February 17, 2018

Slaying a Sacred Cow with a Deck of Cards | Library by Design, Spring 2012

When architecture firm GouldEvans participated in LJ’s Design Institute (DI) last year in Phoenix for the first time and took on the task of suggesting design ideas to Clark College’s Cannell Library in Vancouver, WA, Tony Rohr, principal at GouldEvans, asked himself, “How do we handle this?” The answer took the shape of a deck of cards referred to as the Idea Kit.

The job of Rohr and the GouldEvans’s team was to think about Cannell Library’s needs and, during two group sessions, to present their ideas to Michelle Bagley, Clark College dean of libraries, e-learning, tutoring, and faculty development, along with the other librarians attending the meetings (see design challenges on p. 12). Bagley had outlined Cannell’s design issues and goals to Rohr and his group through conference calls prior to DI. The student body at this commuter college has exploded from 7000 when the library opened in 1990 to 17,000 today. As a result, Cannell Library had too little space to accommodate everyone using it. It also had a poor layout for patron needs and noise issues, among other concerns. But expanding was not an option at that time.

Bagley had previously gone through a programming meeting with an architect “that didn’t go anywhere,” says Rohr. So he wanted to make sure the GouldEvans–led session was fruitful, though it would be up to Bagley whether to follow up or not on the ideas it generated.

“Our firm has a long history of doing interactive workshops with clients,” says Rohr, who steered the DI discussions with fellow GouldEvans principal Steve Clark. “I thought, ‘If we go in there and just put up our drawings, they’re going to fall asleep.’ ”

He was also mindful that the session participants, all seasoned librarians, would have valuable ideas about Cannell, particularly with regard to staffing and services, that he might not have considered. While he and Clark prepared boards and sketches outlining their recommendations, they decided that they wanted Bagley to hear ideas from the group first. What GouldEvans was really striving for, Rohr realized, was a brainstorming session. “We said, ‘Let’s figure out an exercise where the participants engage in dialog. Then we’ll unveil what we brought with us.’ ”

The 52-card solution

Rohr and his team went “round and round” during a DI planning meeting trying to figure out how to make the experience dynamic. Five days before the meeting, they landed on a solution: a riff on “architecture playing cards” used for brainstorming with clients in the past, tailored to libraries and dubbed an Idea Kit. This custom-designed deck of 52 themed cards, slightly larger than a standard deck, was created to catalyze discussion between Bagley and the attending librarians.

“We had six people on the phone talking about this—five architects and a graphic designer—and the ideas started flowing,” says Rohr. With that momentum, ­GouldEvans designed and printed the decks, with 52 unique cards, within three days.

What’s on the cards

Each card has a single image on one side and on the other side library-related words or phrases intended to trigger ideas. Some sample images are a large pink fingerprint; colorful LEGO-type blocks; a single hand or eye; bookshelves; and two interlocking gears. In Rohr’s experience, such pictures are worth a thousand words because they inspire open thinking and let the mind roam. “Certain presentations work better with one image rather than seven ­PowerPoint bullet [items],” he observes.

The words and phrases on the cards’ flip side are divided into three thematic, color-coded categories. Blue letters relate to design and spacial concerns, with concepts like “concierge model,” “dual-use rooms,” “off-site collection,” and “roving reference.” Pink letters cue librarians to patron needs and their libraries’ assets with terms such as ethnography, times are a-changin’, partners, unique resources, and Heart: The library is the heart of the community (a quote from Nancy Pearl, LJ’s 2011 Librarian of the Year). Yellow words deliver big-picture wake-up calls such as “slay a sacred cow,” “see the obvious,” “slay a dragon,” and “listen to that hunch.”

These yellow “freedom cards,” as Rohr calls them, “are intended to help people figure out, ‘What is keeping you from making real progress?’ It gives them the opportunity to think much bigger.”

Slaying a sacred cow, for instance, might mean reconsidering open hours or rethinking a librarian’s vow to “never put books behind enclosed stacks.” But Rohr’s team also “wanted to make sure the cards captured the little things in daily practice as well as the big things that go way to the top of the administration.” Hence, the nitty-gritty “boilerplate” library issues at one end of the spectrum and mandates like “be engaged now” at the other.

Play your cards right: At left, GouldEvans architects Tony Rohr (l.) and Steve Clark educated attendees at LJ's Design Institute Phoenix in fall 2011 on their Idea Kit concept, working up space planning ideas on the spot (inset). Right, Clark College director Michelle Bagley (r.) works with the Idea Kit and attendees Marshall Shore and Kathy Coster to rethink the Cannell Library space. Left top and bottom photos by Kevin Henegan; right photo by Mark Peterman/Getty Images

Playing the game

At each of two DI breakout sessions, Rohr and Clark posted the library floor plans and then created teams of five or six participants, giving each group a deck of cards. They assigned Bagley to a team during each meeting and told the groups to take 20 minutes to debate how they would solve their challenge and select the five key cards that would help suggest solutions. The groups then posted their chosen cards on the mounted floor plans and talked about their interpretations of and solutions for the design challenge. In the concluding minutes, Rohr and Clark presented their own ideas.

“There were two incredible outcomes” from using the Idea Kits, says Rohr. “One was that the participants didn’t sit there and look at one another.” The cards give everyone in the room a “tool” with which to participate. At any typical brainstorming session, Rohr adds, there’s no need to worry about getting the extroverts involved. “There are others who are introverts,” he notes. “They need some help. They are not going to say something on their own, but they can play that card. They say to themselves, ‘I am emboldened to say this thing.’  ”

For Bagley, the cards provided a kind of brainstorming lingua franca. “Everyone comes to the table with their own language,” she says. The cards offered a “shared vocabulary. We were saying, ‘Let’s look at this card and think about what that means.’  ”

The freedom cards, she says, brilliantly offer a neutral way to address potentially emotionally loaded issues. “Slay a sacred cow,” for instance, is another way of asking, “What are we trying to protect?” “It is easier to play that card than to have someone say, ‘We need to figure out why we’re holding on so tightly to this policy,’ ” Bagley says. The different combinations of cards, she adds, lead to unexpected ideas from everyone in the group.

Some ideas, however, don’t fit the cards. “We just kicked ourselves for not having blanks,” says Rohr. No worries: DI participants used paper to create their own “wild cards” and put them up alongside the others. One of Bagley’s sessions, upping the idea of roving reference, created a card commanding, “Everything on feet or wheels.”

Winners all

As Rohr and his team had hoped, Bagley “was getting commentary from her peers rather than directly from the architects. Everyone present is a librarian and essentially a knowledgeable client. They are all leaders of their organizations. We had a polished person telling her, ‘You have to move these stacks out. This is prime real estate.’ By the end of the session, the client was saying, ‘I think you’re right.’ ”

After getting home, Rohr incorporated photographs of the card-covered floor plans into a scrapbook-like PDF report. Back at Cannell Library, the report made it much easier for Bagley to debrief her staff about the DI meetings. Looking at the photographs of the cards in play, Bagley says, “The folks in my library were able to get a much more real sense of the floor plans and process-­oriented suggestions than they would have if they had to rely on me taking notes” during the sessions.

Would she use the cards again? Without hesitation. “I brought a deck of cards back to the library,” Bagley says. She plans to break it out during an upcoming renovation planning meeting.

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