Financial Design for Millennials and College Students

The million dollar questions that every financial customer of ours wants to know is “How do we get millennials, in particular college students, into our branches?”

The answer is not an easy one.  And it’s not because this generation is so different from the rest of us, it’s because of the age group.  Gen Y a.k.a. “the millennials” are a large and lucrative population segment to pursue, and financial institutions are in constant competition for their business and their brand loyalty.

For this particular article, I am going to focus on the 18 to 22 year old segment of the millennials, or college students.  That is because the designers at K4 are the experts in the financial sector and we have been asked what should a branch designed for college students look like.

We assembled a focus group of college students that attend the College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning at the University of Cincinnati.  We thought architectural and interior design students would have a vision of a financial branch that attracts them and works for them.  The first question was, “What is your favorite retail store?”  Believe it or not, it was not the Apple Store.  They selected Fossil, Banana Republic and a spinoff of American Eagle.  If you do not have a frame of reference for these stores, think “industrial eclectic bohemian.”  They are clean and organized but utilize reclaimed wood and textures.

REI Retail Store by Callison, New York Image Source
REI Retail Store by Callison, New York
Image Source
Altar’d State - Columbia Mall, Image Source Aerie by American Eagle - Crabtree Valley Mall, Image Source
Altar’d State – Columbia Mall, Image Source
Aerie by American Eagle – Crabtree Valley Mall, Image Source

Here is the good news.  I think we may have misjudged the 18 to 22 year old millennials.  We have all read the stats and the white papers on the millennial characteristics, and yes, they are hyper connected and tech savvy.  But tech savvy people and not necessarily early adopters.  We make assumptions that because this population uses their phones for everything; that they don’t want to engage with people in any other way.

It may shock you to know that when we sat down with our focus group, they all stated that they are uncomfortable taking a photo to deposit a check by mobile banking app.  They are fine with depositing it into an ATM, but the check needs to physically go somewhere for them to feel the transaction is complete and secure.  The idea that the check needs to go somewhere is not the behavior of an early adopter.


Today’s college student doesn’t know the difference between a credit union and a bank.  They think the only purpose is to provide a place for them to put their money and there is not much of a difference between you and the next guy.  They need to be educated in finances, and if you offer to mentor them, they will listen.  When considering branch design that would appeal to this age group, you first need to think about how to get them in the front door and immediately engage them.  They are often totally dependent on their parents or swimming in debt, and they don’t think that financial responsibility is a priority until they gainfully employed, married and own a home.  They need to know how to act now, and how to get their finances in order so the transition to adulthood is easier without bad credit scores and overwhelming debt repayments that cut into those first “real” paychecks.


The only people influencing their financial decisions are their parents.  They all have accounts with their parent’s institution of choice and their parents opened the accounts for them.  They even admitted that their parents may not be the most qualified financial advisors, but that it is they who can be trusted the most. Don’t ignore the power of parental influence and market to the parents of young millennials, communicating your desire to help their children.  Then enjoy the parents re-selling your products and services to their children, while the children get the info straight from their most trusted advisors rather than a stranger.

“Millennials are not only hungry for financial knowledge but also drive interest in it. This reveals that the generation often viewed as not interested in finances is not only interested, but wants help more than any other generation.”

– The 2014 ICBA American Millennials and Community Banking Study, by the Community Bankers of America and The Center for Generational Kinetics, LLC


They have no idea that financial institutions are out there and willing to help. They don’t know that you will give them a free cup of coffee just for being a member or customer, and they certainly don’t think it is ok to come in and hang out in your space.  They think your lobbies are like libraries that are too quiet.  They think the lobbies should be professional but that quiet = intimidating.  The students said that if other people were in there hanging out, than they would feel more comfortable doing so.  It’s just like school dances, no one wants to be the first on the dance floor.  I would highly suggest some music and graphics, to entice them in and let them know that it’s OK to stay.  They prefer to use their own phones, iPads, or laptops vs utilizing yours – so the investment of implementing that technology in your lobbies might be better allocated elsewhere.


This is how we got them to talk to us about financial brands and spaces.  They are college students and food is a trigger to get them to attend anything.   I asked them, “If you were invited to financial education events, would you attend?”  They said no because they were really busy with school already.  We then asked them, “What if food were provided?”  The answer was an immediate YES!


The presumption has always been that millennials prefer the bright colors and clean modern lines of a fun environment.  Think Google headquarters or Zappos, casually designed spaces, almost like adult playgrounds.

However, clean and well organized spaces are what they all agreed is appealing to them.  Financial institutions should consider eliminating clutter and multiple promotional messages in their lobbies, which may overwhelm the very population they are hoping to entice.

Comfortable seating is opted for versus across the desk transactions.  And we all agree, even the non-millennial generations, that we want to see your computer screen.  The across-the-desk transaction or traditional teller line may be the preference of your employees, but it’s not what your customers and members are looking for.


Google Offices, Image Source Apple Store Akasya, Image Source
Google Offices, Image Source
Apple Store Akasya, Image Source


Credit Card Designs

Our discussion with the students included customized credit cards.  When this became the topic of conversation, they all got really excited.  One of our students actually signed up for a credit card because she liked how it looked.  If you offered them the ability to design their own cards, this would be a huge perk for them.  And they made clear to us they do not want to pick from five boiler plate designs.  They want the ability to design their own card, as something they use daily should reflect their individual personalities and interests.

According to, “This generation is looking for brands that help them become something more than their regular selves. Provide a high quality product or service that helps them look cool, and Millennials will return the favor with their recommendations and purchasing power.”


When the students were shown a sample of financial websites, both bank and credit union, they all agreed they did not find them appealing or engaging.  Like the design of the branch itself – clean, simple and easy to navigate should be the goal of your website.  Your website reflects how you do business, and secures your voice and your image.  If your website is outdated, or it looks like you used a template website design versus a professional design, our students stated that they would not even consider you.

Promotions and Perks

Promotions and perks seem to interest them.  Creating a space that will enable you to educate them on your promotions, products and services in small groups will allow them to become brand ambassadors and spread the word to their friends, essentially re-selling your products and services.  We suggest a strong marketing campaign, complimented with 30 minute educational sessions with an incentive or reward for attending.  The students like infographics on engaging topics and they all have a “What’s in it for me?” attitude.  So if you want to get in front of them as a group, there must be an added perk and of course…FOOD.


When it comes to service they want it fast.  No long lines, easy access, and multiple channels to complete financial transactions from wherever they may be.

The bottom line is that college students do care about their finances, but they just need someone to guide them.  Gain their trust, speak their language, give them the tools to succeed, and they will engage.  And understand they are a bit more traditional than we think.