In the pursuit of information, inspiration and ideas for graphic design solutions, designers too often ignore one of the most powerful and rich resources available: the local library.
When was the last time you visited a library? No, I don’t mean your library of bookmarks in Safari, or the shelves of design annuals and logo books at your studio—I’m talking about a real library. One with books stacked to the ceiling, with the rich smell of paper and ink enveloping you, with the much-loved book spines and fingerprints on the torn and folded pages. If you’re like most people, myself included, you probably haven’t been in a while. After all, we have the Internet now: it’s much more convenient to read up on stuff online. Convenience is king in our digital world, but be warned: if you ignore libraries, you might be ignoring the opportunity to increase inspiration, greatly improve your design solutions, and differentiate yourself from your peers. And it’s a helluva lot cheaper than buying more design books.
My design team was recently engaged to develop a name and identity for a restaurant that offered gourmet, hand-made pasta and other traditional Italian comfort food. The owner wanted to emphasize the warm, friendly service and ambiance he’d created in his much-beloved firewood oven pizzeria next door while serving as the neighbourhood deli like in the old country. It was a delicious project to say the least. But after a thorough briefing process, exploring similar restaurants, extensive online research, scouring various resource books in our studio, and even interviews with potential customers, we had a few ideas and sketches, but nothing felt right yet.
Realizing that I was in need of a change of scenery, some inspiration, and a little help frankly, to the library I went, spending most of a day and into the evening there. It was such a great experience, reminding me how powerful these places of knowledge are—literally like having your own giant archive and paid research team at your beck and call. And funded by taxpayer money, they essentially work for you! Here are some reasons why you, as a designer, should be using your library as part of your research process:
Librarians are pathologically helpful. Google could care less.
Google is a great tool every designer should use and master. But it’s only one source. Libraries are filled with living, breathing search engines called librarians, eager to help you. It doesn’t matter if you’re not really sure what your question is, or if you think there’s no way they’ll be familiar with the topic you’re asking about. No matter what you say, that librarian is trained and ready to help you find your way. Instead of wandering the stacks aimlessly, ask a librarian a few questions and they’ll be able to expand your research options more than you could ever imagine, and that kind of catered human resource simply cannot be matched on the Internet.
Libraries are so much more than books. And offer much more information than Google.
Libraries are becoming increasingly valuable places for sourcing cultural exploration and inspiration, and they are filled with much more than books. Libraries offer designers special collections that include historical photographs, moving images, recordings, objects, and even ephemera such as antique postcards, stamps, posters, etc. Once you’ve been given more research options than you ever thought you would have, remember that rich and useful information exists online, but only to a limit. Many terrific sources of information useful to a designer are often hidden from search engines or only accessible via paid subscription. Libraries have access to these. And beyond the dictionaries, directories, almanacs, annuals, atlases and bibliographies, there are millions of academic historical articles, images, diagrams, and videos that have not been digitized. The only places you can access them are libraries. These resources map years of history that can offer you more inspiration than what’s been put online to date. If your project has to do with a foreign culture or incorporating historical images into your design work, for example, you can pretty much guarantee that a quest for information online will leave you pained to find as rich a resource as a book would offer.
And beside numerous magazines and books, libraries buy industry journals relating to design, so why spend money on something that’s sitting on the shelf, waiting for you to come in and read it?
Libraries are places of focus, study, and inspiration. Design studios and the Internet are not.
It’s a shame to admit it, but sometimes the least productive environment is a bustling design studio. Not to mention the allure of digital distractions like email, chat or social media. It can be incredibly difficult to focus on a task and actually get work done when you’re sitting at a desk, staring at a browser. When you’re in a library, on the other hand, you set yourself in a new work environment away from those distractions—one reminiscent of when you were a student. You completely immerse yourself in the task at hand, allowing your ideas to develop and your brain to retain knowledge.
Still not convinced? Libraries are accessible online too!
Many libraries offer resources such JSTOR, EBSCO Host, Google Scholar, and Art.sy as alternatives to actually physically visiting a library. Most libraries also offer online catalogues and databases which can be very useful during business research that are otherwise unavailable online without expensive subscriptions. So, if you still just can’t make it out to a library, you at least have a few alternatives online that are better than even the best Google search.
Assumptions kill good design. Libraries kill assumptions.
The final reason you should visit a library instead of your laptop is a bit philosophical. If you’re Googling something, you’re Googling something specific; it means that you have made an assumption and are looking for specific sources of information that will enhance or prove your assumption. As a designer, you have to open up to as many sources of influence as you can to prove that your assumption is true, or to find that it doesn’t work. Find an assumption that does. Nothing helps you achieve that like standing in front of a bookshelf and being exposed to a varied array of books and theories. Never forget the magic that happens when you deviate your research a little toward perhaps seemingly unrelated or tangential topics, finding just the right inspiration in unexpected places. That can happen online, sure, but there’s nothing like flipping through the pages of books for this.
During my recent day at the library, I was given terrific direction by the librarians I spoke with, who buried me with resources about Italian food, restaurants, culture, language, history, art—even a book on Italian slang and dirty words. Touching the paper was magical and transported me back to when I was a student, reminding me in fact that I AM still a student. It’s one of the best parts about being a designer.
What did we name the restaurant you ask? Vicino Pastaria & Deli. “Vicino di Casa” in Italian means “next door neighbour” which we shortened to Vicino, or “neighbour”, a play on both the fact that the pasta restaurant was literally next door to its sister pizzeria, and the role it played within the neighbourhood.
We owe it to our clients and ourselves to dig deeper and use better research techniques. So next time you feel stuck, I suggest heading to your local library and ask for help. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. And you’ll make a librarian’s day.
By the way, when I started prepping for this article, guess where I started my research? You guessed it, the library. Thanks to librarians Mark-Shane Scale, Cecily Walker, Tara Robertson and Alexis Greenwood for their insights.
So, tell me how you augment online research. Do you spend time at the library when working on design projects? Got any tips to share?
Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [B.C. Chapter], and a design writer and educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkBusse