Published on July 21, 2020

Written by Nat Korol & Richard Lee

Co-Founders of Hyphen

Brand guidelines, legacy designs and a slow-moving bureaucracy can stifle marketing innovation in higher ed institutions. Yet your audiences and evolving tech and media environments demand creativity and nimbleness.

In this context, is it possible to win over decision-makers and rapidly deploy innovative design initiatives? Absolutely!

In 2019, Hyphen collaborated with the University of Toronto Mississauga Master of Management & Professional Accounting (MMPA) to complete an identity refresh – including value proposition statements and microsite rollout – marrying marketing and recruitment in just three months.

MMPA Online Microsite
MMPA Online Microsite

In this article, we share how we broke through institutional barriers to do exciting and bold work at top speed. We provide concrete tips for how higher ed institutions can collaborate with creative companies to rapidly roll out tactical design initiatives, including:

  • Introducing innovative design amid legacy guidelines
  • Picking your battles and securing approval
  • Working collaboratively with agile vendors
  • Taking key steps to maintain project momentum
  • Taking decisive action while ensuring everyone feels included

Ready? Let’s do this!

Secure design approvals as you go

There’s a time and place for the excitement of a big reveal, but this is not it. Finding out at the end of a design process that all your work has been rejected is a disaster, especially when you’re facing a tight timeline.

A better approach is to iterate rapidly and secure approvals on an ongoing basis. It takes time to implement multiple reviews, but this is time well spent if it means ensuring a green light at the end of the design phase.

You can facilitate this process and maintain momentum by setting clear deadlines for feedback and approvals.

Clearly defined design elements and deliverables are also crucial. For identity projects, agree to a fixed number of brand mark variations and revisions, and ensure both sides define these the same way. (Is the same design with 3 different colour schemes considered 3 variations? For us at Hyphen, it’s just 1.)

Photo of MMPA Working Logo Options
MMPA Working Logo Options

See it in action: We spoke with the U of T executive creative director at the start of the project, showing some preliminary designs to learn what could and couldn’t be done. This started us on the right path, and frequent reviews of our design work propelled our progress toward final approved designs.

Identify and respect legacy design

Innovation and bold design can help your institution break through the noise. Pushing creative boundaries can sometimes take people to the edge of their comfort zone, yet it’s important to recognize that some things are off limits.

Many higher ed institutions have legacy design elements that are central to their identity and cannot be tossed aside, whether it’s a colour, a logo or a mascot.

Be sure to identify what these are from the get-go and ensure your creative agency is fully briefed on the need to respect them.

See it in action: During our initial discovery process, we took the time to understand the design elements that are near and dear within MMPA and more broadly across University of Toronto Mississauga. This helped us identify the design space in which we were free to innovate while respecting the institutional guardrails.

Photo of MMPA previous and final logo
MMPA Final Logo

Let everyone be seen and heard

In a higher ed environment, success requires a collaborative approach.

This doesn’t mean running every decision past everyone. Instead, it’s about letting them know what’s happening, soliciting their input and then making decisions based on what the project team believes will be best for everyone.

From an admin perspective, it’s important to know from the start who will be directly and indirectly impacted by your initiative. This takes time and effort, but it can avoid major headaches later.

Internal champions are critical for opening doors and building support. Ideally, this includes a champion in a senior position to secure approvals and a champion in a mid-level position to keep the project moving forward.

The senior-level champion is especially helpful in the face of resistance and in conversations about boundaries – don’t be afraid to name-drop!

See it in action: We started with one meeting with everyone in the same room. We worked hard to accommodate schedules to show that this is important to us and should be important to you. We then followed up with individual meetings with all the key stakeholders to gather more detailed input.

Photo of MMPA Tradeshow banners
MMPA Tradeshow banners


Keep your eyes on the prize

When you’re pushing boundaries creatively, communicating why you are doing something is incredibly important. Presentations and explanations are a must, and picking up the phone to call is better than waiting days for a response to an email.

Resistance to change is natural, but it can be diminished when all stakeholders understand a project’s goals and expected outcomes. These should be constantly reinforced to maintain the momentum of your project and give everyone a common cause to rally around.

Design grows on people, so it’s important to help everyone understand why certain elements were chosen, what’s the story behind a design, whether your program can grow into this design and how it will resonate with your students.

Good communication goes both ways, so listening is also essential. Your team and the creative agency need to listen to feedback and find ways to integrate it into the project.

See it in action: During our three-month project, we were in touch several times per week with our key contacts; provided weekly updates for the whole team; and hosted a dozen presentations to show our ideas, gather feedback and obtain approvals.

Photo of MMPA Program Brochure and Swag
MMPA Program Brochure and Swag

Designing a fresh look for your program

Sometimes introducing new design initiatives in a legacy higher ed environment can feel like wrestling with a dinosaur. The institutional bureaucracy and resistance to change can be challenging to navigate, yet it can be done!

Winning over decision-makers and rapidly deploying bold design initiatives takes planning, diplomacy and clear communication. With support from a nimble creative agency and a clear vision for how design can add value, you can win over your dinosaur and add a fresh new chapter to its rich legacy.

Have more questions about rolling out a bold design initiative? Get in touch with the Hyphen team via email at dash@hyphenco.com ​or LinkedIn.