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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.

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My first try doesn’t look so good!

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Making Library e-Books on the e-Book Reader Visible

***  This post has been originally posted to the ACRL TechConnect blog. ***

Browsing Experience in the Virtual vs. the Physical Space

However entangled our lives are in virtual spaces, it is in the physical space that we exist. For this reason, human attention is most easily directed at where visual and other sensory stimuli are. The resulting sensory feedback from interacting with the source of these stimuli further enriches the experience we have in the physical space. Libraries can take advantage of this fact in order to bring users’ fleeting attention to their often-invisible online collections. So far, our experience on the Internet, where we spend so much time, is still mostly limited to one or two sensory stimuli and provides little or no sensory feedback. A library’s online resources, often touted for its 24/7 accessibility anywhere, are no exception to this limitation.

Flickr - "augmented reality game bibliotheek deventer"

Think about new library books, for example. The print ones are usually prominently displayed at a library lobby area attracting library visitors to walk up and browse them in the physical space. By thumbing through a new book and moving back and forth from the table of contents to different chapters, we can quickly get a sense of what kind of a book it is and decide whether we want to further read the book or not. The tactile, olfactory, visual, and auditory sensory input that we get from thumbing through a newly printed book with fresh ink contributes to making this experience enjoyable and memorable at the same time.

Now compare this experience with reading a library Web page with the list of new online library books on a computer screen. Each book is reduced to a string of words and a hyperlink. It is hard to provide any engaging experience with a string of words and a hyperlink.

The Invisibility Problem of Library e-Books

Like many libraries, Florida International University (FIU) Library started an e-book reader lending program that circulates e-book readers. Each reader comes with more than one hundred titles that have been selected by subject librarians. But how can a library make these library e-books on e-book readers noticed by library users? How can a library help a user to quickly figure out what books are available on, say, a library Kindle device when those are specifically what the user is looking for?

Well, if a user runs a keyword search in the library’s online catalog, say, with ‘Kindle,’  s/he will find more than sufficient information since the library has already neatly cataloged all titles available on the Kindle device there. But many users may fail to try this or even be unaware of the new e-book reader lending program in the first place. The e-book reader lending program offers a great service to library users. However, the library e-books offered on the e-book readers can be largely invisible to users who tend to think that what they can see in a library is all a library has.

Giving Physical Presence to Library e-Books on e-Book Readers

The problem can be solved by giving some physical presence to e-books on the library’s e-book readers using a dummy bookmark on the stacks. This is particularly effective as it quickly captures users’ attention while they are already browsing the library stacks looking for something to read.

Users are familiar with a dummy book on physical shelves that marks a print title that is often looked for under different names or the recent change of the location of a title. Applied to Kindle e-books, a dummy bookmark is just as effective. A user can walk around the space where stacks are located and physically identify those e-books that the library makes available on a e-book reader in each subject section. By a visible cue, a dummy bookmarks create a direct sensory association between an e-book and something physical (that provides a visible and tactile feedback) in a user’s mind, thereby effectively expanding a users’ idea of what is available at a library.

When you pull out the bookmark, it looks like this. The bookmark includes the book’s cover image, title, author, and call number, which help a user to locate the title record in the library’s online catalog. But in reality, users are more likely to just walk down to the Course Reserves area to check out an e-book reader after reading this sign.

I tweeted this photo a while ago when I accidentally found out the idea was implemented while looking for some book in the stacks. (See the disclaimer below.)  I was quite surprised by many positive comments that I received in Twitter. Many librarians also suggested adding a QR code to the dummy bookmark next to the Call Number. The addition of the QR code would be an excellent bonus on the bookmark. It will allow users to check the availability of the title on their mobile devices, so that they can avoid the situation in which the e-book and the e-book reader device have been already checked out.

If you are running a pricy e-book reader lending program at your library, a dummy bookmark might be an inexpensive but highly effective way to make those e-books stand out to users on the library stacks. What other things do you do at your library to make your online resources and e-books more visible to users?

Disclaimer: I have suggested this idea at the E-resources group meeting where all FIU libraries (including Medical Library where I work) are represented. But the implementation was done solely by the FIU main Library for their Kindle e-book collection on their stacks. For those who are curious, I was unable to find the exact number of dummy bookmarks on the stacks. 

 

About the Merit of an e-Reader as a Single-Purpose Device

Despite the popularity of an e-book reader, I was never really tempted to purchase a Nook or a Kindle.  I figured since I have an iPad, it would be completely pointless to own and use a e-book reader, which I understood mostly as a single-purpose device. (But to confess, I didn’t use my iPad much for reading… )

This conviction, however, was completely swept away since I had taken out a library Kindle a few days ago. I never thought that someone like me, who is a firm believer in the superiority of a multi-purpose device (like a smartphone) to a single-purpose device, would become a fan of a single-purpose e-reader.

Kindle I took out from the library

The university library (which is separate from the library where I work which belongs to the same university but to its medical school) has recently started lending Kindle devices loaded with a number of e-books.  As soon as I heard the news, I ran down to the circulation desk to check it out for curiosity.  Sure, I had seen an e-book reader before. But there is a world of difference between just looking at a device and tinkering with it for a few minutes and actually using it for oneself for days and weeks.  So, I was eager to test it out myself.

I decided to read the e-book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I have been meaning to read for a while but never found time to. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the library e-reader way more than I expected.

I loved the much lighter weight and the much less eye-straining screen of a Kindle (compared to my first-generation iPad).  But what I loved most about this e-reader was actually its limitation. The fact that I can do nothing but reading.

The greatest problem I had with an iPad ‘as an e-reader’ was that aside from its weight and the eye-straining screen, I could not really concentrate on reading for a long time. I don’t know if this is a non-issue for others with stronger willpower. But for me, this was certainly a big problem. While reading, I would get easily distracted into web surfing, checking e-mails, and reading tweets and Facebook updates.  On the other hand, on this single-purpose device, it was easy to continue reading for a much longer time. Sometimes, I would have an urge to go online and do something else. But often I would just ignore the urge as I simply didn’t feel like moving.

Of course, I am not sure if this virtue of a single-purpose device would apply beyond reading, and for that matter, beyond leisure reading.  If I were reading for research, I would prefer more robust annotation options as well as easy importing and exporting of documents, which would be much easier on a multi-purpose device.  I may well also prefer to be able to easily surf the Internet to search and download whatever document I find useful and start reading it right then and there.

Nevertheless, I found it interesting to think about the merit of a single-purpose device in the times in which multi-purpose devices are more and more prevalent.  Maybe we will always have a multi-purpose device and a single-purpose device no matter how advanced technology becomes just like a Swiss Army Knife and a normal knife.  Or would more and more devices converge into a few?

*** An additional bonus of a library Kindle is that it comes with more than one book.  The borrowing period for this Kindle is two weeks, but I am done with the book already.  So after browsing +90 library books that I did not know about, I decided on reading another book.  As a librarian, I like the fact that a library e-reader preloaded with multiple library books offer an opportunity for a user to discover more than the one title s/he selected.  But also as a librarian, I disliked the fact that the copies of +90 e-books are sitting idly in the device while a user is only using one title.  Would there be a possible compromise between these two options?