design for communal spaces
on college campuses

For decades, college residences have gotten an (often deservedly) bad rap for being uncomfortable, outdated, Spartan, or uninspired—or a little bit of each. But with college tuition rising and admissions more competitive than ever, smart universities are turning their attention to attracting and retaining students. And one of the main ways they’re doing it is through beautifully designed common spaces that are as fun to use as they are practical.

For students, this often means communal spaces, both indoor and outdoor, designed with multiple seating and workspace options that are arranged for studying, lounging, snacking, and playing games. These spaces allow students to interact—whether for hitting the books or socializing—in safe places within the confines of campus. Defining areas within a larger space with sofas, chairs, and tables invites groups of different sizes to engage, which helps students feel more connected to their school community. This connection, in turn, greatly improves students’ chances at academic success.

Residential design for coeds also must include more intimate spaces that provide a greater degree of privacy, where students can chat in pairs or trios, or else read, listen to music, or browse social media on their own. Having a balance of larger group spaces and places for quiet time leads to a greater degree of satisfaction with the college experience. This makes it more likely for students to spend all four of their undergraduate years on the same campus, or even stick around for graduate school.

In addition to considerations like plenty of flat surfaces for books and laptops, WiFi, and electrical outlets for charging cell phones and tablets, students also appreciate spaces that are flexible. The best communal spaces have furniture that can be rearranged into different configurations to suit groups of varying sizes; at least some of the chairs and tables need to be lightweight enough for the average person to move easily.

Because a university’s communal spaces are high-traffic areas, the furniture needs to be extremely durable. Outdoor furniture is a natural choice even for indoor use, thanks to its take-a-beating construction and materials, like teak and other hardwoods and stainless steel. And outdoor furniture cleans up easily, so the evidence of that late-night pizza party or study-session soda spill can be washed away, and the furniture will look like new.

But well-made indoor furniture, especially when crafted with quality joinery and durable fabrics, can also stand up to many years’ worth of shoes propped up on corners, heavy books plunked onto surfaces, or groups of students who pack onto cushions or even take a load off while sitting on the arms of chairs and sofas. For all school residential furniture, whether built for indoor or outdoor use, comfort is a must—for sitting, perching, slouching, and even lying down.

Colleges that focus on classic, timeless design and top-quality furniture see the best return on their investment. Classic designs also have silhouettes that look fantastic indoors or out, and complement a wide range of design styles. They’re easy to switch up and give a trendier look with new—and less expensive—accessories like throw pillows and floor cushions, or even a fresh coat of paint on the walls.

Beyond their functionality, college common spaces also need to be inviting and visually stimulating, to encourage students to visit them frequently—a complete 180 from the spaces of a couple decades ago, with their Band-Aid beige walls, mottled brown wall-to-wall carpet, and creaky tan furniture. To that end, designers are choosing fresh color palettes and furniture with interesting shapes. The goal is to create spaces that facilitate social and academic interaction while complementing the character of the school and the building—from a more traditional look to slick, contemporary, creative, fun, or whimsical. Some university outdoor spaces also include amenities like grills or fire pits with benches, to create a cozier feeling, as if students are gathering in a friend’s backyard.

No matter which vibe the space is meant to evoke, colleges that invest in great design now—including durable indoor and outdoor furniture that will last for a decade or more—are seeing improved student retention. And when students share photos of their friends in these spaces on Tumblr or Instagram, or pass along great word of mouth about their favorite rooms on campus, there’s no better way to attract new students.