libraries need designers

My friend and colleague Baharak has complained that there’s no beauty in libraries. For the most part, I think she’s right.

I love the brand for Access that Emily Carr students Brian Tong and Jack Curtis developed. This is a generous gift to the Access community that I appreciate deeply.
Access 2011 design work by Brian Tong and Jack Curtis

In the spring semester I convinced Haig Armen and Tak Yukawa to take on branding Access as an in-class design competition for one of their 3rd year classes. Students had about 3 weeks to put together a comprehensive brand for my favourite library conference. It was awesome to have time to chat with these students about the technology work that happens in libraries. They asked smart questions about the participants (demographic, jobs, outside interests), why this was such a great conference, and why they, as library users, should care about the work that we do. It was a reference interview in a design context. Their questions helped me articulate what Access is all about.

3 weeks later a few members of the organizing committee came for the student presentations. We were all super impressed with what they came up with. I was relieved that none of the designs were book focused. The work was fantastic, but what was more impressive was how the students articulated their creative process and design thinking. Libraries need to hire designers because they can make us look really good. Librarians often complain that people do not respect our professional skills, yet we often believe that we can do our own design work, even though we are not designers. This is as stupid and offensive as people saying we don’t need libraries because we’ve got Google. Google is a tool and not a replacement for a librarian. Adobe’s Creative Suite and a suitcase full of fonts do not make you a designer, it just means that you have some tools.

For me, reference is magical when I can help a user find the perfect bit of information that they never knew existed. Designers are awesome because they do something similar. I didn’t ask Brian and Jack for a smart orange logo and avatars that used the filament from the letterform as part of the face. I told them about why I love coming to this conference, the awesome community of people and the work that we do. They heard the important parts and developed a clever brand around this.

Normally designers despise design competitions, as they undercut their professional skills. Also without a relationship between a designer and client the output is often not as good as it could be. There’s a good post on Core 77 explaining why design competitions suck. This case was different, as this was part of a course for which they received a grade.
I love libraries and open source software, but both communities tend to make some pretty ugly (but functional) things–there is very little beauty. Imagine a Venn diagram: the overlap between library ugly and FOSS ugly is double ugly. We need to budget hiring designers into our library software projects.

The work that Brian and Jack did for Access was beautiful and hopefully inspired participants to consider design and beauty in their own work.

redesigning the library, one ugly form at a time

Welcome to the library” says the handout that was made in Word, written in Arial 10 point font with a random bit of bolded text. While the text claimed to welcome new library users, the design clearly said that we are outdated, institutional and that we do not care.

I work in an art and design university and I know my users are especially visual people. How we visually organize the physical space, our website and small things like our library forms really impacts how our users feel about our collections and services.

It was extremely satisfying to be a client for Celeste Martin‘s 3rd year Communication Design class. We ended up with the modern and cheerful forms that Sophie Lundstrom designed. She redesigned the information sheet about the library, the slide signout sheet, reserve request form and a few others we decided to stop using paper forms for.   She did an amazing job. It’s been delightful to see people notice the new forms, especially the Communication Design students. This is what the old guide looked like.

Community Borrowers

The timing for the redesign was perfect as we are now offering Continuing Studies students borrowing privileges. While there are about 1800 FTEs in credit programs, there are over 4000 students taking Continuing Studies courses. Each one of these students will get this information sheet about the library. This will make a much more positive impression of the kind of services and collections we offer.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job has been the liaison with the Design department. I like how the faculty and students are problem solvers and how they manage to bring beauty and elegance to their solutions. After working here for 2 years, it’s hard to see my library with fresh eyes. As a user, I notice and appreciate small details like how a local sewing shop patched cracks in the floor with clear epoxy and buttons   or when a website has a clever 404 error page.

The improvement in these forms will hopefully improve user experience in a small way, so that people truly feel welcome in the library.