Designing the Maize and Blue “Million Dollar Walk”


Renderings help UM-Dearborn visualize the design options we’ve recommended as part of the strategy.

“The Campus Placemaking Initiative will allow the University to better share the University’s story with prospective students as well as provide an opportunity to share the campus story with employees, current students and other visitors to the University campus. It will speak to the nature of the educational experience that takes place at the University and elicit an emotional connection between students, alumni, our history and their experience.”

UM-Dearborn Campus Placemaking Initiative Introduction

The University of Michigan – Dearborn (UM-Dearborn) is part of the statewide University of Michigan system with primary locations in Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Flint. The Ann Arbor campus was once again ranked the Top U.S. Public University for its academic as well as athletic successes, and is known for its difficult acceptance standards, especially for freshmen.

An undergraduate degree from UM-Dearborn represents the same University of Michigan degree, but touts smaller class sizes, regional impact and a much lower cost of attendance, especially for commuting students. So how do you communicate The Dearborn Difference to people who might choose this experience over others?

UM-Dearborn Facilities, Marketing and Admissions approached us to develop a Campus Placemaking Initiative, aka the “Million Dollar Walk,” that speaks to the elements of the UM-Dearborn experience that make it truly (and we mean truly) unique. Our clients are passionate about attracting the students who resonate with that experience, and will work to improve the culture of campus both while they’re attending and as alumni.

By bringing the Dearborn Difference spoken/written narrative into the built environment, we allow prospective students to learn as much about their chosen area of study as time and attention dictate. We introduced the foundational concept of “Narrative Regions”:

Narrative Regions

For orientation leaders, time and geography are limiting factors. We’ve placed an estimated walking time over the campus map to indicate how long it takes to complete sections of the tour - since some individuals tend to walk more slowly, or may have questions that take longer for the leader to answer.

For the unescorted, we want them to have an opportunity to choose their direction based on the areas of interest they have. As they move away from the University Center (noted as UC above), they commit to the physical distance and the time it takes to get there. The narrative in each region responds to this by becoming more informationally dense and specific as visitors physically move toward their area of interest.

Mapping Logic

Since we may have multiple locations for primary and supporting information in each area, we proposed a numerical system that indicates each. The numbers correlate to the informational order of most campus tours:

  • 1.0 University Center

    • 1.1 Admissions & Orientation

    • 1.2 Enrollment Services

    • 1.3 Financial aid, and so on.

These can be keyed to a printed or online orientation map, especially to a future virtual tour of campus when it comes online, allowing unescorted visitors a way to self-select the information they choose to learn. If guests choose to leave a formal campus visit tour to gather more detail, the information increases in density as they explore a given narrative region.

Landmark Totems

This information is carried on Totems, centrally located in each Narrative Region. For those primary (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc.) totems, they tell the story of each: a written description of the academic services in the region, a detailed map showing the other areas to access information, fun facts for each, and ways to connect to digital information for a deeper dive. This builds an integrated informational environment, assuring that Admissions, Marketing and Facilities are all speaking from the same page, regardless of the medium, to prospective students and families.

Connecting with the University of Michigan Brand

The UM-Dearborn campus is located amid sprawling corporate campuses in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit most known for the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. From a busy roadway, it’s almost impossible to identify the campus as a university, let alone one that draws students like the University of Michigan.

“We need to ‘pimp this place out’ in Maize and Blue”

- UM-Dearborn Stakeholder

While we were tasked first with accurately expressing the UM-Dearborn experience, our second assignment was to design cost-effective ways to pump up the Maize and Blue on campus. For us, as UM graduates, this was a dream assignment.

At the campus entrance, we proposed creating an Instagram-worthy photo opportunity because we’d heard (from both students and alumni) that there are no memorable or usable landmarks on campus (for that most excellent commencement selfie). This pylon, is visible from a busy road, but also easily accessible for all since it’s a safe distance from moving traffic, adjacent to a bus shelter and sidewalk.

Admissions panels are both sculptural and awesome.

Outside of the entrance to Undergraduate Admissions, we’ve proposed a series of low-cost fabric panels that can be easily changed for different seasons and events. Prospective students and their families will certainly use this landmark as another photo opportunity, as well as a way to identify the University Center building entrance.

“We haven’t bled maize and blue through all the corridors yet.”

– Alumni Stakeholder

The original building architects had chosen a light color palette, primarily using greens and whites. Anyone that knows the difference between the University of Michigan and Michigan State knows what an abomination that was. We’ve proposed a drastic change.

The Maize and Blue also needed to be more present on the interior of the buildings as well. How to pump up the awesome, bring that sense of pride and tradition? By painting the walls and ceiling, of course!

Finally, UM-Dearborn has two physical components to campus: the Main Campus, shown on the map above, and the Fairlane Campus, originally built as a corporate training campus for the Ford Motor Company. In order to tie the two together, we designed vinyl applications for the bus shelters, the only architecturally consistent elements shared by each campus.

Bus shelters are designed to demonstrate the linguistic diversity on campus.

Testing and building on a budget

As with any smaller educational institution, money is a key design constraint. Before moving into full-scale fabrication and installation, we wanted to test each concept with students, alumni, staff and the community to gather feedback on form, scale, content and location of typical elements.

We designed low-cost but semi-permanent prototypes to gather feedback over time and in different locations, then priced them out with both local and national fabricators. In addition, we estimated the total cost of each element in the program to give them an order-of-magnitude concept for future budgetary placeholders.

As of summer 2019, the UM-Dearborn team is developing a plan to fabricate and test the primary elements of this program.

Prototype Totem design for short-term installation and feedback

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