June 18, 2018

Positive Signs | The User Experience

Aaron SchmidtCriticism is necessary when a library aims to evaluate and improve the experience it is providing its members. Before you can start making improvements, you have to know what needs to be improved. This, of course, is no excuse to be negative, mean, accusatory, or defeatist. Criticism can and should be done positively and with good intention. After all, more flies get caught with honey, right?

So, while criticism is important, it is also important to assess strengths. And it can be useful and inspirational to consider how specific touchpoints contribute to (or detract from) the user ­experience.

For example, many libraries have serious problems with their signage systems, so let’s take a look at two examples of great signs in libraries.

Accentuate the positive

I’d like to start with an absolutely fantastic redesign. In preparation for a recent visit to work with the folks at the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL), I searched online and found an example of a sign that the library was using in the children’s department. In stark block letters on orange paper, it read “PARENTS Please use only ONE toy at a time for play in the library. Always return items to the correct bag.”

My plan was to use this sign as the basis for a conversation about the principles of graphic design, library branding, and the messages that library signs communicate. But, instead, upon my arrival at ICPL, I was met with a pleasant surprise. Approaching the library that cold Iowa morning, I peered into the children’s department and noticed a sign on a table. The original sign had already been replaced, and the library had done an excellent job with the redesign and messaging for kids and parents: “Help the librarian! If you clean up toys, come to the Children’s Desk for a special prize!”

The new sign does a lot of things right, but perhaps the most important thing is the change in attitude. The old sign was demanding, confrontational, curt, impersonal, and a bit desperate in tone.

The new message flips this completely; it is friendly, and it encourages collaboration between the library and its members. Instead of proactively reprimanding library users, it creates an opportunity for library members and their kids to be helpful. It provides an opportunity for connection. This is a much better tactic than attempting to regulate behavior by issuing ­orders.

The good things about this redesign don’t stop with the improvement in attitude. The sign is now pleasant to look at, with centered white lettering on a black background, using an easy-to-read comic font, a simple train graphic, and ICPL branding. Overall, it presents a much more professional appearance. The old sign detracted from the look of the room it was in; the redesign enhances the space.

Eliminate the negative

Next up is a sign that I noticed at the central location of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. In simple, bold red lettering on a white background, it states, “Please enjoy your food and drink on the First Floor only.” I like it for a number of reasons: it is plain but attractive, and it is highly legible. It is an attempt to regulate behavior, but it does so through emphasizing what can be done—eating and drinking in designated areas—rather than what shouldn’t be done.

True, this particular sign is a relatively minor touchpoint among a plethora of things that impact the user experience. Yet every detail counts, and all of the individual bits add up quickly. That the library has considered the impact that this one sign has on people’s perceptions of the library is a good indication that it is also considering the impact of more significant touchpoints, such as programming and services. Think about some ways that your library can enter into a virtuous cycle of sweating the details, both small and large.

While it might take some time to get up to speed with the basics of graphic design, improving signage is something of which every library is capable. Conduct an audit of your signage by creating a spreadsheet that tracks where signs are located, as well as assessing signs’ visual appeal and attitude. Chances are, you’ll find some notices to remove and some to improve. Remember, the signs in your library should embody the same positive, helpful attitude that many librarians work to demonstrate during face-to-face interactions. A solid sign of the times.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Aaron Schmidt About Aaron Schmidt

Aaron Schmidt (librarian@gmail.com) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (influx.us). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org



  1. I’ve tried to apply these same principles to running my business and I think it’s really helped,

  2. Hello Aaron,

    Thanks for addressing the issue of signage, but staff at our academic library feel like they have to verbalize what is already stipulated on the signs. We continually have issues with students ignoring the signs or claiming ignorance about policy. Any thoughts?


  3. Lee-Ann:

    My first thought is that since the signs don’t work, there’s no reason to clutter up the visual environment with them. May as well take them down.

    Can the library use the students behavior as a listening tool and determine what sort of library they really want? Is there a way to create a zones that meet diverse needs?


    • Zones are great — we’re a small academic library with only two floors. The bottom floor is the quiet floor, and the top floor is for group study and socializing. We have signs on the stairs indicating that the second floor is for quiet study.

      Also, what do your signs look like? Are they black letters on white paper, created in Word? I’ve noticed a better response to our signage since I began using the free version of Piktochart.

      I’ve also found humor a good way to deal with things. I’m taking down our negative “DO NOT RESHELVE YOUR OWN BOOKS” signs and replacing them with signs that say, “We pay people to shelve books so you don’t have to! Please return used and unwanted books here.”