Education institutions serve their communities by providing opportunities for learning, enrichment and career development. Community colleges, in particular, must offer a wide range of services to best meet the needs of a diverse population with varying interests, aptitudes and requirements.

Currently, we are working with Muskegon Community College on a community-supported millage initiative to upgrade and expand facilities that support their arts and humanities programs. The project involves the renovation of spaces on their main campus for theater, music, dance, art and media programs.

One of the questions this project has forced us to consider is: How do you create spaces that meet both the needs of the programs and the needs of those using them?

Before we assess the college’s current facilities, or look at the future needs of the program, we must begin the design process by gaining an understanding the people who will use the facilities. This will help us to design an environment that best responds to their diverse needs and requirements.


To better understand the future users of the facility, we held sessions with students, faculty, staff, board members and community stakeholders to develop “user personas”. User personas are representations of imagined people who will be future users of the space. Personas include the goals and behavior of that person who might engage in courses, programs and events as part of the school’s arts and humanities program.

The personas identified included the traditional student, non-traditional student and the community member.  Through a number of exercises, we worked to identify specifics about each user as well as needs and challenges they might experience during their time on campus.

Each of the personas is unique and highlights specific needs of these individuals that the future facility must respond to and address in the planning and design phases.

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Stock images help put a face with a name during a user persona exercise.

The Traditional Student

The traditional student faces a number of challenges as they explore a variety of class and career options. These challenges often range from economic and mobility, to transportation to and from campus. Based on this persona, we discovered the importance of environments that are clear, provide great access to faculty, promote engagement and interaction and make provisions for full accessibility.

The Non-Traditional Student

The non-traditional student is a life-long learner who is looking to pursue a new career or learn more about a passion or hobby. They seek engagement but have challenges fitting in because they tend to be older than the traditional student. The non-traditional student expects facilities and programs to be state-of-the-art, and desires environments that promote inclusion and collaboration.

The Community Member

The community member is typically older than both the traditional and non-traditional student. They are often retired and looking to spend their time exploring new interests or learning more about old hobbies.  Community members seek environments and amenities that are safe and easily accessible.

Progressive AE Learning
Key stakeholders at Muskegon Community College work to create student personas for the future arts and humanities facilities.

Community colleges are unique in that they often provide for the vocational, academic and cultural needs of the communities they serve. As planners and designers we need to fully understand how a space will be used and, just as importantly, who will use the space. This allows us to create facilities that not only accommodate the needs of the academic programs, but also the needs of the individuals to assure the satisfaction, enrichment and success of everyone the community college serves.

Craig Nicely is an architect with 35 years of experience with a focus on designing learning environments that support, enrich and enhance learning.

Leave a comment! We’d love hear your thoughts on how planning and design services can help advance the mission of academic institutions and the variety of unique individuals they serve.