A Clear Path—University of Utah Wayfinding

A deceptively simple user orientation strategy and directories enriched with maps, building photos and campus stories form the basis of a master plan that gives the sprawling University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City a long lasting, authentic-to-place wayfinding and signage system. Working in collaboration with University planners, the team from Michael Courtney Design (Seattle) developed a master plan focused on user-friendly elements to replace the worn out signage program on the University's growing urban campus. MCD's goals were to develop a wayfinding system that simplifies navigation and establishes a sense of arrival and identity to welcome visitors, students, staff and guests to campus.

A key orientation strategy in developing a comprehensive environmental graphics master plan—including assessment, wayfinding, a complete sign family and information design—was to divide the 1,564 acre, 300+ building campus into newly designated neighborhoods, with signs for each neighborhood sporting a specific color band. The main campus was divided into North/South and the plan identified other parts of campus (Fort Douglas, University Medical Center, Research Park and Villages) as neighborhoods also. The neighborhood designations reduced the overall number of signs required and simplified wayfinding; you can easily get close to your destination by getting into the neighborhood first.

To further help visitors, staff and students navigate, the design established a consistent visual look and feel, material palette and layout throughout the entire sign family. MCD created a simplified, easy to understand design language for both vehicular and pedestrian signs to be fabricated largely from local materials that are easy to maintain. All signs needed to withstand the challenging weather conditions of Salt Lake City, where a typical year includes minus-zero winter temperatures and hundred-plus summers, with snowy winters and dry summers.

Pedestrian Focus

The University of Utah is a pedestrian friendly campus so a priority of the master plan was to further enhance the pedestrian experience. With that in mind, MCD developed a special program for pedestrian directories that sets the University of Utah apart from any similar project. Relevant stories about the neighborhood and University history were embedded into the pedestrian directories, which were also illustrated with area maps and photos of nearby buildings. The photos were the result of a University team member's suggestion. As many University of Utah campus buildings look similar, adding photos to the signs was a great idea and a significant assist in recognition. ("Oh, that's the Student Union.") These directories are thus unique to a specific location and impart subtle encouragement to see the campus in unexpected ways. Each Directory has four information zones: 

  • A cap which prominently announces the neighborhood with both color coding and a name, e.g., North
  • An overall map on one side and area detail on the other, both oriented to the neighborhood
  • A legend with keys to the map and building identification
  • ­­Story and photo elements unique to place


Physical Placement

Recommended locations for signs were developed based on plans; MCD then implemented a second stage process to confirm placement. For both vehicular and pedestrian signs, full-size layouts were printed, placed and photographed in the recommended locations, allowing quick confirmation of letter size, placement of artwork, etc. Photos (or after adjustment photos) were added to the Sign Location Plans and on MCD documents. With those plans and documents in hand, University staff supervised the final placement of the signs, checking for their visibility in place, any obstructions, and also for underground utilities.

“Our Project Manager reserved a campus golf cart to help us survey the sprawling campus on 100-degree heat, said Principal Michael Courtney. "Who knew this would make locating signs so much easier?"  

Implementation: A Ten-Year Process

The Master Plan called for phased implementation. After the University approved the Master Plan, they secured funds to install the first phase, the Vehicular wayfinding. Later, the cost of the remaining phases was wrapped into ongoing campus improvements, and MCD was authorized to begin development of the next set of sign types, reviewing designs on campus and confirming locations. Although there was initially concern that the distance from MCD's office in Seattle to Salt Lake City, combined with a phased project, would become challenging, that was not the case. MCD took it one project at a time. "We quickly determined the most effective way to work was for our team to spend two-three days on campus each trip rather than fly in and back for one day," said Courtney. "This way we could cover all our meetings and surveys and stop in to see the client for any updates or questions before returning to Seattle.”  Over time, the sign family grew and populated the campus, with the last set of pedestrian signs installed roughly ten years after the process began.



Project Name: University of Utah Signage and Wayfinding Master Plan

Client: The University of Utah

Location: Salt Lake City

Open Date:  Spring 2006

Project Area: 1,534 acres

Project Budget: $240,000.00

Experiential, Graphic and Environmental Design: Michael Courtney Design

Michael Courtney Design Team: Michael Courtney (principal, design lead); Fran Terry (senior project manager, senior designer); Landon Fisher (designer); Debra Burgess (designer)

University of Utah Planning Team: John McNary (director, campus planning), Christin Robbins (project manager)

Fabrication and Digital Integration: YESCO

Collaborators: Berkey Engineering

Photos: Michael Courtney Design

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