variety of methods—binary code, Morse code, and reverse code, to name a few—and conceal a variety of messages, including passages from books, geographic coordinates, poems, and more. The series starts easy at the left, and gets progressively more difficult as it continues to the right.

Throughout the building, the environmental graphics are used to thread KIPP NYC messaging into the architecture and interior design. Stairwells provide dynamic locations for various educational mottos. “Knowledge Is Power” appears in the main stairwell connecting all the floors, stretching up five levels. Inside, the big letters are not easily deciphered; the complete phrase can only be seen from the street, where it is visible through windows. A central staircase features “Ancora imparo,” a quote by Michelangelo that translates to “I am still learning,” while the KIPP credo appears on the risers. On a back stairwell, class subjects climb the stairs, ascending in order of difficulty. Tabletops in the cafetorium sport character strengths including “optimism,” “intelligence,” and “self-control.”

Each floor of the school is organized around a central hallway, with communal offices at either end. The halls are oriented to north and south, and the levels are identified with signage inspired by the New York City subway system. Uptown is north, downtown is south, and each floor is color-coded and numbered like the train lines. (And yes, the scheme follows official NYC MTA standards.)

The hallways also feature different lines of code for students to decipher. Spanning the full 165 feet of the corridor, the codes are based on different subjects like the Fibonacci Sequence, chemical compounds, and SAT vocabulary. Classroom signs are lenticular and display the room number from one angle and an image of one of the colleges that KIPP NYC students most often apply to from the other.

The project’s most fun discoveries may be the one-off graphics located in unexpected places, where students might not immediately notice them. Look closely at the pipes in the ceiling of the gym and you may spot the school motto “Work hard. Be nice. Play hard.” Stare at the KIPP NYC emblem embedded in the gym floor and it reveals itself as a maze. And one of the bathrooms contains a secret message that can only be read correctly when seen in a mirror. Skippy, the school’s bulldog mascot, is also hidden somewhere. But Pentagram’s not telling.


Client: KIPP NYC, Robin Hood Foundation

Location: South Bronx, New York

Design: Pentagram

Design Team: Michael Bierut (partner-in-charge, designer), Britt Cobb (associate, designer), Julia Lindpaintner (researcher)

Fabrication/Project Management: DJM Architectural Signage

Collaborators: Gensler (project architect)

Photos: Albert Vecerka, Garrett Rowland, Rob Bennett

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