Designing academic space that matters

5 diagrams and 11 principles to elevate student life and academic excellence on campus

Today’s higher education campus is a neighborhood, a bubble, a living lab, a work of art. It comes as little surprise that the college campus has come a long way—the first time “campus” was used to describe an academic grounds was in 1774, when it was applied to characterize the field in front of Nassau Hall that both separated and linked Princeton University and the Town of Princeton.

To date, we have seen two models for how a campus exists in the built environment—as a park, with buildings and gathering spaces curated like jewels as part of a grand estate, and as a network, beacons connected by academic activity blinking across a shifting—often urban—environment.

But today, we see these models converging. A good campus has all the hallmarks of bridging learning and community — a student center, daylit classrooms. But when you hold a mirror up to a great campus, you’ll find it has the full range of places that exist in a prospering city — coffee shops, bustling businesses, public arts spaces, and residential neighborhoods. And we find that it matters not whether these spaces are owned and operated by the institution. What makes the campus continue to resonate in the academic world is its ability to create shared, meaningful experiences and weave the learning environment into the fabric of society.

How do institutions achieve this? They can start by applying these 11 principles, patterns of thinking that elevate student life and academic excellence on campus.

A learning environment is comprised of living and learning as well as abstract qualities like mission and stewardship—it is these qualities that contribute to an institution’s expression of its living and learning environments.Purpose-driven design

Institutions of higher education have a mission for a reason. It demonstrates their purpose their prospective students, to their stakeholders, to the world. Design is elevated by driving at not only creating great spaces, but at directly accomplishing this purpose. Planners should craft vision maps and articulate how steering committees, working groups, and community workshopsengage with the institutional purpose.


Stewardship is our collective action to replenish and care for resources of all kinds. Good planning is tenacious and entrepreneurial in its understanding of campus resources and its orchestration of these resources that layers them to create social impact while preserving natural treasures. As green roofs, solar fields, greywater systems, energy modeling, and renewable materialsbecome de rigueur, designers need to look to expressing institutional missions in new and cutting-edge approaches to stewardship. What’s more, stewardship extends beyond the built environment—how an institution balances mission, financial resources, human capital, and time is all part of a strategic approach to stewardship.

Permeable edges

From 1736 to 1748, Giambattista Nolli set out to map the city of Rome. The map he created turned the classical architectural approach of figure-ground shading on its head. By detailing even those public spaces that fall within physical enclosures, Nolli’s approach resulted in a work that is used by planners today. Now, we understand public spaces fall on both sides of the building envelope. Designing spaces that dip into the private built environment on all scales is paramount—from the scale of creating huddle spaces amongst administrative or departmental offices, to the scale of creating parks and playspaces adjacent to academic-business hybrid environments. It is these spaces that drive community and power the transdisciplinary collaboration that spurs the future.

A campus should have a cohesive individual experience; so, too, should it contain rich experiences for groups large and small. The transition from one’s residence hall to the classroom should be articulated with elements of community engagement and academic success, learning and living.Historical resonance

History matters — ensuring a campus communicates a legacy that aligns with the institution’s mission is key. Campus must recognize that they exist in not only the three dimensions of space, also that grand fourth dimension—time. Time shapes how people interact with higher education. Design must consider the historically-shifting meanings derived from art and symbolism. Are the heroes of the 1800s still the heroes of today? What and who do we honor? Which stories do we tell? Seeking broad stakeholder input on which symbols from the past and present are most expressive of a University’s mission into the future is critical to planning a place-based legacy.

Rigor of thought

Whether in the classroom, on athletic fields, in public spaces, in experiencing the arts, rigor of thought permeates the higher education campus. At a critical moment in their lives when many students, for the first time, are living independent lives, they also are exercising freedom of mind. To nurture promising, responsible, successful citizens of the world, institutions of higher education must encourage students to break out of groupthink and reward rigor of thought. Designers and planners need to craft spaces that act as collision chambers, serving to prompt conversations and explorations that get students out of their comfort zones and impel them to discover and form ideas of substance.

“Individuals have better ideas if they’re connected to rich, diverse networks of other individuals. If you put yourself in an environment with lots of different perspectives, you yourself are going to have better, sharper, more original ideas. It’s not that the network is smart. It’s that you are smarter because you’re connected to the network.”- Stephen JohnsonInclusivity and dignity

What is a campus if not a place where inclusivity and invention combine to cultivate diversity? Good design creates celebratory entries, navigation that gives meaning to identity, and access to nature and sensory-based designthrough gardens, views, trails, and open spaces. Through these mechanisms, designers and planners communicate to students and communities that they are valuable, that they deserve access to place and spirit that promote learning, life, and play, that they have the support they need to dream big. This is what dignity is—the right to dream. And campuses offer both opportunities to dream and spaces in which enact them.

Expression of character

Who are you as an institution? Articulating the answer is not an exercise in marketing or development as much as it’s an exercise in existentialism. The well-examined institution of higher education knows who it is, and why that matters. For a campus to express that same identity and character that attracts students, drives research, and has alumni yearning to visit, designers and planners must start with understanding what that character is, what it means, and how to articulate it. Character is a two-way street—just as a university’s identity contributes to its campus, so too, does a campus contribute to identity, in both the hearts of its academic and student life spaces and the interstitial moments that make place meaningful.

Recognizing that it is community, rather than efficiency, that creates value for student life, designers must craft spaces where residential life, social life, and academic life intermingle.Experiential connection with land & place

Whether a campus reflects the model of network or park, its environment offers not only a space in which to experience, but the social and natural ecosystems that are experienced. Planning to provide moments for that experiential connection involves considering views and pathways that link interior and exterior spaces, creating sensory environments in an explorable campus. From nature trails to public art, wayfinding to meditative gardens, areas for protest and areas for celebration, designing the campus sphere is about designing experiences that elevate the heart and mind.

Experimental learning & research

As the boundaries of higher education become more and more permeable in promoting collaborations with businesses, the public sphere, and other institutions, academia pushes the boundaries of learning and research. This is essential for the integrity, longevity, and value of higher education. How can a campus transform to serve as a living lab for its researchers? How can classes themselves become explorations in pedagogy? These are questions designers and planners should explore, together with students, faculty, and staff.

Establishing first-year residential space close to the center of campus promotes immersion into the learning & social environment. As students advance through their studies, offering them more independence and connection to the working world by locating them at the perimeter of campus becomes a priority.Celebration of user patterns

Renowned urban thinker Jane Jacobs believed that shapes and systems arise out of necessity. Investigating desire paths—where corners have been rounded and grass eroded—can lead planners and designers to evidence that suggests what users value and how they behave. Furthermore, planners and institutional strategists should investigate other architectures for desire paths—what are students searching on the University website? What are the paths of least resistance in curricula and campus engagement activities?

Village mentality

Co-housing has permeated the world beyond higher education—families sharing meals, community gardens, and land resources. The driving core principle? High quality of life is achieved not through self-sufficiency, but through a village mentality. Recognizing that it is community, rather than efficiency, that creates value for residence halls, designers must craft spaces where private life and social life intermingle.

These principles are by no means a comprehensive articulation of all that matters when considering how to plan and design academic spaces. But they do offer something unique—a high-level look at transdisciplinary issues. By exploring these issues, planning and design teams can offer new ways of investigating the campus environment, and new ways of articulating its vibrancy in today’s connective, purpose-driven, ever-transforming world. By exploring these issues, we support norms of thinking, designing, and doing that are all part of the greater movement of inquiry, a movement expressed in the very fibers and threads that make higher education pulse.