How to design a library

So there’s this thing called
the law of unintended consequences.

I thought it was just like a saying,

but it actually exists, I guess.

There’s, like, academic papers about it.

And I’m a designer.

I don’t like unintended consequences.

People hire me because they have
consequences that they really intend,

and what they intend is for me
to help them achieve those consequences.

So I live in fear
of unintended consequences.

And so this is a story about
consequences intended and unintended.

I got called by an organization
called Robin Hood

to do a favor for them.

Robin Hood is based in New York,
a wonderful philanthropic organization

that does what it says in the name.

They take from rich people,
give it to poor people.

In this case, what they wanted to benefit
was the New York City school system,

a huge enterprise that educates
more than a million students at a time,

and in buildings that are like this one,

old buildings, big buildings,

drafty buildings, sometimes buildings
that are in disrepair,

certainly buildings
that could use a renovation.

Robin Hood had this ambition
to improve these buildings in some way,

but what they realized was

to fix the buildings would be
too expensive and impractical.

So instead they tried to figure out
what one room they could go into

in each of these buildings,
in as many buildings that they could,

and fix that one room

so that they could improve
the lives of the children inside

as they were studying.

And what they came up with
was the school library,

and they came up with this idea
called the Library Initiative.

All the students
have to pass through the library.

That’s where the books are.

That’s where the heart
and soul of the school is.

So let’s fix these libraries.

So they did this wonderful thing
where they brought in

first 10, then 20, then more architects,

each one of whom was assigned a library
to rethink what a library was.

They trained special librarians.

So they started this mighty enterprise

to reform public schools
by improving these libraries.

Then they called me up and they said,
“Could you make a little contribution?”

I said, “Sure, what do you want me to do?”

And they said, “Well, we want you
to be the graphic designer

in charge of the whole thing.”

And so I thought, I know what that means.
That means I get to design a logo.

I know how to design that. I design logos.

That’s what people come to me for.

So OK, let’s design a logo for this thing.

Easy to do, actually,
compared with architecture

and being a librarian.

Just do a logo, make a contribution,
and then you’re out,

and you feel really good about yourself.

And I’m a great guy and I like to feel
good about myself when I do these favors.

So I thought, let’s overdeliver.

I’m going to give you three logos,
all based on this one idea.

So you have three options,
pick any of the three.

They’re all great, I said.

So the basic idea was
these would be new school libraries

for New York schools,

and so the idea is that it’s a new thing,
a new idea that needs a new name.

What I wanted to do was dispel the idea
that these were musty old libraries,

the kind of places
that everyone is bored with,

you know, not your grandparents’ library.

Don’t worry about that at all.

This is going to this new, exciting thing,

not a boring library.

So option number one:

so instead of thinking of it as a library,

think of it as a place where it is like:
do talk, do make loud noises.

  What Is Branding

Right? So no shushing,
it’s like a shush-free zone.

We’re going to call it the Reading Room.

That was option number one.
OK, option number two.

Option number two was, wait for it,


I’ll meet you at OWL.

I’m getting my book from the OWL.
Meet you after school down at OWL.

I like that, right?
Now, what does OWL stand for?

Well, it could be One World Library,

or it could be Open. Wonder. Learn.

Or it could be — and I figure librarians
could figure out other things it could be

because they know about words.

So other things, right?

And then look at this.
It’s like the eye of the owl.

This is irresistible in my opinion.

But there’s even another idea.

Option number three.

Option number three
was based actually on language.

It’s the idea that “read”
is the past tense of “read,”

and they’re both spelled the same way.

So why don’t we call
this place The Red Zone?

I’ll meet you at the Red Zone.

Are you Red? Get Red.

I’m well Red.


I really loved this idea,

and I somehow was not focused on the idea

that librarians as a class are sort of
interested in spelling and I don’t know.


But sometimes cleverness
is more important than spelling,

and I thought this would be
one of those instances.

So usually when I make these presentations

I say there’s just one question
and the question should be,

“How can I thank you, Mike?”

But in this case,
the question was more like,

“Um, are you kidding?”

Because, they said,

the premise of all this work

was that kids were bored
with old libraries, musty old libraries.

They were tired of them.

And instead, they said, these kids
have never really seen a library.

The school libraries in these schools

are really so dilapidated,
if they’re there at all,

that they haven’t bored anyone.

They haven’t even been there
to bore anyone at all.

So the idea was, just forget
about giving it a new name.

Just call it, one last try, a library.

Right? OK.

So I thought, OK, give it a little oomph?

Exclamation point?

Then — this is because I’m clever —

move that into the “i,”

make it red,

and there you have it,
the Library Initiative.

So I thought, mission accomplished,
there’s your logo.

So what’s interesting about this logo,
an unintended consequence,

was that it turned out that
they didn’t really even need my design

because you could type it any font,
you could write it by hand,

and when they started
sending emails around,

they just would use Shift and 1,

they’d get their own logo
just right out of the thing.

And I thought, well, that’s fine.

Feel free to use that logo.

And then I embarked
on the real rollout of this thing —

working with every one of the architects

to put this logo on the front door
of their own library. Right?

So here’s the big rollout.

Basically I’d work
with different architects.

First Robin Hood was my client.
Now these architects were my client.

I’d say, “Here’s your logo.
Put it on the door.”

“Here’s your logo. Put it on both doors.”

“Here’s your logo.
Put it off to the side.”

“Here’s your logo
repeated all over to the top.”

So everything was going swimmingly.

I just was saying,
“Here’s your logo. Here’s your logo.”

Then I got a call
from one of the architects,

a guy named Richard Lewis,
and he says, “I’ve got a problem.

You’re the graphics guy.
Can you solve it?”

  Design A Modern Logo | Start To Finish

And I said, OK, sure.”

And he said, “The problem is
that there’s a space

between the shelf and the ceiling.”

So that sounds like
an architectural issue to me,

not a graphic design issue,
so I’m, “Go on.”

And Richard says, “Well,
the top shelf has to be low enough

for the kid to reach it,

but I’m in a big old building,
and the ceilings are really high,

so actually I’ve got
all this space up there

and I need something like a mural.”

And I’m like, “Whoa,
you know, I’m a logo designer.

I’m not Diego Rivera or something.

I’m not a muralist.”

And so he said, “But can’t you
think of anything?”

So I said, “OK, what if we just
took pictures of the kids in the school

and just put them around
the top of the thing,

and maybe that could work.”

And my wife is a photographer,

and I said, “Dorothy, there’s no budget,

can you come to this school
in east New York, take these pictures?”

And she did,

and if you go in Richard’s library,

which is one of the first that opened,

it has this glorious frieze
of, like, the heroes of the school,

oversized, looking down

into the little dollhouse
of the real library, right?

And the kids were great,
hand-selected by the principals

and the librarian.

It just kind of created
this heroic atmosphere in this library,

this very dignified setting below
and the joy of the children above.

So naturally all the other librarians
in the other schools see this

and they said, well, we want murals too.

And I’m like, OK.

So then I think, well,
it can’t be the same mural every time,

so Dorothy did another one,
and then she did another one,

but then we needed more help,

so I called an illustrator I knew
named Lynn Pauley,

and Lynn did these beautiful
paintings of the kids.

Then I called a guy named Charles Wilkin
at a place called Automatic Design.

He did these amazing collages.

We had Rafael Esquer

do these great silhouettes.

He would work with the kids,
asking for words,

and then based on those prompts,

come up with this little,
delirious kind of constellation

of silhouettes
of things that are in books.

Peter Arkle interviewed the kids

and had them talk
about their favorite books

and he put their testimony
as a frieze up there.

Stefan Sagmeister worked with Yuko Shimizu

and they did this amazing
manga-style statement,

“Everyone who is honest is interesting,”

that goes all the way around.

Christoph Niemann, brilliant illustrator,

did a whole series of things

where he embedded books
into the faces and characters

and images and places
that you find in the books.

And then even Maira Kalman

did this amazing cryptic installation
of objects and words

that kind of go all around
and will fascinate students

for as long as it’s up there.

So this was really satisfying,

and basically my role here was reading
a series of dimensions to these artists,

and I would say,

“Three feet by 15 feet, whatever you want.

Let me know if you have
any problem with that.”

And they would go and install these.
It just was the greatest thing.

But the greatest thing, actually, was —

Every once in a while,

I’d get, like, an invitation in the mail
made of construction paper,

and it would say, “You are invited
to the opening of our new library.”

So you’d go to the library,
say, you’d go to PS10,

and you’d go inside.

There’d be balloons,
there’d be a student ambassador,

there’d be speeches that were read,

  Logo Design Process With a Client

poetry that was written
specifically for the opening,

dignitaries would present people
with certificates,

and the whole thing
was just a delirious, fun party.

So I loved going to these things.

I would stand there dressed like this,
obviously not belonging,

and someone would say,
“What are you doing here, mister?”

And I’d say, “Well, I’m part of the team
that designed this place.”

And they’d said, “You do these shelves?”

And I said, “No.”
“You took the pictures up above.”


“Well, what did you do?”

“You know when you came in?
The sign over the door?”

“The sign that says library?”


“Yeah, I did that!”

And then they’d sort of go,
“OK. Nice work if you can get it.”

So it was so satisfying
going to these little openings

despite the fact that I was
kind of largely ignored or humiliated,

but it was actually fun
going to the openings,

so I decided that I wanted
to get the people in my office

who had worked on these projects,
get the illustrators and photographers,

and I said, why don’t we rent a van

and drive around
the five boroughs of New York

and see how many we could hit at one time.

And eventually there were
going to be 60 of these libraries,

so we probably got to see
maybe half a dozen in one long day.

And the best thing of all
was meeting these librarians

who kind of were running these,
took possession of these places

like their private stage
upon which they were invited

to mesmerize their students
and bring the books to life,

and it was just
this really exciting experience

for all of us to actually
see these things in action.

So we spent a long day doing this

and we were in the very last library.

It was still winter,
because it got dark early,

and the librarian says,

“I’m about to close down.
So really nice having you here.

Hey, wait a second, do you want to see
how I turn off the lights?”

I’m like, “OK.”

And she said, “I have
this special way that I do it.”

And then she showed me.

What she did was she turned out
every light one by one by one by one,

and the last light she left on

was the light that illuminated
the kids’ faces,

and she said, “That’s the last light
I turn off every night,

because I like to remind myself
why I come to work.”

So when I started this whole thing,

remember, it was just
about designing that logo

and being clever, come up with a new name?

The unintended consequence here,

which I would like to take credit for

and like to think I can think through
the experience to that extent,

but I can’t.

I was just focused on a foot ahead of me,
as far as I could reach with my own hands.

Instead, way off in the distance

was a librarian

who was going to find
the chain of consequences

that we had set in motion,

a source of inspiration

so that she in this case
could do her work really well.

40,000 kids a year
are affected by these libraries.

They’ve been happening
for more than 10 years now,

so those librarians have kind of turned on
a generation of children to books

and so it’s been a thrill to find out

that sometimes unintended consequences
are the best consequences.

Thank you very much.



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