Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

There's a minor problem in my academic library because of a signage failure. Here's the situation: the library has two floors. After 5 pm on weeknights and all day Saturdays and Sundays, users are supposed to check out a laminated access card before going upstairs so that we can track the number of people using the upstairs study space. This is also due to limited evening and weekend staffing; the cards help the staff (1 or 2 people during evenings and weekends) identify how many people are in the building at closing time in order to find them all and make sure they're not in the bathroom when we shut off the lights and lock up. Right now, there's a sign at the foot of the stairs that looks like this:

Actually, I've been trying to take a picture or scan it, but I haven't had an opportunity when no one would see me and think I was nuts, so I'll describe it. It says:

Going up?

Get your
3rd Floor Access Card
at the Check-out desk

*After 5:00 pm Only*
*All day*

Please do not leave your
belongings unattended.

All this is in Comic Sans font, on an 11x17 yellow background with a blue border. There are also a couple of stars and a picture of a clock with the 5 circled.

People don't notice it. If they do, they either don't read it or don't understand it. Working the desk in the evenings requires constant watch over the stairs, to catch people on their way up and ask them to come back to the desk for a card. Part of the problem is that the library is on the second and third floors of a three-story building. Because the campus is on a hill, library users enter the library on the second floor, but it's on ground level with the quad and many of the other academic buildings' first floors. The sign says you need a third floor access card, and many users that I've stopped think they're only going to the second floor, not the third. So there's a communication breakdown here. We've batted around alternatives to signs, like setting up ropes to guide the traffic flow or block the stairs... all of which are fire hazards.

I was thinking a sign like this might be simpler to understand and catch more people's attention.

Then again, it's not exactly the most friendly sign. I went to a conference in June where the keynote speaker asked us to look at our signs and really think about how those signs are "talking" to patrons. Would we say those same things face-to-face? Probably not, since signs and posters have a tendency to bring out the best of our passive-aggressiveness. There's also an interesting article here about library signs, which the author says should be very simple and uniform.

So, fellow librarians, how do we create a welcoming, friendly space while effectively communicating library procedures? And on a more practical note, do you have any ideas for redesigning my stop sign?


  1. Ooh, very interesting situation! I think the first step might be getting rid of the Comic Sans font in the original sign (who takes Comic Sans seriously these days?!)

    Personally I like your sign much better than the existing one you described. Maybe instead of a gray background it could be like a light blue or something pretty? So it's like the best of both worlds - calming and serious! It also has all of the basic information needed. Put it on like a moveable stand and only put it out when needed.

    I also enjoyed the thought of a library investing in a velvet rope..

  2. I agree with what Katy said. I think that in situations like this you have to decide if you are more worried about patrons thinking your sign is too harsh OR them doing what you want them to do.

    I would have the sign reflect your school's colors, but still keep the stop sign. The more professional looking, the more people will take it seriously.

    Also, you may want to have a very casual "kick-off" type feel initially. Like, maybe have drawings for prizes from people who get cards? To drum up awareness and provide incentive?

    Maybe you could just use a Lite Brite? I'd stop for that and do whatever it said...

  3. Oh god, the Comic Sans. I think maybe I am allergic to Comic Sans? Is that possible?

    I like Katy's idea, especially the movable stand part. That will also ensure that people will see it when they need to, but it won't clutter their vision when it's not relevant and they won't be used to just seeing it like background furniture.

    Also, maybe you could keep the stop sign but say "wait" or "just a sec" or something a little more friendly instead of "stop." I like that idea about signage reflecting what you'd actually say without being passive-aggressive, and you'd feel fine saying "wait a minute" or something before someone went upstairs.

  4. I just read a BBC article today about the online movement to ban Comic Sans - it had some interesting background about why it was created.
    Am I the last one to hear about this? Also, I love the author's use of puerile. Anyway, I think all of your ideas are great. Especially the idea of having a moveable sign. But it sounds like you have multiple access points so you'll need multiple signs, which would create more work for your already strapped staff. I think the purpose of having a moveable sign is to send the message - "this sign applies to you - NOW" instead of "ignore this sign as it is always here and does not do anything." To that end, any change to the sign would make it noticeable again. Have you tried putting signs on the 3rd floor tables that say "If it is Saturday, Sunday or after 5pm M-Th you must have an access card to use this study space. Please obtain one on the first floor." Or something like that? Obviously it would be better to catch them before they go upstairs, but if they are entering from the side door, this might solve the 3rd/2nd floor confusion issue.

    Also, for the record, the stop sign design does not bother me. It is effective and clearly conveys your message. But that's just me :)

    Good luck!