How applying retail design thinking to university campuses can improve estate performance

The number of students going to university grows every year. With this influx of undergraduates – both from the UK and internationally – university campuses have to adapt to meet the demands of students and create a better environment.

One sector that universities can learn from is retail, where getting the design and layout right is imperative to bolstering the user experience. Taking note from retail design could stand university campuses in good stead for the future generation of students.

Here, digital solutions provider UXG has looked at why applying retail design thinking will have a positive impact on university campuses.

What universities can learn from retail design

Top level, universities are education establishments to help pass on knowledge and practical skills to help students progress into their desired industry or job role. But with this still comes an element of user experience (UX). Those studying are, in theory, paying for a university’s services and facilities, so why should this experience just start and end within the lecture theatre?

The days of students wanting a purely educational experience at university are dwindling – now it’s more about being immersed within campuses, interacting with facilities and been able to get solutions to problems fast.

That’s where a retail design mentality can come into play. A huge aspect of retail industry is UX – if you have an unappealing environment that is difficult to navigate, customers won’t enjoy their experience within your retail setting and, most likely, not return. It’s about creating a space that is engaging, practical and interesting for those using it.


Retail design is undergoing its own metamorphosis to stave off the challenges of the online marketplace by adopting the core principles of online – digital signage, interactive features so customers can immerse themselves into the retailer’s offer and making it easier to find exactly what they want (and how to get it) through displays and hubs.

By adding this innovation to a campus, universities can create an environment where prospective and current students want to go and spend time outside of lectures and seminars.

Improving campus efficiencies

From undergraduates finding their footing on campus to knowing which rooms are available within the library, the need to improve estate efficiencies is always high on the agenda for universities. And with the innovation available to them, the introduction of new technology is key adopting a retail, UX-focused design mentality.

A big problem with campuses tends to be students finding their way from building to building, and lecture theatre to lecture theatre. But rather than the classic static map which can be difficult to follow or find the easiest routes, digital wayfinding displays can be utilised – similar to those used within large scale shopping centres. For example, an interactive digital map in each university building and at key areas on campus will allow students, lecturers and visitors to input their next location and find the quickest route.

The same can be used for registering into seminars and lecturers. Rather than using the old paper register system, ask students to sign into classes via interactive displays outside the theatres. It may seem something small but it can make a serious impact on campus efficiencies.

Thinking beyond the native students

When it comes to embracing a retail design ethos within a university campus environment, a huge factor has to be who your ‘audience’ is. Within the UK’s higher education system, latest figures from UKCISA state that 19 per cent of all undergraduates are classed as international students (i.e. from outside the UK), with 6 per cent coming from within the EU and 13 per cent from the rest of the world. A similar trend is seen with postgraduate students – 42 per cent of all postgrads learning within the UK are from outside the EU, a huge proportion on the footfall on campuses.

So, with an ever-growing diverse student demographic, universities need to adapt to meet the needs of all attendees. Having signage, systems and advertisements only in English is no longer best practice to suit the modern-day campus.

The most efficient way to achieve this is through innovative interactive LED displays. For example, the majority of university students’ unions have cafeteria space for students to eat at – but how do you showcase the entire menu so that all nationalities are able to understand it? Having a print out for every differing language is unfeasible, but by having interactive displays where users can select the language of choice and place an order eliminates the problem. This sort of technology is widely used within the retail industry (for example, checking stock levels, collecting or placing orders) and will only improve campus estate performance.

Carousel digital signage which broadcasts any content – such as displaying the names of buildings, square and lecture theatres in different languages – can also help appease any language barriers.

The future of the ‘smart’ campuses

How far can this retail-led revolution go on university campuses – will we ever see a totally smart, interactive and immersive estate?

The answer: why couldn’t we? Introducing innovative display signage and technology can reinvent campus living to focus on the user experience element that’s so imperative in a retail environment.

For example, finding a free seat in the library can be the bane of student’s life. So why not have large LED screens within the library entrance which is fed by real-time data to show which floors, tables or desktop computers are free to improve UX.  Departmental buildings could have digital screens to showcase talks or seminars with subject-specific figures to inspire and influence students through live streams.

If the boundaries were really pushed, digital interactive screens could link up with tech to mean students can easily get access to the books they need. Whether it’s through an automated retrieval system or through showcasing the relevant extracts on the screens, this could eliminate the scenarios of students fighting over the last copy of a book. All these benefit the user experience, signalling a more retail ideology.

Through looking at retail design and becoming more digitally focused, university campuses have the opportunity to improve overall estate performance. Be it through interactive screens or digital signage, the future of the campus is a bright one.

For more details on projects that UXG has previously worked on, click here.