Pentagram’s Michael Bierut and his team have designed the program of signage, wayfinding and environmental graphics for the school, which is the first high school in the KIPP NYC network of 11 public charter schools and serves over 900 students in grades 9 through 12.
This week KIPP NYC College Prep High School celebrates the graduation of the second class of seniors who have studied at its new state-of-the-art building in the South Bronx. Pentagram’s Michael Bierut and his team have designed the program of signage, wayfinding and environmental graphics for the school, which is the first high school in the KIPP NYC network of 11 public charter schools and serves over 900 students in grades 9 through 12
KIPP stands for “Knowledge Is Power Program,” and KIPP NYC students regularly outperform their peers at other New York schools and boast higher graduation and college matriculation rates. (KIPP NYC College Prep sees an extraordinary 100 percent of its students go on to apply for college.) This mission of educational empowerment extends to the graphics of the new building, which encourage students to think, learn and problem-solve as they encounter a series of codes, puzzles and riddles that have been integrated into the school environment.
Bierut and his team worked closely on the project with KIPP NYC and its co-founder Dave Levin, as well as the Robin Hood Foundation, who helped fund the school, and Gensler, who designed it. Pentagram has previously collaborated with Robin Hood on environmental graphics for other schools it helps support, including Achievement First Endeavor Middle School and Uncommon Schools Excellence Charter School, as well as 46 public school libraries in its L!BRARY Initiative.
Levin wanted the new building to actively participate in the educational process, to be a fun and inviting place that would engage its students and foster a sense of constant discovery and surprise. He loves codes and puzzles and had the idea to incorporate these into the environmental graphics. The designers at Pentagram developed a variety of visual strategies for the signage that would both convey essential information and give students something to think about.
The project’s centerpiece is in the library, the perfect place to highlight information systems. The glass wall fronting the library features 10 unique codes, each arranged as a pattern on its own panel of glass. The sequences use a variety of methods—binary code, Morse code and reverse code, to name a few—and conceal a variety of messages, including passages from books, geographic coordinates, poems and more. The series starts easy at the left, and gets progressively more difficult as it continues to the right.
On the walls of the library, a collection of 12 framed posters designed by Pentagram present the first pages of well-known books, selected from titles in the school’s English curriculum.
Throughout the building, the environmental graphics are used to thread KIPP NYC messaging into the architecture and interior design. The school stairwells provide dynamic locations for various educational mottos: “Knowledge Is Power” appears in the main stairwell connecting all the floors, stretching out over five levels. Inside, the big letters are not easily deciphered; the complete phrase can only be seen from the street, where it is visible through windows. A central staircase features “Ancora imparo,” a quote by Michelangelo that translates to “I am still learning,” while the KIPP credo appears on the risers of the stairs. On a back stairwell, class subjects climb the stairs, ascending in order of difficulty. Tabletops in the “cafetorium” sport character strengths like “optimism,” “intelligence” and “self-control.”
The hallways also feature different lines of code for students to decipher. Spanning the full 165 feet, the codes are based on different subjects like the Fibonacci Sequence, chemical compounds and SAT vocabulary. Classroom signs are lenticular and display the room number from one angle and an image of one of the colleges that KIPP NYC students most often apply to from the other.
The most fun part of the program may be the one-off graphics that are located in unexpected places, where students might not immediately notice them. Look closely at the pipes in the ceiling of the gym and you may spot the school motto “Work hard. Be nice. Play hard.” Stare at the KIPP NYC emblem in the gym floor and it reveals itself as a maze. And one of the bathrooms contains a secret message that can only be read correctly when seen in a mirror.
Text and photography copyright of Pentagram.
Project Team: Michael Bierut, partner-in-charge and designer; Britt Cobb, associate and designer; Julia Lindpaintner, researcher. Fabrication and project management by DJM Architectural Signage. Photography by Albert Vecerk (exterior), Garrett Rowland (interior) and Rob Bennett (interior).