Design in Libraries

photo by kvanhorn on flickr some rights reserved

What is the importance of design in libraries?

Libraries have users, and those users go through an experience, whether they walk through the doors and into the building or use the library’s online website and resources.

Why should we care?

  • Design can give users a good experience or a bad one.

Think about when you go to a store. Any store. The experience you have can be improved by design, or hindered by design. For example, if you go to a store in person and you are trying to find a particular item- signs have the potential to help you find that item. But what if you had too many signs? Or what if those signs are unreadable?

Think about when you are at a restaurant. You certainly want to have an enjoyable dining experience. From the time you walk through the door to the time you leave, everything you encounter and experience has an impact on you. When you sit down to the table and open the menu, you want to be able to easily read the menu items. Have you ever been to a restaurant where it was hard to decide on what to order because the menu was difficult to read? This seems to be a common occurrence, yet a simple well thought out menu can change that experience entirely. And great design can even give people an emotional experience that they remember deeply. Think about a time when you went to a restaurant and had a great experience; think about what details made that experience great.

  • Now take these concepts and redirect them to libraries.

When a user walks into the door of the library, what is their experience? Put yourself in the users shoes. Are signs unfriendly or hard to read? Is it difficult to find what they might be looking for? Think of design as a way of providing service to users. Good design takes training and study, however, within a relatively small timeframe, anyone can understand design basics and fundamentals to create decent design that communicates. Librarians are good at organizing things and within design lies organization. Designing is simply organization and choices about elements such as typography, composition, contrast, and color to name a few.

  • Design is also about restraint; what you don’t do.

This is an important distinction because often people get excited when they explore elements of design and want to put everything they love all into one design. Often this doesn’t work very well and it comes back to making good choices and sometimes leaving out an element you really love but doesn’t work in the overall design you are building. It’s okay though- designers collect like librarians do and we just save that good stuff for another design that it will really work well in. Keeping a little library and saving elements and inspirations are part of being a good designer. Whether online or in paper- both practices are good to get into. The tool Pinterest serves this purpose well but any tool or method for collecting design elements and inspiration is good practice. When you are looking for ideas- don’t forget to go to that tool to give you new ideas or to help get you thinking in new ways.

  • Good design in libraries leads to a quality user experience.

This concept of design can extend to all kinds of user experiences in the library, including layout of a room, the library’s web presence, the building’s architecture, furniture choices, marketing materials, and more. But let’s start simple- start in your library and examine what you have for signs. Ask this: what does this sign communicate to our user? How does it look and feel to you? What if this sign were in a store where you were making a purchase, how would it communicate in that scenario? Ask users what they think of your signs as well. Developing an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, will only lead to better design and thus better user experience.


7 thoughts on “Design in Libraries”

  1. Great post… how do you think libraries can get around the problem of design by committee, particularly when it comes to the relatively tiny real estate of our online presences? How do you keep good design ideas from being steamrolled under “but we also need” from so many stakeholders?

    1. Thank you Jenny!
      Good question and I’m going to delve into this much further in future posts. But to give you the shortish answer- I think the best way to involve a committee is not the design at all. They can participate in other ways: brainstorming, setting priorities for the site, usability testing, etc. This way all ideas are welcome and recorded- but not all will make it through.

      If you can, hire an outside professional designer to design your site. You may save thousands in library staff and faculty hours to call a professional designer in to do the job.

  2. Lisa, great article! Really speaks to my combined librarian/design/UX experience. Love that you have specific examples.
    Since librarians are organizers of information, it always amazes me they are usually so bad at design (ex: laying out resources on a subject guide). But I think that speaks to your point about what NOT to do – librarians want to give people EVERYTHING about a topic, when really people usually just want a little. So I guess they tend to be designers who’ve had too much coffee and don’t know when to stop. :)

    1. Thank you Darcy and great points! We do a diservice when we give our users too much. It does relate perfectly to what not to do and using restraint. It is more helpful to carefully select or point to a small selection than to give everything and overwhelm.

  3. Always glad to see a colleague who is excited about the power of design and UX. Starting with the physical space is a good way to improve the experience, but how do we create a total user experience that extends to every library touchpoint? That’s a challenge. I’ve been writing about this and other design thinking and innovation issues at Designing Better Libraries since 2007. I hope you’ve been reading it – or will give it a look.

    1. Thank you Steven and yes- Designing Better Libraries is a fantastic blog discussing these very timely topics! I highly recommend folks check it out if you haven’t already. I completely agree that it is a challenge to create a whole user experience of the library. I think you’ve been working towards the answer by breaking it down into parts, trying different methods, examining different services, etc. I would love to see more librarians thinking about user experience and design more frequently as a regular practice. It’s definitely not just about space, it includes online experiences and interactions as well- if not more so in some cases. I’ll definitely be addressing more ways to reach that goal on this blog. Thanks again!

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