Making student travel cool again (and scale across multiple destinations)
I never intended to Design Spring Break. It just kind of happened.
Student travel is a money-making beast. It’s a billion dollar market with a guaranteed influx of new users every year. But because every year this new influx of thousands of students hits campus with zero previous experience of what it is to ‘Spring Break’, student travel providers are pretty lazy when it comes to trying to move things forward. To progress. And as such, everything is just a bit…well…tacky.
And because it’s a bit tacky - no designer wants to tackle it. I, however, being an MTV alumni, decided this was my fight. The fight to make Spring Break cool. And the fight to make Spring Break - and student travel as a whole - scale (which is actually much much harder). I also love a challenge which others won’t touch with a stick. For more context, we’d recently acquired a millennial / student travel company, and we had three months to roll out live campaigns.
I’m going to go through the iterative process of tackling this project from start to finish, so it’s not all portfolio - there’s some duds here, and I’m going to show them. I should also point out that my role in this project was as Design Leader , so other talented people worked on these over numerous revisions (hence I’m showing you process and not a link to some shiny Dribbble account).
A look at the current market
The current market in Spring Break world is pretty grim. It’s cartoon-y. It’s cheap. What’s crazy about that however is the cost of actually going to Spring Break - students are paying $800-$3000 for a one week vacation all-inclusive with flights.
There’s also the additional complication of Sororities and Fraternities - large family style travel groups who seem to not only have large amounts of money, but also transcend trends. Investigating trend within Greek groups opens up levels of inner hierarchy, and history - these are establishments where you gain societal status, not where you gain cool. To that extent understanding the current output of Spring Break providers makes some sense - cheap, quick, fun. But our research showed that whether it was Greek groups, Sports groups or just random large groups looking to Spring Break they were all unified around Trust, Transparency and Value for Money. Taking this into account we can begin to build our mood - it’s got to be clean, trustworthy and high value - and in the student / socially-led world this is an easy find. But while these students are driving the decision making and narrative, it’s not usually them paying for it - the decider is mom and dad. So if you want to scale the stories you tell, want to increase the experiences you offer and, by proxy, increase the cost of your packages - you have to get mom and dad onboard, because they hold the AMEX.
Normally with Marketing Design I’d begin with a moodboard, some brand analysis - but with this project we knew we were dealing with complexity. 50+ schools, 10+ destinations, merch, staging visuals - not to mention social media, UGC and below the line campaigns. A quick calculation early on revealed that per-destination a campaign might require 200+ assets for below the line use, including variants of those assets across an average of 10 different schools. That’s a lot of assets, and with a high-growth strategy involving HTML and SEO, this means multiple variants of variants, A/B testing and constant key word changes.
We’re a remote / distributed team, with the bulk between London and Los Angeles, and stakeholders in Las Vegas. This meant two things. Firstly we’d use an asynchronous tool to coordinate our design process. Secondly, with the complexity and timezones in play, we’d need to change our working practise to not require stakeholder approval for every asset variant.
We created a Campaign framework that presented parent key art to stakeholder, with cascading variants from the parent key art being asynchronously available and editable. For this we chose Figma, which not only allowed us to sync our critique with our Product Design and CX teams, but also allowed for asynchronous feedback from stakeholders along with shareable permalinks.
Scalable Design - V1
To scale the design with the amount of variants in the brief we immediately moved away from bespoke illustration or specific key photography and began to look at montage styles and design frameworks based around core patterns, rhythms and devices. One clear device was gradients - they were flexible, allowed us to chose complimentary colour-ways per destination, would scale to partnerships and brand guidelines, and could be used across multiple brand touch points from web product to merchandise to CSS. Another clear device was emojis. Emojis allowed us to quickly add mood or a sense of social to the campaign. The reason this was strategically important was that with a new influx of students every year, and the average college student last only four years in their degree, the ability for us to re-use photography from the student trips wasn’t a long-game solution. Sure when you’re 22 us using you in a poster campaign is cute - you and your friends, drunk, enjoying the sun. It’s a slightly different story when you’re 25 and trying to lock down that finance job. This meant we were largely reliant on UGC and social imagery to fuel our content pipelines, and with that comes lower quality, shaky footage and ‘embellishment’ (be that Insta-Gifs or general LOLz). You can deny that reality by heavily polishing your content or having a high refusal rate - or you can lean into it and make your professional content look as accessible and as fun as the UGC. We chose the latter. By combining UGC with stock imagery you achieve an unusual look - neither appears what it was. The UGC looks punchy. The stock imagery looks relevant. It also most importantly looks truthful.
Another range of devices we utilised was a mixture of in-destination specific stock imagery (locations, buildings, mountains), in-country specific stock and vector imagery (flowers, tropical fruit, palm trees) and experientially specific imagery (pool floats, surfboards, boats, fruit). There’s a few reasons for these using devices which are beyond general aesthetic. We used experiential imagery to ‘shortcut’ the destination - what you see is what you get - if there’s a boat, there’s a boat party, if there’s water there’s a beach, if there’s a pool float there’s a pool. But we also used this imagery to bypass restrictions - the boat party supplier wasn't confirmed, so a cartoon boat fills in, you can’t advertise alcohol to under 21s in the US, but in Mexico you can drink it and it’s part of your holiday package - so we show cocktail fruit, ice cubes and bubbles.
We also introduced patterns into the designs, although they play a largely supporting role - this is a ‘unknown unknown’ scaling element. Do we need staging backdrops? What colour are the tote bags? These patterns were our backup if all else failed. A consistency in the framework foundation - spots, stripes, circles, squares - a bread and butter element that we treated like a Swiss Army knife in case the on-site experiential got tricky.
Scaleable Design - V2
Our designs were rating well in user testing, however our stakeholders wanted more options relating to ‘premium destination’ feels - with more a focus on the destination itself. We began by breaking down the framework approach to its components and simplifying our approach. Could we make an impact with UGC and without UGC? Could we keep stock elements as destination-specific triggers? How could we make this feel more tropical and more luxurious?
We began using less vector and more photography in our foundation to ‘luxe up’ the destination IDs, and we found that in doing so we validated our framework further through it’s flexibility. We also retroactively applied our tonal changes to our existing designation designs. We still kept the UGC focus, but we offset it with more detailed execution, and developed a pictorial destination ID and a ‘lockup’ that operated better on social video stories and web page headers.
Scaleable Design - V3
One of the limitations we discovered with our UGC framework style however was how it worked with artist imagery. During our discovery of the campaign we began to look more closely at the experiential execution and the events we’d be coordinating at the tail end of the campaign when in-destination. With that came headliners for events, and with that came artists bookers and agents. We began to adopt the framework for a more typographic led approach to allow for studio quality imagery which had IP limitations attached to them, such as crop, orientation and scale.
We took many of the elements and devices of the montage framework and applied them to block type treatments. This allowed us to - in a single type treatment - encapsulate a destination in a locked self-contained logo style, which made its application more scaleable across static and video backgrounds, and gave us clear options for animation.
We also began to play with other messaging, adopting the framework within other typography to experiment with storytelling, along with using it in the context of broader storytelling imagery.
Using a self-contained type-based framework allowed us to use more large scale imagery, and incorporate UGC as part of that on social with framing devices. The frames allowed us to take devices and use them to provide contextual impact while not interrupting the core imagery.
Most of our communication strategy was aligned to Instagram, and as such we had to operate between 1:1 and 9:16 formats, while also making sure that artist imagery remained uncropped and untouched.
So - does it scale? Yes it does. Does it make Spring Break cool? Not sure yet. Head to Cabo San Lucas in March to find out.