Because We Do Judge Books By Their Covers: Canva and Its Role in Library Branding

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Background public domain image via Pixabay;
created by Courtney Lewis using Canva

It's a pet peeve of mine when it comes to libraries, mainly because the majority of libraries (public, school, academic, you name it) have atrocious signage. The endcaps signage indicating call numbers looks like it came from the Exxon station around the corner from my house in the 1980s, where the 17-year-old gas attendant in his Metallica t-shirt would painstakingly change the price each morning using a pole and those plastic letters. Most library signs are a triumph of our Microsoft Word abilities, tasting of the 1990s even if we troop out Helvetica for our bold, colored keywords or *shudders* employ Comic Sans to show how hip and now and happening we are. The truly egregious signs utilize clip art and have one of those forbidden red circles with the slash over said clip art. To paraphrase someone else from decades long past, "Clip art is sooooo 1997."

Did you ever wonder why we can't shake the cat's eye glasses and mean librarian stereotype? Hold on to your sensible cardigan, but often it's due to the language and style of our signs, which reflect an outdated library culture where librarians were guardians of the warehouse of knowledge rather than the current servant leaders of the people who use their library. Not everyone talks to the library staff each day, and even if they do, one friendly face in a sea of "Don't!" signs isn't going to stem the tide. The Annoyed Librarian wrote a very pithy Library Journal article about just this phenomenon and the unstated messages your patrons absorb. The Library Lost & Found blog highlighted library signs bordering on the ridiculous (if not crossing that line - how much headphone cord chewing actually happens and wouldn't it be better to just say something?). These signs librarians blushingly laugh over aren't just horrible, they are also downright ugly and dated looking.

A flyer for a popular program made with Pages
Message aside (I'll get to that later), in peddling dated imagery, how are we supposed to be taken seriously as technology and programming leaders if the images that represent us are so forgettable? When Apple released Pages in 2010 with its slick flyers designed by turtleneck-wearing graphic designers, I was elated...until I ran out of different flyer options and had to begin recycling them (taking great care to have four different Pages posters per recurring event so my students would never realize as they had graduated prior to my reuse).

A simple but elegant daily schedule,
branded with the school logo and library name using Canva
Thank heavens that Canva arrived on the scene just when I was at risk as being exposed as a very unhip sign designer. Not only are there a variety of fabulous designs (both free and some with a small fee attached), but it's ridiculously easy to upload pubic domain and personally generated images to replace backgrounds. Fonts are plentiful and there are text shapes and colors that would take me wielding some serious Photoshop prowess (that I don't have) to produce. Canva often whimsically refers to its "elves" and after looking at how many products they help you produce, I'd say there are about 100 of them, all with degrees from Pratt or the Rhode Island School of Design shining above them. Thank you, elves!

I not only like the ease of use of the site and the fact that so much of it is completely free, but I love the fact that it's more functional to the work of a modern librarian than other programs. Not only can I produce signage to be posted around my library, but it's insanely easy to create Twitter and Facebook banners as well as gorgeous infographics. I don't need to remember the pixel size of anything because they've already done the heavy lifting, meaning that keeping a consistent look to my library brand is easy and the results are gorgeous (like in the case of this blog banner and my Twitter header, both produced in Canva). Special event requiring a 24 x 36 inch poster? Want to create a kick-butt presentation background that people haven't seen before? They've got a template to use. I've yet to find a need Canva can't fill for me and I get showered with compliments, which I deflect to the site. And the time I save is spent on working with teachers and students, i.e., the important parts of my job, not swearing sotto voce at Pages or Word.
But what does this have to do with our work as librarians? A library should reflect both the people who use it and the attitude of the people who work in it. Aaron Schmidt put it best when phrasing the idea of signage in the context of the overall user experience. My preference is that the signage in my school library be colorful, fun and informative, as well as geared toward the girls who attend my school. Think about branding, whether it be repeating logos, using the same key colors (your school colors are a given as long as they are attractive!), and/or maintaining friendly yet directive language. Someone is far more likely to remember your message if they smile about it than if they frown.

Smiling patrons are also more likely to help you shift your library's culture (if it needs shifting). We do battle that mean, shushy librarian stereotype, every day, whether we realize it or not. The media loves it too much to ever let it go, as documentaries like The Hollywood Librarian show us, even while offering up dynamic examples of the current profession. This means that each one of us is potentially a change agent, whether we are actively altering our library culture in order to serve our population better, or if we are working within a dynamic and responsive library but are faced with individual patrons who have an outdated perception of librarians and libraries that needs altering.

Signage is a part of library culture over which we have total control. Let the 1990s go. Say no to "no" signs and use modern tools like Canva to produce attractive, vibrant library signage that informs and entertains your audience while creating a library culture you can be proud of.