Logos vs. Branding

My rant last week about library logos arose from a discussion I had with a co-worker about branding libraries.

Too often, people seem to think that their logo is their branding. Or that coming up with a good logo is the most important first step in creating their brand. The conflation of logos with branding is such a universal issue that there’s a whole school of thought dedicated to correcting this misunderstanding. Google “branding is not a logo,” or “brand vs logo,” and survey the results.

Whenever I discuss library logos, someone always brings up the New York Public Library’s lion as an example of how effective a logo can be. But the reason the lion works so well as a logo is because it was already an iconic image of a library with a deeply rooted history in the community. It’s specific to the NYPL and encapsulates the reputation and history the library already has.

The purpose of a logo is simply to reference the larger identity of an organization.

That larger identity—not your logo—is your true brand. Your brand grows out of the interactions you have with your patrons and the role your library fulfills in its community.

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Death to Book Logos for Public Libraries!

Survey the websites for public libraries in the United States, and how many do you think feature some kind of book as their logo? It’s got to be well over 50% of them.

Some of my own favorite library systems use book logos. Take a look:

Oak Park Public Library in Oak Park, Illinois
Mid-Continent Public Library in Missouri
Garfield County Libraries in Colorado

These are fantastic libraries that do great work in their communities. I follow their work avidly. But seriously—what’s with the book logos?

I’ve developed an almost visceral aversion to seeing book logos on library websites. Why?

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Web Design Can’t Fix Digital Illiteracy

For some time now, I’ve argued that it should be possible to create digital interfaces that are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up and use successfully regardless of previous experience or knowledge.

As an ideal, I think this is a good one.

In practice, of course, it’s a lot more complicated.

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently that brought home to me an obvious fact about designing digital environments:

Usability isn’t just a matter of design. It’s also a matter of digital literacy. But here’s the thing—design can’t make up for a user’s lack of digital literacy.

By itself, web design is a tool insufficient for the job of teaching digital literacy. No matter how easy to use a website or interface may be, no matter how intuitively the information architecture is constructed, if a user has no experience with digital technology and doesn’t feel comfortable interacting with a digital environment, they won’t know what to do. They’re going to be lost.
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Website Development as Storytelling

In my last few jobs—non-profit health support organizations in Chicago, the Kansas City Public Library—I developed a reputation as the person who can break your brand new website in ways that you never anticipated.

As we built our award-winning Civil War on the Western Border website here at KCPL; as the non-profit I worked at for my last few years in Chicago went through two different content management systems and completely redid their website—we obviously spent a lot of time testing the new sites and services, making certain of the functionality, running the systems through their paces before launching them to the public.

In the process, I learned that I’m the guy who identifies the most bizarre ways that things break down and fall apart. I search for the most counter-intuitive paths I can take through a site and I see where they lead me.

For example:
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Everything to Everyone, or: Why Library Websites Are So Complicated

“Everything to everyone is a very confusing mixed message.”

This is one of the last lines in this post from UX Magazine:

Five Customer Experience Lessons Coffee Taught Me by Tyler Wells (posted on May 5, 2014)

As a digital librarian, my library’s website is the entrance point for the Digital Branch. So it’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about library websites and following discussions about the subject. Sometimes, I even write about it.

A couple of years ago, I noticed a lot of people comparing library websites to Amazon.com. Amazon has far more stuff in their catalog than any library system (probably—I don’t actually have any numbers to back up this statement) and yet they manage to maintain a site that’s much more user friendly and highly functional than most library websites; their information architecture, their UX design, and the ways they leverage their product metadata puts most library websites to shame.

Why can’t library websites be more like Amazon?
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Microinteraction Design

Microinteractions book cover
Microinteractions: Designing with Details by Dan Saffer, published by O’Reilly Media, 2013.
I’ve been hearing about microinteraction design rather a lot in the last couple of weeks. This morning, a coworker sent me a link to an article on Fast Company about Dan Saffer’s book, Microinteractions: Designing with Details.

The Future Of UX Design: Tiny, Humanizing Details (posted on July 2, 2013)

(It’s worth reading not just for the article but for the comments, as well – they’re pretty amusing!)

I really like the philosophy of microinteraction design. It appeals to what I understand about neurology – that we’re evolved to be paleolithic hunter-gatherers and our brains are wired to take in all the little details of our surroundings (animal sign for food and danger, edible plant sign, water sign, weather sign). Our fundamental functioning of mind is based on being hyperaware of the details around us, the visceral input that informs all of our interactions with the world. It’s the details that wake up our full attention and spur our brains to engage at their fullest capacity. It’s the details that make things really real for us. Microinteractions fulfill a similar role in a digital environment as visceral input in the analog world.

In particular, I like microinteraction design as an alternative to skeuomorphism – which does have legitimate uses (particularly for people who aren’t entirely comfortable in digital environments) but tends to be inelegant, clunky, and overly relied upon as a crutch for bad designers.

As my coworker summed up microinteraction design:

Indeed, details are everything – people pay attention to their comprehensive experiences, whether it’s IRL on online. Sites that are enjoyable to navigate/explore are products of thoughtful planning and design; since users have become much more discerning about site structure/features, more sophisticated (but not overly complicated) design approaches are needed.

I love this design philosophy and I’m eager to see what we can do with microinteractions.