Library Signage and Wayfinding Design: Communicating Effectively with Your Users, by Mark Aaron Polger. 2021. ALA Editions. 160 pp., paperback, $54.99, ISBN 9780838937853.
Josh, Edward, and Bhuva met on Zoom in May 2022 to discuss Mark Aaron Polger’s book Library Signage and Wayfinding Design: Communicating Effectively with Your Users. Excerpts of their conversation:
Josh: It’s a good book. The right audience for it is a library staff member in charge of signage, or at least heavily involved. That person needs guidance and good ideas, and Polger’s book will help. Polger shows how many facets there are to library signage, which could seem simple to anyone who hasn’t tried to govern and sustain a signage program.
Edward: I agree—Polger has taken the time to do a deep dive into an aspect of library design that is often overlooked and underestimated. I’m glad that the book exists, though the author may be preaching to the converted with the three of us as readers! I wouldn’t expect many of my colleagues to read the entire thing. Instead, I’d cherry pick particular chapters for them. Fortunately, the book’s structure makes it easy to do this. Reviewing your library’s signage for the first time? There’s a chapter on how to complete a signage audit. Thinking about investing in digital signage? Again, there’s a whole chapter on what to consider.
Bhuva: Yes, thumbs up. I like the preface, the personal touch, the author’s experience growing up—paying attention to French signs in Montreal and signs in Toronto and New York. The preface is nostalgic, is highly readable, and it establishes the importance and value of establishing a sense of place.
Edward: Polger showcases “best practice” in terms of outputs—signage and policies—but I wanted a little more guidance on the process. For example, chapter 2, “Signage Research Methods,” takes the reader through a whirlwind tour of commonly used social science/user research methods, which is useful, but doesn’t go so far as to recommend one approach over another. You’re presented with many different options, and this could be overwhelming for those who are new to this space.
I felt this a few times as I worked my way through the book. For example, chapter 4, “Digital Signage,” includes many pages on the different types of display monitors, listing the companies that make them, listing the different types of software, and so on—
Bhuva: Yes, the book suddenly took a turn into technical details there and lost me altogether, just as I had gotten excited about the more abstract concepts around signage that are important to understand before even trying to develop any signage.
Josh: Polger mentions that digital signage solutions can be expensive. I would emphasize even more the considerable cost of the expertise and labor to produce digital signage content over the years. You need staff with both technical and design chops. Visitors to NC State University Libraries sometimes ask me how we produce our digital signs, especially our touchscreens. When I tell them that two very talented web developers and a graphic designer spend considerable time on the signs, they usually leave the conversation disappointed, having hoped for an easier, cheaper answer.
Josh: Polger stresses that too many signs “become overwhelming and ineffective. Compounding the problem is the fact that these signs are often negative” (p. 89). He makes these points several times throughout the book, and all I want to say is, “YES!” Patrons and library staff constantly find seemingly good reasons to add more signs. Someone needs to pay attention to the cumulative effect.
Bhuva: I like how he describes signs as “living documents” (p. 29), stressing the need for them being continually updated and renewed, and that they are not just static objects that can be done once and forgotten.
Josh: I agree, Bhuva. Polger writes, “Libraries are not stagnant buildings with static services. They are in continuous motion and flux. Services change, collections change, staff change, and policies change. The building ages and needs continuous maintenance. Signs should be seen in that same vein” (p. 119). This is true and difficult. What happens two years after a signage audit, when half the project team has gone on to other duties?
Josh: I like the case studies in chapter 5, “Signage Best Practices and Policies.” We get to see the policies and pictures of signage from real libraries, public and academic, across the US. It’s a good tour.
Bhuva: To be honest, the case studies read like a random list. I wish the author had explained the rationale behind their choice and order.
Edward: The case studies show that there is not one way to do this work, and that’s a point made throughout: to get signage right, you need to take a user-centered approach and develop a system that works for your specific library and context.
Josh: Chapter 6, “Signage and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” is useful reference material for a very complex topic. I’m glad to have that summary on my bookshelf.
Bhuva and Edward: One thing to mention is that the chapter is not as relevant for international audiences, although it is easy enough to contextualize it.
Areas for Future Exploration
Josh: An issue the book does not touch on is the rogue signage put up by patrons. Student clubs tape handmade signs to library walls. Outsiders involved with events in library spaces often bring their own promotional and wayfinding signs. The people who put up these signs are often well-meaning, and some of the signs might actually be okay in the moment, but the library can lose control. And, as Polger warns, beware of too many signs!
Bhuva: Yes, I think some of the issues with signage in libraries in general is not so much the new signage, that can be effectively implemented if well-planned, but the existing palimpsest of signage that builds up over time, wherein a sign is put up to solve a specific issue and then forgotten, leading to future confusion. The book does not delve into strategies for dealing with them.
Edward: If the reader is left with one message, it’s that library signage requires ongoing care and attention to remain useful and effective. Polger concludes, “you cannot do this on your own” (p. 119), so one suggestion is to gain buy-in from like-minded colleagues and higher ups. There’s another point about working with a range of perspectives amongst colleagues and reaching a solution that will “benefit your users, not yourselves” (p. 120). These are great reflections, but only briefly mentioned in the conclusion. I would have loved to have seen more of the book devoted to these sorts of tips and advice.
Josh: Good luck to all the library staff out there in charge of signage and wayfinding! Use Polger’s book for principles and ideas and to reassure yourself when you wonder why it’s so challenging.