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Business School Design: Branding by Building

Understanding a business school’s brand can be the first and most critical step in designing their new building.

When we work with business school clients, we start by immediately asking them about their “brand.” An organization’s brand is its personality, as well as its differentiator. It is abstract but should be easy to grasp and immediately identifiable. Business schools study and teach brand, and therefore have a strong understanding of this concept. They also know their school’s unique brand intimately and are passionate in its promotion. By allowing a business school’s brand to guide the design process, we help make the process immediately engaging for these clients—which results in stronger participation and projects that achieve their organizational goals.

From large architectural gestures to the configuration of classroom tables, a business school’s brand can permeate every part of the design of a building. These design choices signal the core values of a business school, from institutional transparency to community impact. Right from the project kick-off, the brand informs architectural decisions, including program and scale, style and expression, materiality and light. It also determines which spaces will be the most prominent and public, and which will be quieter and more private. Through an interactive process, the design builds upon this original concept, and guides the manifestation of the brand in the built work. This process can create real value for the school in the long run, helping to increase enrollment rate, improve school rankings, and bolster alumni donations.

Early in the programming process, we translate a school’s brand into a loose bubble diagram to explore adjacency and scale. Elements located around a central atrium, for example, typically reflect the most important elements of a school’s brand.

Lacy School of Business, Butler University

Brand: Putting the “Business” in Business Schools

You won’t just talk about business, you’ll do it. Lacy’s brand is about experience. They aim to simulate the business world for their students in a way that is real and applicable to post-grad life. The school was previously located in a 1970s “bunker”-like building with racetrack corridors and few windows, where there was no visibility for the schools’ many innovative programs. The last thing they wanted, therefore, was another generic-feeling academic building. Instead, the design team was tasked with creating an environment that looks and feels like a corporate center, with spaces that are as welcoming for professionals in the surrounding area as they are for students.

Members of the business community are invited to grab coffee and discuss ideas with students in the Innovation Commons.
The new Lacy School atrium is designed to work and feel like a business environment.

To support their brand (“real business experience”), our design aimed to create a corporate-feeling environment. To give the effect of an open, public lobby, the building was designed around a large central atrium with sightlines into multiple floors of glass-enclosed conference rooms. Surrounding the lobby are student-run centers that look and feel like small businesses. One of these spaces is the Innovation Lab, where established professionals are invited to come before work to share a cup of coffee with students and exchange ideas. The Innovation Lab is outfitted with a rotating selection of new, experimental furniture, which keeps this space fresh and exciting for students and visitors. The Lacy building today is as active and engaged as its brand.

College of Business, Coppin State University

Brand: Student Success and Community Outreach

Designed with you in mind. Coppin State University is an HBCU in Baltimore with an up-and-coming business school that puts the local community first. The original 1960s building was designed to be introverted, facing away from the neighborhood. Coppin’s business school sought to reverse this and become a more visible change agent in a community which has historically struggled with a shortage of resources. A glass facade creates a transparent and welcoming environment that signals Coppin’s brand: student success and community outreach.

The spaces that surround the school’s new central atrium are programmed to provide resources for students and small businesses, as well as local residents. To offer equal access to technology, the school designed computer labs to be easily accessible to the student population. The design also meets the needs of its students—many of whom are working parents—by providing a relaxed, safe environment where they can access computers and printers and grab a bite to eat before attending evening classes. The Innovation Center—a place for students to work in a business-like environment—maintains the building’s invitation to enter the space and collaborate while providing privacy and comfort via the design and orientation of furniture. The result is a school setting that meets students where they are, welcomes community members in and provides all with the resources to achieve and thrive.


In conversations with students, we heard that privacy was important to their feeling of comfort in the new space. In our design, furniture orientation and high-backed seating provide the right mix of welcome and security.
The Center for Strategic Entrepreneurship and other public-facing programs have their own entrance on the building’s ground floor, giving the community a physical and symbolic invitation to participate.

Isenberg School of Management, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Brand: The Students are the Brand

The Isenberg advantage. At Isenberg, it is the students themselves that the school considers to be their lead differentiators. In a competitive professional environment, Isenberg’s students are heavily recruited because they are widely known to be humble, hardworking, and well-rounded. Their new building needed to reflect the school’s prioritization of their students and their success.

With this in mind, the central hub of their new building, referred to as the Student Learning Commons, was specifically tailored for students to gather, study, and connect. The congregating stair, extra-wide corridors, and comfortable seating were designed to encourage serendipitous interactions between students, faculty, and visitors. The career center is right off the central hub, emphasizing the importance of creating real-world opportunities for their students.

There are common goals across business schools that carry through and are evident in the design of their buildings: they want their spaces to feel accessible, their students to feel welcome and supported, and for opportunities to be created. Tapping into a business school’s brand is a way to design for a school’s differentiators and unique goals, resulting in a physical manifestation of how they want the world to see them. In this way, a business school’s building can be its largest, most powerful brand ambassador.

The design—and even the name—of the Student Learning Commons puts the focus on the most important element of the Isenberg brand: students.
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