Designing the Campus Tour

I’m surprised to find that there’s a booming cottage industry in the design of university tours for prospective students. Eric Hoover explores the Disneyfication of campus tours in an article this month for the Washington Monthly.

For decades, most campus tours were as plain and standard as notebook paper. But recently, many colleges have turned the traditional tour into a more intimate, more elaborate event. Some colleges have full-time “visit coordinators” who preside over tours with personalized touches, quirky diversions, choreographed “signature moments,” and even souvenirs — the stuff of theme parks. Such changes have made tours more fun and engaging, and families tend to get multiple options for who to meet and what to see during their visits.

As I read though the story about former tour guide Jeff Kallay it seemed obvious that the guy was channeling Pine and Gilmore, throwing around terms like “authenticity” and “experience.” He finally mentioned The Experience Economy on the second or third page and it’s clear that he’s a disciple.

A couple things stand out about the practice of re-designing college tours and how they’re pitching it here.

First, it’s a shame that “Disney” is our cultural touchstone for the design of experiences. People are certainly familiar with the reference but it carries a lot of negative connotations. Experiences don’t necessarily have to be plastic.

But aside from that it’s important to step back and take a look at the context. Can you imagine a university hiring a design firm to craft this type of experience? Universities are way too conservative for that. They might hire an outside design firm to create a logo or a mascot. Or hire an architect to design a stadium. But never something as intangible as this.

Against all odds colleges are lining up seventy deep for consulting from TargetX, a Pennsylvania-based company, because they’re not a design firm. They focus exclusively on student-recruitment strategies. It’s the triumph of the specialist.

The only counter-example I can think of is IDEO’s work with the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente. Both conservative organizations. But IDEO was focused less on tactical design and more on establishing internal innovation units within those cultures. That’s not what’s happening there.

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