National Library Symbol History & Implications

From ALA Library Fact Sheet 30:

The image debuted in its official capacity in the 1982 ALA publication, A Sign System for Libraries, by DeVore and Mary S. Mallery, and was the cover story of the September 1982 issue of ALA’s member magazine, American Libraries. DeVore’s original design scheme for the image (similar to the image shown below) was an opaque white silhouette against a blue (specifically, PMS #285 blue) background.

This is a great symbol on a number of levels. It’s striking, memorable, and the “L” is clever. If I were DeVore or Mallery I’d be so proud to see this symbol all over.

But characterizing libraries as places where people read alone was a mistake.

Here’s another take. It isn’t as clear – a major shortcoming for a symbol – but it is a more accurate way to describe how we should be thinking about libraries. There’s still room for solitary reading, sure. But there’s more going on. There are people. Not only do we need to think of our institutions in these terms, we need to convince the public to think of us like this too. Otherwise, more libraries will turn into kiosks.

The article “Tomes’ time might be up at Newport Beach library” gets it all wrong. We shouldn’t be concerned about library spaces without books. We should be concerned about library spaces without librarians. However, our current offerings and our representative symbol tell a story in which a bookless library makes less sense than a librarianless library.

We can change that narrative by emphasizing not content, but people and interactions.

Improving Library Signs

There’s more to design than appearances, but the way an object looks is often the most immediate and apparent aspect of how it has been designed.

The power of this immediacy allows some designers to think only about aesthetics, and that leads to attractive but unusable stuff. This happens quite often with websites created using Flash. LEGO Cl!ck is a very attractive site, but I can’t figure out what its purpose is, and I don’t feel confident using or navigating it. Still, visual design is so powerful that people continue to buy difficult-to-use things simply because they’re nice to look at.

Of course, a focus on meaning and ease of use doesn’t mean aesthetics should be ignored. People are less likely to use something if it isn’t pretty, but aesthetics are even more important when they impact an object’s utility, as in the case of graphic design.

Many small and medium-sized libraries—and some large ones, too—don’t have the luxury of an in-house graphic design department to create nice-looking, effective, and consistent signs and brochures. Let me be clear: a beautiful sign isn’t enough to save a library or make it relevant to its community, especially if it communicates a broken policy. It will, however, do something more subtle but important when it contributes to an overall pleasant experience for library users.

While pointing out ugly and rude messages in libraries has been a niche popular pastime recently, less has been done to help libraries improve their signs. Here are a few tips.

Conduct an audit
List on a spreadsheet all of the signs in your library, especially the little bits of paper taped up in random places. Note their message, location, attitude, and aesthetic. I wrote a blog post a while back proposing a grading matrix that might come in handy in judging your signs

Do any of these signs communicate out-of-date or questionable policies? If so, raise the issue with the appropriate people. Remove any signs that aren’t necessary or helpful. Fewer signs in your library will make the remaining signs more effective. Using your spreadsheet, figure out which signs should be redesigned first.

Redesign the signs
The first step in redesigning a sign is to remove as many words as possible while still retaining the sign’s message. Fewer words means fewer elements competing on the page. It also means that you’ll have room to enlarge some or all of the words on the page, making them easier to read. After that, it will probably be simpler to apply these two basic graphic design principles.

1. Use a sans-serif font for large display text. While serif fonts are easier to read at small sizes, sans-serif fonts are generally considered easier to read when large.

2. Left justify the words. This arrangement is much easier to read and comprehend than center justification, which is seemingly ever-present on library signs.

Check out the example on this page of an actual sign I saw recently in a library and a quick revision I made using the above principles.

The original sign did some things well. It used an easy-to-read sans-serif font, Myriad Pro, which is the default font for many versions of Abode Illustrator. It also made use of contrast to give the page title more prominence. Importantly, it avoided using clip art in an attempt to liven up the design.

The revised sign removes unnecessary words, which let me use a larger font size and bolder font, in this case, Helvetica Bold. The sign title is the same size as the rest of the words but is offset by reversed black and white and by added italics. I left justified the words and evened out some of the vertical spacing. The extra space allowed me to add a message about regular hours resuming. I could have just as easily included some library branding there.

My revision isn’t perfect—it could be considered boring. I happen to think signs like this should be boring because they’re usually meant to communicate important info, not entertain people. That being said, someone with real graphic design chops could make even more improvements.

The tips above can improve your signs, but they’ll only take you so far. For more help read Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book and Tony Seddon’s Graphic Design for Nondesigners.

Beyond redesigning
Tacking up an instructional or prescriptive sign should be a last resort. It should only be done when absolutely necessary and when whatever the sign is about can’t be changed. We should aim to make our buildings and services so intuitive that little taped-up signs are redundant. The signs that we do need to put up, along with other print material, should be as easy to read and beautiful as we can make them.

This article first appeared in my LJ column called The User Experience.

Content, Creation and Convenience

Middax offers a service whereby it delivers five dinner recipes each week plus corresponding ingredients, right to the customer’s door.

Part of me find this ridiculous, especially because I love going to the grocery store. Another part of me finds this model – providing actual stuff to create with along with creation resources – compelling.

More at Springwise.

New Logo for Lawrence PL

Our new logo reflects this exciting chapter. It combines the enduring, classic shapes of a square and circle, representing the library as a strong community anchor. The use of bold red conveys positive energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm. Yet the new image also has a touch of mystery, reflecting exploration, curiosity and discovery.

The library is an essential spot for the community. Just as our new logo means something different to everyone who sees it, the Lawrence Public Library has something different for everyone who uses it. The library is yours to explore, experience and enjoy. [pdf]

Spacelog is Impressive. Roger.

Spacelog is an absolutely stunning and fun to use interface for the transcripts of the Apollo 13 and Mercury 6 space missions. It is the best website I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t know what I enjoyed more: reading the transcripts or using the website. And not just because of its excessive use of the word “roger.” Take, for instance, the use of images.

The open source font League Gothic was an inspired choice as it echoes a font used in the original documents.

The Twitter-like display of transmissions is effective and fun. Much like the new New York Times feature, each transmission is linkable.

The site really demonstrates how visual design and a usable interface can enhance content, give it a new life, and help tell a story.