University of Texas at Austin Wayfinding

Signing the “Model Village” 

A new wayfinding program helps the University of Texas regain its sense of place and open its arms to the Austin community.

“The finest university campuses in the world have always been places—model villages, to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s notion—where communal cohesion and strength are derived as much from the physical experience as from      any philosophy or values that may be espoused.”

--Robert Berdahl, former president of the University of Texas at Austin

When Cesar Pelli completed the University of Texas at Austin’s Campus Master Plan in 1996, his recommendations were clear: create a core pedestrian campus, return to the architectural language of buildings and open spaces envisioned by its original architects, and strengthen the campus’ identity.

Weaving all those recommendations together, according to the master plan, was a wayfinding and signage program that, “…consistent and visible, will contribute to a sense of place.”

The university hired Cloud Gehshan Associates (Philadelphia) in 2003 to develop a comprehensive signage and wayfinding program. “Our goals were not only to direct, orient, and identify, but also to present a coherent visual environment to a diverse body of users,” says Jerome Cloud, Cloud Gehshan’s design director for the project. “We also needed to design a system that would complement the architectural character of the campus and contribute to a visual sense of community.” 

Open arms

The wayfinding program also needed to help the university roll out the welcome mat for visitors, including community members, alumni, and new students, says David Rea, director of campus planning and the university’s coordinator of the wayfinding project.

“After the master plan was completed, we decided an outreach effort was needed to promote the campus to the larger Austin community,” he explains. “But just getting people here wasn’t enough. The campus was very intimidating to them, so our problem became making the campus more friendly.”

Handle this

At 350 acres, the UT campus is one of the largest in the nation and radiates far from the original 40 acres on which it was founded. The master plan originally recommended dividing the campus into seven districts. But, for wayfinding purposes, the Cloud Gehshan team recommended just three major districts that could be readily identified using existing landmarks. “The goal is to organize the campus so that people can quickly grasp the layout and retain it,” says Peter Hecht, the team’s wayfinding consultant.

A key challenge was identifying a limited set of “handles” that could be used to describe the major districts, says Cloud. “The handles need to relate to the physical landscape and make sense both to the campus community and most first-time visitors.” The team worked with the university wayfinding committee—made up of about a dozen stakeholder groups—to identify the parts of campus and what people commonly call them. Focus groups helped identify major entry routes, shortcuts, and how campus veterans give directions to visitors. “Basically we tried to create a picture of how people organize the campus in their heads,” says Hecht.

Those efforts identified a clear distinction between the east side of campus (which is less dense and contains the athletic stadiums and performing arts venues) and the west side (which contains most of the academic buildings). They dubbed the east side the Arts and Athletics Campus. On the academic (west) side, the locations of parking garages and major destinations made it logical to divide the real estate into North and South campuses. Each has a set of garages, major destinations, and a major landmark (Student Services on Campus North and the Main Tower on Campus).

Garage as icon

True to the master plan recommendations, the university has transformed the campus core into a pedestrian-only village, building eight parking garages on the perimeter of the core campus and creating checkpoints where visitors abandon their cars and walk or take a shuttle to their final destination.

Getting visitors to these garages was the first order of business for the wayfinding system. “The client referred to this as ‘raising the garages to icon stature,’” says Cloud.

Directing them to the garage closest to their ultimate destination and not confusing them with too much information in the process was critical, says Hecht. “Motorists are traveling an average of 35 mph hour on these roadways. That’s about 53 feet per second. So what they can take in as they pass along the periphery of campus is very limited.”

Research from the 1950s resulted in a rule of thumb called “Miller’s Magic Number.” It’s seven, plus or minus two under the best conditions, says Hecht.  “If you think of your brain as a conveyor belt carrying information, things you can’t store by the time they get to the end of the belt fall off, and you don’t retain them. We have to remember that wayfinding is one task among many that people are trying to complete, all at the same time.”

So vehicular signs were kept simple, with only two to four messages per sign with letter heights of XXXX.  That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, notes Cloud. “You always have different voices lobbying for specific messages. It required some pragmatic and political tradeoffs to make sure the messaging was appropriate for vehicular traffic.”

Trail of breadcrumbs

Once visitors reach the appropriate garage and leave their cars, they’ve arrived at what is essentially a mini visitor’s center.  Large campus map kiosks at each garage incorporate bins that contain brochures and other takeaways featuring campus destinations.

From there, the trick was to create a “trail of breadcrumbs” visitors could follow to navigate the huge campus. Consistent, sequential messaging is the most important facet of providing an effective and discernible trail, says Cloud. And, while pedestrian signs can carry more information than vehicular signs, it was still important to edit the messaging so that visitors aren’t bombarded with too much information. In lieu of listing all buildings and potential destinations, the team chose identifiable landmarks and important spots that could be used as intermediate destinations. To supplement the large maps at the garages, smaller maps are incorporated into pedestrian trail markers and larger, waist-high maps are interspersed between the garages and major destinations.

University branding

The Cloud Gehshan team was also mindful that the sign system should provide a cohesive visual language that adds to—not detracts from—the university’s visual identity. “The wordmark is the window into the university experience, an arrow pointing the way,” says Cloud. “It is at least 50 percent of the identity program, so its proper use and specification in signage is essential to the life of the university’s brand identity.”

Cloud developed an “overbrand/underbrand” system for application of the university identity to signage. Depending on the sign, the wordmark either functions as an umbrella for multiple destinations, letting visitors know that this destination, activity, or event is part of the university (overbranding) or functions as an endorsement or secondary message, supporting a primary message (underbranding).

Colors, forms, and typography were also employed to support the university brand. The university didn’t want to be limited by its existing school colors, but instead wanted signage to respond to the campus’ architectural context. Cloud Gehshan created a hybrid of the two, using the school’s traditional burnt orange as the keystone element for signage. A midnight blue/gray provides for contrast, message legibility, and fade resistance, and dark moss green complements the blue and orange and alludes to the campus’ glade-like setting.  JEROME…WHAT ABOUT THE STAR? IS THAT A SCHOOL LOGO? ALSO, WHAT WAS THE TYPEFACE CHOSEN?

Rea says the signs reflect the campus’ historical and architectural context “without hitting you over the head with it. It ties the village together in a subtle way.”

Testing the system

Currently only about 5 percent of the system (which Cloud Gehshan estimates will include about xxxx signs and cost $1.3 million to fabricate) has been installed. Phase I installation coincided with the opening of the new Blanton Museum of Art, and included signage to direct visitors to the museum and from the museum to the center of campus. Parking garage signage has also been installed, along with map kiosks and a few pedestrian signs, maps, and building identification signs near the Blanton.

The Blanton opening provided an ideal opportunity to test the system with users, says Rea. “On opening day, we had to get 13,000 people here and to the garage, parked, and into the building.” He was happy with the outcome and, by testing the signs, he and the other members of the wayfinding committee have seen just how popular (and needed) the signs are. “The campus maps didn’t originally have a vinyl overlay, and they’ve been so popular that within a few months, the ‘You are Here’ parts were rubbed completely off.” Austin Architectural Graphics, the system fabricator, has replaced the maps and will incorporate vinyl overlay on new maps.

The pilot study also led Rea to reconsider the addition of a new sign type for building identification. “The current building identification signs are designed for typical academic buildings, and may not be large enough for larger buildings like the Blanton,” he explains. “Cloud Gehshan had asked us to consider another sign type for larger buildings, and now I can see that’s necessary.”

Phase II of the project includes completing message schedules and sign location plans for all vehicular and pedestrian signs and 30 building identification signs, says Cloud. The remainder of the signs will be installed as buildings are renovated or other funding comes on line. The system should be substantially completed by the end of 2008. 

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008



Location:  Austin

Client:  University of Texas at Austin

Design:  Cloud Gehshan Associates

Design Team:  Jerome Cloud (design director), Andy Parsons (senior production manager), Barbara Schwarzenbach (senior designer), Beth Davis (production assistant), Peter Hecht, PhD (planning and wayfinding consultant)

Fabrication:  Austin Architectural Graphics

Photos:  Chris Cooper Photography


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