Signage: Better None Than Bad

Positive and welcoming, these are the essential characteristics of signs that are truly designed to help.

July 12, 2010

A quick search of the photo website Flickr for the keywords “library signage” can produce interesting results. You will find everything from café-style chalkboard advertisements to sheets of white paper with a few pieces of clip art thrown in.

Poor visual communication can create a frustrating environment for users, but it's a practice that librarians commonly cling to. People eating in your library? Tape a piece of paper to the wall with a picture of a burger that has a large red X through it and there you go, problem solved!

Our desire to avoid confrontation and our inability to understand the user get in the way of providing the highest level of service. Bad signs exist in all types of libraries, victimizing users without bias and leading to some unwelcome encounters. It makes me wonder if a bad sign is truly better than nothing or just making things worse.

Signs can serve several functions but generally fall into two categories: library marketing and communicating library policies. Many librarians and administrators agree that it's important to communicate that the library is a pleasant and studious institution, but sign-makers go astray when they create signage in an effort to shift blame or passive-aggressively punish users for presuming they have certain rights while using the library. Such negative signage insults our patrons instead of guiding them or communicating policies in a positive and efficient manner. A well-written sign, inviting and creatively designed, can do so much; an insulting sign has the potential to do more damage than good.

Many library users return to libraries because there is something special that keeps them coming back. However, if you welcome them at the entrance with insulting signage, people will think twice about patronizing such an institution. What would happen if we took all those signs away? While the situation would not be ideal, it is still preferable to poor signage. Patrons would consistently need to ask for assistance at service points. While it is nice to have those stats, the time of the staff could be better spent.

Now let’s take the example of difficult-to-read or inaccurate signs. What would the users do then? They would find resources in another way that doesn't involve the library. In both of these situations, the patron thinks less of the library, but which is worse? Having to interact with patrons in order to assist their needs when they are lost and confused, or having bad signage that not only confuses users but can make them frustrated and in some cases angry? I would argue the former, while definitely not ideal, is a better alternative to the latter.

Easy-to-read, nonjudgmental signage is the best practice. Its important for library staff to remember that even if we are frustrated, trying to convey that frustration in sign format is never worth it. The sign will simply make the library look like the bad guy or in most cases, completely out of touch. Positive and effective communication with our users is vital to libraries: “Welcome” and “Need Help? Ask Your Librarian.”

As Jeannette Woodward notes in Countdown to a New Library: Managing the Building Project (second edition, ALA Editions) “The appropriate use of signs can considerably reduce the number of simple directional questions asked at service desks, as well as make users aware of the full range of library services and resources available to them. A complete signage system can include changeable floor signs, hanging and wall-mounted directional signs, room-identification signs, and point of use instructional signs where appropriate. The hallmark of a really good system, however, is its ability to respond to the user’s need to progress from general to specific information and provide directional information at decision points where choices must be made.”

When in doubt, keep it simple and keep it positive. If that cannot be conveyed in a sign, then nothing is better. Let us not forget that old adage: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all.

LEAH L. WHITE is the readers services librarian at Morton Grove (Ill.) Public Library and cofounder of the Chicago Deskset.