Poulin + Morris Revitalize Cornell Communications

In dire need of a space befitting their Ivy League reputation for excellence, the Department of Communication at Cornell University enlisted JMZ Architects and Planners and renowned design firm Poulin + Morris Inc. to spearhead the revitalization effort.


Required Reading

Cornell University's main campus lies on 2,300 acres in picturesque Ithaca, N.Y., adjacent to Cayuga Lake. The Department of Communication had been housed in three floors of Kennedy Hall for 20 years—a dark, dusty dated space—but recently moved across the AG Quad to the Mann Library building. The department's new home is 19,000-sq.-ft. of new space on the fourth floor, with a view of Beebe Lake in the center of campus.

The move was a positive change for the evolution and growth of the Department of Communication, providing more room for its faculty, staff and graduate students. The state-of-the-art facility and research labs were designed by JMZ Architects and Planners, who brought in renowned experiential graphic design firm Poulin + Morris Inc. to create the comprehensive branding, environmental graphics, donor recognition and wayfinding sign program.



In addition to working closely with JMZ, the P+M team immersed themselves in the culture of the department, interviewing the space's different user groups: faculty, staff, visitors and students. It quickly became clear that the department needed a people-driven solution that was flexible or modular, and served as a representation of their identity and mission. The department was lacking a strong visual identity as well as bright open areas for meetings, collaboration, work and events—all things that seemed vital to communication education, particularly at the world-class level.

As with many academic projects, the resources were modest. The P+M team focused their collaborative effort on clever, simple, functional solutions that would engage and connect people, furthering the department's mission to enhance the understanding of communication methods and practices for a broad range of constituencies, with the purpose of effecting positive social change.

"The most fruitful and rewarding part of this project was the working relationship with the client group; there was a great synergy happening, and the architect was very open to the branding informing their choices," says Richard Poulin, Partner, Poulin + Morris Inc.



The P+M team began transforming the department's space by thinking of all the activity within as a shared group experience, a mindset that informed the development of a common area known as "the Hub." The Hub is centrally located (all corridors intersect there) and serves as an open place to have meetings, informal gatherings and spontaneously collaborate—something that previously required a trip across campus. It also allows for undergraduates to interact with and work alongside faculty and grad students.

Aptly equipped with a kitchen, café-style seating, mobile whiteboards, and workstations with screens for laptop use, the Hub has become an area in frequent use. Since opening, the department has hosted numerous events in the Hub, including a faculty chats series, recruitment events and project presentations.

In the Hub, the “Words of Communication” wall was developed by P+M as a large-scale interactive word cloud. The printed magnetic panels are complete with a selection of over 100 moveable words with which staff, students, and visitors are encouraged to play and communicate in this highly literate environment. A dotted grid aids in tidy placement of the magnetic words, and echoes the visual texture of the "Faces of Communication” wall in the lobby.


Test Taking

The corridors on the fourth floor are lined with offices, research laboratories and flexible spaces that can be used on the fly. Floor to ceiling glass partitions provide varying levels of privacy while retaining the feeling of openness.

The P+M team designed custom large-scale graphic treatments for these glass partitions using applied transparent and white polypropylene vinyl film. The films showcase unique patterns based on deconstructed linear elements from the main entrance typographic treatment that runs the length of each corridor, yet each office has its own unique cropping.

Navigating the office corridors is easy, thanks to the simple and intuitive wayfinding system, which uses dimensional lettering for suite numbers and applied vinyl at key decision points. And the halls are clear from the ubiquitous yellow and pink paper that typically clutters the doors of academic offices and labs, thanks to the design team's development of practical and printable insert templates.

P+M also identified a need to share departmental events and information from major announcements to daily room reservation schedules in an efficient manner. So the designers created an interface and templates for the main electronic display located in the lobby, so the department could easily update it within the parameters defined in the graphic standards. The electronic display costs fell under the A/V budget, which proved very convenient for the design team.


Good Grades

The cornerstone of the experiential graphic design solution is in the main entrance and lobby. A glass partition with the lively outlined word "communication" in vinyl and bright dimensional letters identifies the Department of Communication.

Behind, and visible through the partition, the “Faces of Communication” wall is a visual glossary of what the department represents and who the people are that make the department what it is today. A large, custom-fabricated pegboard-like wall showcases the communication logotype in dots, contrasted with vibrant symbols and visual metaphors for methods of communication alongside duotone photographs of friends, students, alumni and abstract croppings of the Cornell University seal.

The images are printed on panels of varying thicknesses, furthering the narrative of diversity while offering additional visual texture. Appropriately, this design lends itself to upgrades and evolutions—a metaphor for the ever-changing field of communication.


Graduation Day

The entire project took three years to complete; the graphics program from concept to install took 15 months.

At the April 8, 2016, ribbon-cutting ceremony, Cornell's Dean Kathryn Boor remarked, "The emphasis on collaborative space perfectly captures the college's interdisciplinary nature and even better, enables us to train the next generation of leaders and innovators in communication. To continue to provide the groundbreaking education, research, outreach and extension that the college is renowned for, we need top-tier facilities."

Overall, the experiential graphic design program helps visually cement the energy and mission of the Department of Communication in its new home, a success for the P+M team. Richard Poulin put it best, noting that "It's great at the end of a project to see that the execution exactly matches what you conceptualized."

We give it an A+.



Project Name: Cornell University Department of Communication   

Client: JMZ Architects and Planners, PC

Location: Ithaca, N.Y.

Open Date: 2016

Project Area: 19,000 sq. ft.

Architect: JMZ Architects and Planners, PC

Experiential Graphic Design: Poulin + Morris, Inc.

Experiential Graphic Design Team: Richard Poulin, Erik Herter, Eric Shelton

Fabrication: Design Communications Ltd.


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