Recruiting prospective students via phone calls, e-mails, virtual events and webinars can only go on for so long. Inevitably, they come to meet your school in real life.
If you’re lucky, this first meeting takes place in the intimate setting of your campus. But for many higher ed. institutions, a first point of contact with a prospective student happens at a university or college fair – an environment where your school is flanked by competitors, all of you competing for students’ attention and engagement. So, how do you stand out from the crowd?
York University found themselves asking this question as they prepared for the 2022 Ontario Universities’ Fair (OUF), the largest in-person recruitment event the school would attend since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
What they said: Distinguish York University as a top-choice destination for future post-secondary students.
Following the reveal of a new brand for the institution, York University engaged ED. to lead and collaborate on developing a new design concept for a large trade show exhibit. For many students, the exhibit would be their first in-person interaction with the university, providing a much different experience from the digital engagements with YorkU they had become accustomed to in the two years prior.
Although the engagement was a straightforward design job, the booth designs would play an essential role in recruitment for the school. The exhibit needed to be visually impactful to capture the attention and attract students to the space. This would provide YorkU with the opportunity to interact, engage and inch prospects closer to considering the school as a top choice.
In addition to making a major visual impact, the design concept had several non-negotiables. It needed to be creative but brand-aligned, convey authenticity using original photography (read: real students), complement recruitment materials and must communicate ‘one York University’ while simultaneously differentiating the three campuses and ten unique faculties.
What we heard: Be creative, while colouring inside the lines.
To create a major visual impact, we needed to be creative, but our creativity was limited to working within a specific set of boundaries – including, the physical limitations of the exhibit itself, and our footprint within the event space. Be creative by thinking inside the box. But we were up for the challenge.
As a starting point for our creative exploration, we concentrated on the non-negotiables. We considered the project holistically, looking at the colour, typography, photography, and design elements carefully to ensure all components worked together to achieve the goal of being as creative as possible (staying ‘within the box’) while being brand-aligned.
In exploring ways to tackle a creative solution with so many guardrails, we realized: we could colour inside the lines.
York University’s updated colour palette relies on the colour ‘York Red’ as a prominent element to boldly represent the York brand. So, to incorporate a creative flair we combined York Red with the faculty accent colour palette throughout the exhibit, to emphasize and differentiate each of the faculties and campuses.
This was a bold departure from YorkU ‘s previous exhibits, which had used York Red almost exclusively. These complimentary colors would serve as a means to accent the faculties and campuses and were also incorporated as a wayfinding tool to help students fully experience and better navigate the entire YorkU exhibit space.
We used typography to give structure and hierarchy to the messaging, we positioned faculty and campus names at the top of panel layouts to ensure prominence and visibility from a distance.
A long term view on student photography.
For photography, we used actual YorkU students and recommended capturing them in natural environments, for dynamic action shots of students to authentically convey the YorkU student experience. Knowing that trends in fashion change rapidly, we made fashion suggestions so that students’ outfits appeared timeless. We wanted YorkU’s investment in the exhibit to be able to be used in subsequent years.
And we were adamant about referring to YorkU’s brand guidelines to ensure the photographs would align with the university’s visual aesthetic. This meant recruiting and photographing several sets of students for the various faculty and campus scenes to ensure diversity. We captured 100+ images per location and worked closely with the YorkU team on-site, which helped ED. narrow down the photography selections more efficiently.
The new brand also led us to leverage YorkU’s “Window of Positive Change” design element. Following the guidelines, we positioned the subject (photographs of students) always with a view outward, inside the window frames throughout the designs.
We presented YorkU with multiple design options, providing them with the flexibility to choose an alternative option they may not have considered.
Once a design was selected, we worked collaboratively with YorkU’s art director and team to the final approved version, incorporating several check-ins along the way as we made refinements. As with all of our higher ed. engagements, it was crucial for ED. to earn buy-in from the YorkU design team, as they worked very closely with the brand on a daily basis.
In October 2022, York University kicked-off their recruitment efforts with a new exhibit design at the 2022 Ontario Universities’ Fair. Photos of the exhibit space shared on social media (even making an appearance on students’ TikToks) showed that engagement and booth traffic was at an all-time high. Every section of the YorkU space was crowded with students in conversation with YorkU representatives.
“It was so exciting to see It come to life after all of the collaboration and work this year. Multiple stakeholders from the York community and other colleagues (from event organizers to other institutions) commented on how great the booth looked. The photography was so dynamic and meaningful, and the accent colours were one of my favourite parts. Many of the students from the photoshoots were there, and it was incredibly special to see the pride they took – and to connect their stories to the booth imagery.” – Andrea Graham, Manager, Marketing and Engagement, York University
All our expectations were surpassed with the execution of the booth.Andrea Graham, Manager – Marketing and Engagement, York University