Phil Holcombe is the Principal and Design Director at Form & Faculty. He has crafted communications for brands around the world, built curricula as a Program Director in higher education, and serves as a trustee of a Philadelphia high school.
Recently, F&F was working with an independent school on a suite of communications materials for prospective students. Early on in this process, I sat down with current faculty to review the messaging on their website and viewbook and I posed a simple question: are the stories you see here accurate representations of what happens at your school?
If they aren't capturing key ideas about the school, or if they're overly aspirational, or too reductive, then we have a brand gap: a place where what the school says it does isn’t aligned with what's actually happening. Brand gaps create problems because prospective families eventually discover that what they were promised wasn’t what the school offered. Such a disconnect ripples outward, damaging the school’s image in the larger community.
As a trained communications designer, closing a brand gap meant shifting the narrative with the help of words, images, and interactivity to better reflect reality. I spent years at brand agencies and design firms working in this way for schools and universities. But in the years that followed, I learned new ways to achieve the same goal. I became an educator, taught design at the university level, and eventually became the chair of an undergraduate design program tasked with rebuilding the program into a beacon for regional and national talent. I learned how culture, curriculum, faculty, and facilities could impact our brand every bit as much as the communications efforts.
I would submit that all of these efforts are now interconnected in ways they never used to be. Dr. Meredith Davis, a Professor Emerita at NC State, observes that today's complex problems can't be solved through artifact-driven strategies— a website, or a professional development session doesn't resolve them on their own.
Davis often cites former Apple executive, author, and professor Donald Norman in her writing about design. One of Norman’s key conclusions is that "the contemporary context for design involve[s] perpetually changing relationships among countless interdependent variables, making it impossible to address one variable at a time in isolation or through a single discipline." It's a dead-on insight that's confirmed by my experience working in education— design in this field is about the way instruction interacts with facilities, how story interacts with instruction, and how all of these interact with families. An adjustment to one inherently influences all the others.
Much of what these two experts describe may feel self-evident, but there’s a disconnect between this truth and the way many schools tend to manage themselves, which is, generally, “in isolation”: communications are typically managed over here, space planning is managed over there, and instructional matters are managed down there.
This approach to management belies the fact that a school is an ecosystem, and as with all ecosystems, everything is integrated, everything is connected, every part is affected when one part is shifted. For schools that suffer such a disconnected view, the story of their methods and their learners is diminished by a cobbled and piecemeal approach to storytelling. And at that point, the brand is damaged.
Form & Faculty aims to be the connective tissue capable of keeping these efforts synchronous: our interdisciplinary team and capacity to move fluidly between disciplines ensures that your story, instruction, and space are in sync and that your brand promise is easily validated by every family that sets foot on your campus.