When it comes to the PK-12 education system there’s no denying that changes must be made. This is the consensus, and has been as long as one can remember. But while school curriculum and financial health as well as the policies that shape them, are of crucial importance, often left out of the discussion is the need to reform the physical environments in which students learn. It is here that design can and must play a key role in the success of students.


With design an important element in practically every aspect of our lives, why isn’t there more discussion and effort toward integrating appropriate and beneficial design into our most essential learning environments? This, when a school that prospers often can often strengthen community identity. The fact is, the design of school facilities impacts the ability of all students to learn and more specifically benefits the individual abilities and needs of each student. It also influences a school’s attractiveness to the parents of current and prospective students, and plays an important role in attracting and retaining talented teachers and administrators.

The faculty of the University of Salford School of the Built Environment, in Manchester, England, in collaboration with the architecture firm Nightingale Associates, recently conducted a study on the impact classroom design has on a child’s academic progress throughout an academic year. The research took place across seven primary schools in Blackpool, England, covering a total of 751 students in 34 classrooms. Data first was collected on the students’ performance levels at the start of the school year, followed by the researchers ranking each classroom on a one to five scale for 10 design parameters: light, sound, temperature, air quality, flexibility, connection, complexity, choice, color, and texture. The study’s findings of the study indicate that classroom design could positively impact a student’s academic progress throughout an academic year by 25%. So now we absolutely know that color, choice, complexity, flexibility, connection, and light all have a significant impact on learning.

Good design in the classroom should be an expectation, not a privilege. And although many still are missing the boat, others clearly have taken notice. Pentagram, in particular, has been a leader here. Michael Bierut partnered with The Robin Hood Foundation, New York’s largest poverty organization, on its L!brary Initiative. The goal: To reverse “patterns of low literacy skills and underachievement by working with community school districts and public elementary schools to design, build, equip, and staff new elementary school libraries.” Bierut handled the environmental graphic design aspect of the initiative, creating bright, clean, and engaging environments for the students. Graphic Designer Paula Scher also created identities with corresponding environmental graphic designs for a number of New York City charter schools, including PAVE Academy, Excellence Charter School, and KIPP NYC College Prep High School.


Kurani is another socially-minded design firm that has partnered with education providers to design and build physical environments in schools based on their self-developed participatory method. In 2015, they designed a replicable campus prototype for 8 city-wide campuses belonging to NYC’s EPIC High School model.

Stakeholders in schools across the country need to recognize the proven benefits of strong and impactful design in the classroom. A well-designed learning space has been proven to be an engaging and stimulating setting for both students and teachers. It inspires creativity, sparks interest, encourages collaboration, and enlightens the environment. Just as strong design can bring the best out of a brand, it also can also bring out the best in education. A school’s purpose is to guide its students in their pursuit of growth and development. By creating the right atmosphere design can help foster the ideal environment for learning.


We are at a pivotal moment when education reform is at the forefront of public discourse. It therefore is exciting to see design become a key component in the holistic academic development of children. The prominent inclusion of design principles in schools helps students learn more effectively, gives schools a competitive advantage, and empowers communities to prosper for generations to come. We are eager to bring our talent into an academic setting and do our part to take this movement forward.

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