In this article, our school branding experts at Toop Studio would like to share their knowledge of design for schools, colleges and academies. Welcome to the A to Z of school design.

letter AA is for Art

Art has the power to inspire young people and communicate a variety of values to a school’s staff, parents and visitors. Schools should always consider their options before bringing art into their establishment. By complementing existing artwork created by the students, professional wall graphics and content-rich murals can transform college buildings internally and externally. Art makes your learning environment more engaging, stimulating and enriching.

Reception Wall Graphic - Uckfield- College - View from top floor

Reception Wall Graphic – Uckfield- College – View from top floor – photograph by Jim Pike

Letter BB is for Brand

Originally, this article was going to be titled ‘The A to Z of branding and design for schools’ (but we felt it was a tad long). Much of this article is about how a school’s brand can be improved by professional design work. However, there is sometimes a bit of confusion between a brand and an identity (or brand identity).

Put simply, a brand is what people think of and feel when they hear or see a brand name. It involves an emotional relationship that instils reliability and trust between an organisation and its stakeholders. A school’s brand consists of intangible elements, such as reputation and heritage, as well as the tangible elements that make up the school’s identity, such as the school’s logo, website and the aesthetic of its buildings.

So, in order to actively try to improve a school’s brand, you have to examine every touchpoint and interaction all the stakeholders might have with the school. This includes current and prospective children, parents, staff and governors, as well as the press and the local community.

The video below documents the rebranding process of Varndean School in Brighton in 2012.

Rebranding Varndean from Shadric Toop on Vimeo.

Letter CC is for Colours

One of the main four fixed* brand elements every organisation should have is a consistent colour palette. Typically a school has one or two main colours and a secondary palette. Consistent use of one or a few colours aids identification – it gives the school’s communications a recognisable character and helps to differentiate them from others in the local area.

Colour palette page from the brand guidelines for Springfield School - illustrating ‘C is for Colours’ in design for schools blog

Design for Schools – Colours – Toop Studio

*The main four fixed visual elements in a brand identity are a name, logo, typeface and colour. They are ‘fixed’ in order to communicate consistent recognition. If an organisation changed any of these elements regularly, its identity and brand would be weakened. There are visual elements that are often thought of as ‘flexible elements’, such as images or specific campaigns and seasonal branding. 

Letter DD is for Digital Media

School website homepage on a laptop for Springfield School - illustrating ‘D is for Digital Media’ in A to Z of design for schools blog

Websites for Schools – Toop Studio

Today, most of a school’s communications usually appear on a screen. Often, your website is the first point of contact, so a good, easy-to-navigate school website is crucial. Technology is changing all the time and schools need to keep up with it. Social media and video content are now extremely important.

Letter EE is for Education

When considering design for schools, it is incorrect to assume the only role of design is branding related. Design can be used to inspire and deliver educational content visually. For example, Historical events could be represented in a visual timeline that runs the length of a corridor.

In our school display below for Denbigh High School, the relationship between atoms, DNA, genes and cells are explained via an illustrated wall graphic that is displayed in a stairwell leading to the science department.

Educational school wall graphic showing DNA diagram for Denbigh High School - illustrating ‘E is for Education’ in A to Z of design for schools blog

Science Wall Graphic for Denbigh High School – Toop Studio

Letter FF is for Foyer

Foyer school wall graphic showing illustrations of animals and plants for Varndean School - illustrating ‘F is for Foyer’ in A to Z of design for schools blog

Foyer Wall Art for Varndean School – Toop Studio

A school foyer (reception or entrance hall) is the first opportunity inside the building to visually communicate with visitors. This is your moment to say ‘this is a creative / interesting / vibrant / organised / professional / inspiring learning environment’. It could also double as an educational wall graphic for students, visitors and teachers.

Letter GG is for Guidelines

Page from brand guidelines for Springfield School - illustrating ‘G is for Guidelines’ in A to Z of design for schools blog

Design for Schools – Brand Guidelines – Toop Studio

A set of brand guidelines (also known as a ‘style guide’ or ‘brand book’) outlines an organisation’s brand elements (such as the logo, colours, typefaces, tone of voice and imagery) and the rules for using them. Established guidelines contain these rules and boundaries so that an organisation’s communications are consistent over time. Not all schools have them, but brand guidelines are extremely useful. They allow a school to manage their communications with employees and external sources efficiently. They are integral to professional branding.

Letter HH is for Houses

If a school is divided into houses, then often there is (or should be) some kind of sub-identity for each house. As well as names, houses can have their own colours, emblems, badges and flags. Full branding of a school’s houses properly helps to instil a sense of belonging and loyalty.

School house badges for Varndean School - illustrating ‘H is for Houses’ in A to Z design for schools blog

House Badges for Varndean School – Toop Studio

Letter II is for Images

Design for schools (just as for any other sector) requires images. The images a school uses in its communications are as important as the ‘fixed assets’ of its visual identity. This is because it is through images that we connect most easily with a school’s ethos. The old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is perhaps truer today than ever before.

In our experience, the most common type of imagery a school uses is photography. When juggling tight budgets, having two sources of photography (one free and one professional) is a good strategy to have. For the day-to-day documenting of the school’s events, blog or newsletter it is always practical for members of staff to take photographs. But, for more formal communications, a professional photographer is recommended – it can make all the difference.

School website on iPad for Patcham Junior School - illustrating ‘I is for Identity’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Photography for Patcham Junior School – Toop Studio

Letter JJ is for Junior School

Primary schools are often more visually vibrant than high schools. Perhaps this is because images can communicate better to children who are still learning to read. Many studies have shown that images help children to make a variety of new associations.

In the wall design below, we used the flora, fauna and architecture of each region to create a map of the world. This was aimed at teaching the children about different cultures, the associations between the characteristics of places and the names of each country.

However, some interesting scientific research has shown that the best place for this kind of visual material is not in the classroom, as it may actually be distracting when children are trying to learn about something different. The current thinking is that primary and infant school displays within classrooms should be minimal. This world map below was installed in the school entrance hall at Wellington Primary Academy.

Detail of illustrated junior school map of the world - illustrating ‘J is for Junior School’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Wall Map for Junior School – Toop Studio

Letter KK is for Knowledge

Good design requires knowledge. This translates to a full understanding of the goals and values in any given brief, as well as sufficient research. A design isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just superficial and decorative. It should embody meaning, value and purpose. Great design work is multifaceted and works on several levels at once. However, knowledge is always the starting point.

The wall graphic below is at Denbigh High School. It explores the fundamental British values and how they relate to the values of the school.

School wall design about education surrounding a bookcase - illustrating ‘K is for Knowledge’ in A to Z design for schools blog

British Values Wall Graphic – Denbigh High School – Toop Studio

Letter LL is for Logo

Design for schools often starts with the logo. A logo is a graphic mark that represents an organisation. Every school has one – years ago it would have probably taken the form of a school crest. There are nearly always two parts to a school logo. The first takes the form of the school’s name in a particular font (this is known as a ‘word mark’). A purely graphic symbol (known as a ‘picture mark’ or ‘emblem’) is the second part. Picture marks are very useful for ‘tight spaces’ (such as social media profile images).

A neatly designed school logo needs to satisfy many demands. Firstly, it should be fairly timeless and portray a sense of reliability and competence. It should be unique, memorable, and legible even at small sizes. Secondly, it should be able to be sewn into a uniform. Ideally, it should be derived from something meaningful.

School logo design on a business card - illustrating ‘L is for Logo’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Design for Schools – Logo design – Toop Studio

Letter MM is for Mural

School murals are a symbol of pride and wonder. With creativity and the right research, an external or internal wall can tell a rich and engaging story.

Murals are traditionally wall paintings. However, these days there are alternatives, such as ‘photoboards’, vinyl wallpaper for interior walls or wall wraps for exterior walls (wall wraps take up the contours of an external wall, even brickwork, shrink wrapping over the surface). *

*Painted murals and wall wraps can be well protected with a variety of anti-graffiti products.

School wall mural on red wall with illustrations inside the word ‘future’ - illustrating ‘M is for Mural’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Springfield School, Portsmouth – Reception Mural – Toop Studio

Letter NN is for Name

Naming a school usually only happens once (when it is founded). It is, in branding terms, one of the most important assets along with the logo, colours and typeface. When naming a school (or the houses within a school), it is worth considering how it sounds when you say it (and how easy it is to understand when heard on the phone), how long it is, how it might be shortened (whether intended or not), what the other schools in the area are called and how it looks when written.

School name and school houses names in a diagram - illustrating ‘N is for Name’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Names for School Houses – Toop Studio

Letter OO is for Originality

A school exists in a marketplace of other schools. Whilst we surely want every school to be a good school, there is inevitably going to be competition. School branding and design can help to emphasise a school’s uniqueness. Here are a few things to consider: a school’s choice of photography or images on its website, the design of it’s printed literature or newsletter, the concept and storytelling in the school video, the artwork in the interior of the reception hall.

Springfield School Film 2016 from Shadric Toop on Vimeo.


Letter PP is for Prospectus

A prospectus is traditionally a printed booklet advertising a school or university to potential parents and students. These days, it often exists digitally (as a PDF or an online Flipbook) or in the form of a video. A prospectus is an opportunity to differentiate from the other schools in the area. If a school has a modern, forward-thinking ethos, it should try to reflect that in every way.

School prospectus with illustration on the cover and a die cut hole showing the school logo - illustrating ‘P is for Prospectus’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Print Design for Schools – Toop Studio

Letter QQ is for Quality

The quality of a school’s communications, be it graphic design, printed materials, written copy or video production, will be perceived as a reflection of the institution itself. The trick is to balance that with value for money – because, generally you get what you pay for. But, good quality design work should only have to be done seldom. Great work should be somewhat timeless.

School entrance wall graphic with a tree of values - illustrating ‘Q is for Quality’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Wellington Academy Foyer Graphic – Toop Studio

Letter RR is for Rebrand

A rebrand (or ‘brand refresh’) is a good idea if a school is holding on to a visual identity that might be out of sync with their current practice. The key to a successful rebrand is not necessarily to throw out the old identity completely, rather, it is to evolve it. If a school has a good reputation, it also has brand equity. A school doesn’t have to retain an out of date school crest to keep its brand equity. Instead, it could update the crest, or consider taking the essence of it and developing a more modern logo.

In the example below, the crest on the left represented Springfield School in Portsmouth, UK. After a brand refresh, it was replaced by the logo on the right. It was decided that the old ‘rampant lion’ crest had connotations that didn’t best reflect a forward-thinking school in the 21st century. The new design draws on positive connotations of the lion symbol (such as agility and power), rendering it as a young lion of either sex, springing forward. The ‘S’ of Springfield is worked into the lion’s tail. The star and crescent were added to tie the identity even more closely to the City of Portsmouth.

Old school logo next to new school logo after rebrand - illustrating ‘R is for Rebrand’ in A to Z design for schools blog

School Rebrand for Springfiled School – Toop Studio

Letter SS is for Signage

Signs aid wayfinding and are a necessity in any school, both externally and internally. Otherwise, new students, parents or school visitors may get lost. Good signage is clean, simple, legible and positioned in the right places. Colour coding can help to pick out different departments, buildings or floors if a school is very large. Sometimes artwork surrounding a doorway can visually indicate what lies behind it, even from a great distance. It also adds character and a sense of place.

A sign on a brick wall showing a site map of school buildings - illustrating ‘S is for Signage’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Signage for Springfield School – Toop Studio

Letter TT is for Typeface

When communicating externally, the typefaces* used by a school should be consistent. This portrays a professional and organised image. The choice of typefaces and fonts will depend on how they look next to a school’s logo (modern or traditional), how legible they are, how they work on screen, in print and on signage. For external communications, it is a good idea to have a ‘primary typeface’ in a limited number of weights and a secondary typeface that works with it.

*A typeface is a family of fonts (Eg Helvetica Neue). Within a typeface, there will be fonts of varying weights or other variations. (Eg Helvetica Neue 46 Light Italic).

A page of typography, focusing on the typeface Futura - illustrating ‘T is for Typeface’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Graphic Design for Schools – Typography – Toop Studio

Letter UU is for Uniform

Closeup of a school uniform blazer pocket with an embroidered logo - illustrating ‘U is for Uniform’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Uniform Design for Varndean School – Toop Studio

Most schools have some kind of uniform code. Some have ties and blazers, and some opt for sweatshirts. Either way, a uniform is part of the visual identity of the school and needs to be considered alongside all the other visual assets. The school logo will probably appear, which means that a designer needs to keep in mind a version of the logo that can be easily embroidered – that means limited colours and flat artwork with simple lines or fills.

Letter VV is for Video

‘Video’ is an ever-growing medium in the education sector. If you are going to commission a video, begin by working out what makes your school different from other schools. Consider who can best present the school to the world; it might be the students themselves, or a mixture of staff and students. Think about using unscripted interviews, as scripted interviews often come across a bit dry.

Palatine School Prospectus film from Shadric Toop on Vimeo.

Letter WW is for Walls

A dramatic school wall mural of mathematical structures with two boys sitting in front of it - illustrating ‘W is for Walls’ in A to Z design for schools blog

Super-sized Wall Graphics for Wellington Academy – Toop Studio

The walls in a school offer enormous possibilities. Many are perfect for permanent large-scale wall graphics and murals. Consider the school reception area and other communal areas such as the canteen, common room or stairwell. These walls are an opportunity for more than just decoration. Wall graphics for schools can inspire and educate.

Letter XX is for Xerox

A school photocopier - illustrating ‘X is for Xerox’ in A to Z design for schools blog

The School Photocopy Machine

We, of course, don’t mean ‘Xerox’ the brand name: we mean the generic act of photocopying. A school is generally going to have a tight budget and won’t be able to afford to have everything designed, printed and finished professionally. So, posters for the school play, temporary signs, notices and leaflets will probably be done ‘in-house’. For most purposes, a little creativity and making sure a font is legible is all you need. But, if you want to be a little more professional and still do it in-house, then a simple set of the brand guidelines we mentioned earlier could really help to keep the school’s message consistent.

Letter YY is for Young Creative Talent

Some paintings by high school students on display - illustrating Y is for Young Creative Talent in A to Z design for schools blog

Paintings by Varndean School Students

Many young people are enormously talented. Therefore, why not put their talents to use and give them some design experience? Hold poster design competitions for example. The more student design work around the school the better. Of course, professionals should design the visual identity and core external communications. But, when it comes to a club logo or a poster for a school performance, why not tap into the creativity of the students?

Letter ZZ is for Zones

Artwork around the doorway of a music department in a college - illustrating Z is for Zones in A to Z design for schools blog

Wayfinding Wall for Wellington Academy – Toop Studio

Large institutional buildings, such as university campuses, are often divided up into zones. Good design can help to give each zone a sense of place. Maps and signage also help to make sure new students and visitors know where they are and how to get around.

Design and branding for schools is a specialism of Toop Studio, Brighton, UK.

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