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Good Design: Pleasing to the Eyes “and” Functional

*** This post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Mar. 13, 2013. ***

Many librarians work with technology even if their job titles are not directly related to technology. Design is somewhat similar to technology in that aspect. The primary function of a librarian is to serve the needs of library patrons, and we often do this by creating instructional or promotional materials such as a handout and a poster. Sometimes this design work goes to librarians in public services such as circulation or reference. Other times it is assigned to librarians who work with technology because it involves some design software.

The problem is that knowing how to use a piece of design software does not entail the ability to create a great work of design. One may be a whiz at Photoshop but can still produce an ugly piece of design. Most of us, librarians, are quite unfamiliar with the concept of design. ACRL TechConnect covered the topic design previously in Design 101 – Part 1 and Design 101 – Part 2. So be sure to check them out. In this post, I will share my experience of creating a poster for my library in the context of libraries and design.

1. Background

My workplace recently launched the new Kindle e-book leader lending program sponsored by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine/Southeast Atlantic Region Express Mobile Technology Project. This project is to be completed in a few months, and we have successfully rolled out 10 Kindles with 30 medical e-book titles for circulation early this year. One of the tasks left for me to do as the project manager is to create a poster to further promote this e-book reader program. No matter how great the Kindle e-book lending program is, if patrons don’t know about it, it won’t get much use. A good poster can attract a lot of attention from library patrons. I can just put a small sign with “Kindles available!” written on it somewhere in the library. But the impact would be quite different.

2. Trying to design a poster

When I planned the grant budget, I included an budget item for large posters. But the item only covers the printing costs, not the design costs. So I started designing a poster myself. Here are a few of my first attempts. Even to my untrained eyes, these look unprofessional and amateurish, however. The first one looked more like a handout than a poster. So I decided to make the background black. That makes the QR code and the library logo invisible however. To fix this, I added a white background behind them. Slightly better maybe? Not really.

Kindle0

My first try doesn’t look so good!

Kindle1

My second attempt is only marginally better!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing I know about design is that an image can save or kill your work. A stunning image alone can make a piece of design awesome. So I did some Google search and found out this nice image of Kindle. Now it looks like that I need to flip the poster to make it wide.

Kindle2

The power of a nice image! Too bad it is copyrighted…

But there is a catch. The image I found is copyrighted. This was just an example to show how much power a nice image or photograph can have to the overall quality of a work of design. I also looked for Kindle images/photographs in Flick Creative Commons but failed to locate one that allows making derivatives. This is a very common problem for libraries, which tend to have little access to quality images/photographs. If you are lucky you may find a good image from Pixabay which offer very nice photographs and images that are in public domain.

Kindle3

Changed the poster setup to to make it wide.

3. What went wrong

You probably already have some ideas about what went wrong with my failed attempts so far. The font doesn’t look right. The poster looks more like a handout. The image looks amateurish in the first two examples. But the whole thing is functional for sure, some may say. It does the job of conveying the message that the library now has Kindle E-book readers to offer. Others may object. No, not really, the wording is vague, far from clear. You can go on forever. A lot of times, these issues are solved by adding more words, more instructions, and more links, which can be also problematic.

But one thing is clear. These are not pretty. And what that means is that if I print this and hang up on the wall around the library, our new Kindle e-book lending program would fail to convey certain sentiments that I had in mind to our library patrons. I want the poster to present this program as a new and exciting new service. I would like the patron to see the poster and get interested, curious, and feel that the library is trying something innovative. Conveying those sentiments and creating a certain impression about the library ‘is’ the function of the poster as much as informing library patrons about the existence of the new Kindle e-book reader lending program. Now the posters above won’t do a good job at performing that function. So in those aspects, they are not really functional. Sometimes beauty is a necessity. For promotional materials, which libraries make a lot but tend to neglect the design aspect of them, ‘pleasing to the eyes’ is part of their essential function.

4. Fixing it

What I should have done is to search for examples first that advertise a similar program at other libraries. I was very lucky in this case. In the search results, I ran into this quite nice circulation desk signage created by Saint Mary’s College of Maryland Library. This was made as a circulation desk sign, but it gave me an inspiration that I can use for my poster.

An example can give you much needed inspiration!

Once you have some examples and inspiration, creating your own becomes much easier. Here, I pretty much followed the same color scheme and the layout from the one above. I changed the font and the wording and replaced the kindle image with a different one, which is close to what my library circulates. The image is from Amazon itself, and Amazon will not object people using their own product image to promote the product itself. So the copyright front is clear. You can see my final poster below. If I did not run into this example, however, I would have probably searched for Kindle advertisements, posters, and similar items for other e-book readers for inspiration.

One thing to remember is the purpose of the design. In my case, the poster is planned to be printed on a large glossy paper (36′ x 24′). So I had to make sure that the image will appear clear and crisp and not blurry when printed on the large-size paper. If your design is going to be used only online or printed on a small-size item, this is less of an issue.

Final result!

5. Good design isn’t just about being pretty

Hopefully, this example shows why good design is not just a matter of being pretty. Many of us have an attitude that being pretty is the last thing to be considered. This is not always false. When it is difficult enough to make things work as intended, making them pretty can seem like a luxury. But for promoting library services and programs at least, just conveying information is not sufficient. Winning the heart of library patrons is not just about letting people know what the library does but also about how the library does things. For this reason, the way in which the library lets people know about its services and programs also matters. Making things beautiful is one way to improve on this “how” aspect as far as promotional materials are concerned. Making individual interactions personally pleasant and the transactions on the library website user-friendly would be another way to achieve the same goal. Design is a broad concept that can be applied not only to visual work but also to a thought process, a tool, a service, etc., and it can be combined with other concept such as usability.

Resources

While I was doing this, I also discovered a great resource, Librarian Design Share. This is a great place to look for an inspiration or to submit your own work, so that it can inspire other librarians. Here are a few more resources that may be useful to those who work at a library and want to learn a bit more about visual design. Please share your experience and useful resources for the library design work in the comments!

 

Usability in Action (2) – The Role of a Homepage

What to place and where to place the many elements of a website’s homepage is often the result of a delicate negotiation and compromise between what users want and what the site owner wants.  While the most ideal case is surely when these two things completely match, this doesn’t happen often for reasons you can easily guess.

I have recently worked with a vendor of a database called UpToDate to implement their new feature of automatic CME (Continuing Medical Education) Credit tracking through the EZproxy of my institution. This new feature brought some interesting changes to their database homepage, which I thought would be a great example to discuss in the context of Web usability.

Their homepage used to look like this. Very clean and to-the-point. Their Googole-like homepage offered exactly what users want most, searching their database for the information they need often at the point of (medical) care.

Previous Homepage

After the introduction of the automatic CME tracking feature, however, their homepage has changed as shown below. To be exact, they show the new homepage first-time when a user enters the site and then every 15 days or so to prompt users to register.

New Homepage

 

There are some pretty obvious usability issues in this new homepage due to the prominent Log in box and Register box as well as the big heading that reads “Earn CME with UpToDate.”

  • To a new users, the whole purpose of this database appears to be Earning CME.
    (I am pretty sure this is not the first impression this database wants to give to its first-time visitors no matter how well known the database is!  The most important role of a homepage is to answer the question for a user: “What does this site do for me?”)
  • To a user who just got to this database, seeing another Log-in vs. Register box makes them doubt if their initial authentication was successful.
    (If you run a website, you do not want to make your user  worry if their first action to get into the site was a failure!)
  • To experienced users, it is confusing where to do what they used to do, which is what they really want from this site. That is, running a search for clinical information.
    (You don’t want your user to “THINK about” how and where to do the most primary action in your site, ever! It should be obvious.)

In designing a homepage, try to provide satisfying answers to these three questions. Then you are on the right track. If you need to add additional information, do so without making the homepage fail to answer these questions first.

  • What does this site do for me?
  • What first action should I take to try what this site promises?
  • Where and how do I do that action (at this second without a need to think)?

Now that you have given a thought about the usability of this example, how would you re-design this page while providing information about the new feature that requires log-in and registration? I will leave that as something for you to think about!

 

Two Simple Ways to Upgrade the User Experience of Your Library

If you ever had the feeling that your library space might look somewhat dull and unexciting, there might be some relatively simpler ways to change that.  The university I work at has two separate campuses and I work at one of them.  But this week, because of some committee work, I spent time at the other (BBC) campus. This was actually the first time that I had time to look around the library there. And I immediately noticed these colorful chairs on the first floor.

Colorful Chairs

Colorful Chairs at Florida International University BBC Campus Library

The library building at the BBC campus has a pretty traditional look. The building is clean and neatly kept, but the colors of the wall and the carpet are neutral and conservative. While this might induce the sentiments suitable for serious study and concentration, the uniformly neutral colors may also create an impression that the library is dull and boring.

I was quite impressed by how these several colorful chairs do a great deal in counteracting such an impression. Considering that re-painting or re-carpeting is quite expensive, adding some color chairs like this can be a simple and effective way to create a more positive impression about library space to users.

While I was hanging out at the first floor, I was looking for a power outlet to plug in my laptop.  The BBC campus library has power outlets on the floor in addition to some on the walls. This is a great feature because often users would be studying in the middle of the library space where they would be too far away from the walls.

Power Outets

Hard-to Notice Power Outlets

However, the power outlets are not very visible in its white color. Considering that a lot of library users look for power outlets, it would be great if they are made visually more prominent.

To come to think of it, hard-to notice power outlets are a problem in other places. At any coffee shop, the tables near the wall where power outlets appear are often the first ones to be taken.  The same goes for the chairs near power outlets at an airport.  I would be delighted if I can easily locate a free power outlet at a coffee shop or an airport. This means that easy-to-notice power outlets are one sure way for coffee shops and airports to win me over as their client.

Granted power outlets are not the major function of a coffee shop or an airport. But if it is an amenity that is highly sought-after by users, then why not make it easy for them to find and use it?

I wonder what other secondary functions or non-major amenities of a library are frequently used by library patrons and how we can make them stand out more. Perhaps, libraries can match those features with services or resources that they want to promote for a better marketing effect.

 

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