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Designing Spaces for Effective Admissions: Starting the Conversation
By Jane Crowhurst and David Willows 26-Mar-15
Jane Crowhurst, an experienced international school board trustee who heads the Zurich office of tp bennett, a global architectural practice, and David Willows, Director of Admissions and Advancement at the International School of Brussels, Belgium, launch a conversation in TIE about the intersection of their fields.David: The more I think about it, the more I believe that Admissions Professionals and Architects have a great deal in common. We are both in the business of “experience architecture.” Like the founders of Starbucks, we are both engaged in the business of creating “spaces” that are more than the sum of their parts. Jane: Yes, I absolutely agree; but the product that concerns us is different and less tangible, isn’t it? At the heart of the admissions experience, the “product” is not a cup of coffee, but learning. We need to develop spaces that are evidence of the unseen and which help families choose the right school. David: You are right. It’s complex. We should also be thinking about how the spaces we create tell the story of a school, connect with the day-to-day reality of our “customers,” and cohere with how the story is being told outside of the Admissions Office. Jane: I am very interested in the families that walk into these spaces. How would you describe them? Do they have a common set of questions? David: Every family is different, but it is true to say that many of the families that visit our schools are globally mobile, educated, sometimes demanding, and often conscious that they are purchasing a “luxury” product. At the same time, my experience is that parents often have a common, essential set of questions when choosing a school: Will my child be safe? Will my child fit in and make friends? Will my child transition successfully to the next stage in their education? Jane: In that case, the admissions spaces surely need to reflect and respond to this profile and these concerns. The journey from the school gate to the Admissions Office is effectively a school’s “shop window.” This “shop window” will either confirm or dispel pre-existing impressions. It must have design continuity which powerfully communicates a school’s story, evokes interest and excitement, whilst providing information and reassurance. David: This presupposes that a school knows and is consciously communicating its story to prospective families. I’m also thinking of Gladwell’s work Blink (2007). In many cases, the decision may already have been made by parents, but still, these first tangible impressions can confirm or challenge the decision to enroll. Again, coherence is key. Families absolutely need to feel that a school they have arrived at is telling the same story as that shared in an advert or on the school website. So, I am wondering, how can architectural design help us? Jane: This will depend on the individual school, its education philosophy, spirit and values. It is essential to avoid a cookie-cutter approach and instead create bespoke architectural solutions. Also, a disconnect between the admissions spaces and the rest of a school’s facilities should be avoided. David: So where do we begin? Jane: Admissions visits are physical events and I believe that the conscious and subconscious impact of the physical space will have a greater and longer-lasting impact upon the family than any information shared. So maybe we should begin by thinking about how the Admissions Office mirrors the experience of learning in a school. Will the family be greeted by an Admissions Professional, seated behind a large desk, or encouraged to choose from a range of meeting options from standing tables to comfortable seating? Critical as well is the seamless integration of technology, which stimulates families to learn about a school and possibly international education in general. Maybe technology could be used to create direct “windows” into learning in the classrooms. David: I think you are touching on an important issue here: the importance of seeing the Admissions Office itself as a learning moment for prospective families. I’m also thinking though about the role of the Admissions Office in helping families manage transitions at a time of anxiety. Are there ways that space design can help manage this complex process? Jane: Absolutely. It goes without saying that the Admissions Office should be welcoming, calm, and reassuring. A professional, safe space with the busyness of the admissions process kept out of sight. It is about attention to detail and the use of layout, furniture, finishes, lighting, and acoustics to create a holistic solution which proclaims: “You have arrived, this is who we are, but you as a family are the core of this process.” Importantly, the Office should be a reflection of the spirit and ethos of a school rather than the personality of the Admissions Professional. David: I’m interested in exploring what people are doing in other sectors. I notice how many of them offer radically different alternatives to the traditional (and yet, almost universal) Admissions Office. What can we learn from what is happening in these sectors? Jane: We can learn by reviewing spaces designed to attract people and put customers at the center of an experience, such as retail spaces, museums, science centers, and hotel receptions. In the best examples, everything has been planned, right down to the smallest detail, and nothing is left to chance. I also think that many of the parents that visit international schools will be used to working in cutting-edge office environments and are therefore comfortable with a more adventurous “sales” space. Maybe the need for a traditional Admissions Office is receding and the process could commence in a more transparent space, possibly contiguous with a school’s communal learning spaces, so that families truly experience a school. David: So maybe what you are saying is that it’s time to start imagining the Admissions Office of the future?
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