I can navigate JFK airport better than your library

I recently got back from vacation (it was lovely, thanks for asking) and had the pure enjoyment of running through many airports. Airports are some of the most complex networks where things go wrong (delays, cancellations, overbooking, etc) every single day. Many, like Chicago and New York’s, are insanely large and it is not uncommon to see people sprinting, like their life depended on it, to another gate a couple of miles away.

Provided by: https://hub.united.com

Provided by: https://hub.united.com

Why am I talking about airports? Because despite being unbelievably complex in nature (size, languages spoken, number of flights and passengers, security measures, the list goes on and on) they are some of the most simple to navigate due to…. DRUM ROLL PLEASE… graphic design!

It’s bad when I can understand the map of the JFK airport better than your library’s floorplan. It’s worse when I get lost in your library more easily than at the O’Hare airport. So let’s learn from what these airports are doing so well (reserve your grumblings about how the guard took your nail clippers for later, please.)

1. Readable, printable, responsive (for mobile) MAPS

For the love of books, please provide a map of your library on your website. Directions to the library is great as well, but I’m talking about a floorplan of your library. This is especially essential if you have multiple stories. Color code the different sections (study rooms, public access computers, printers, Reference section, archives, ect.) Keep it simple and clean rather than fancy and detailed for easier reading.

O'Hare Airport Map

O’Hare Airport Map

Then post that sucker everywhere. For your website, include it where you put other directions, about the library section, and where you have your study room scheduler (if you have one).  But don’t stop there! Airports have maps posted physically EVERYWHERE and for good reason. Depending on the size of your library, you may only want one map at the entrance. For others, one on every floor might be appropriate. And when I say signs, I don’t mean brochures, I mean standing signs or posters right inside the doors. Make it easy. Make it painfully obvious.

2.  Signage – Don’t Make Me READ!

Kind of a strange thing to say in a library – don’t make me read – but when it comes to quick navigation, reading isn’t an option. Airports (especially international airports) deal with many language barriers and thus have created beautiful iconography that people of any language can understand. If you ever have traveled abroad, you will have likely appreciated the use of iconography.

Icons VS Words

Icons VS Words

Sometimes words are necessary. For example, trying illustrating “Archives” in a way that students, faculty, and staff all understand. The point is not to slap your wrist when words are used but to encourage the exploration of the most easily read and understood option.

3. Findable Scheduling – A Communication Strategy

Your flight has been delayed, gate changed, cancelled due to weather, rescheduled, etc… We’ve all heard at least one of these before.

Airport Digital Signage Schedule

Airport Digital Signage Schedule

Location of signage: Airports do well with “just in time” schedule change communication by posting real time digital signage at various points throughout the terminals and lobby areas. You never have to walk far to find out what planes have made schedule adjustments and you can always trust that they are updated at a moment’s notice. This cuts down on the intercom use throughout the terminal (how annoying would it be to hear that the plane to Zimbabwe has it’s gate changed for the third time?). As for libraries, this is the same argument I made in #1 – make sure your users can find and see any library updates. Improve the location of your library updates by:

Long term signage: (little room for updating)

  • Having a bulletin board of events (an oldy but still a goody)
  • Don’t be afraid to hang posters around the library and other places around the community/campus
  • Get your events on the community/campus calendar, public announcements

On-the-fly updated signage:

  • Digital Signage 
  • Social Media avenues (these are always your best bet to announce on-the-fly updates and schedule changes
  • Website
  • Mobile apps

As if posting the digital signs every few yards isn’t enough, they take it a step farther and allow you to check the status of your flight from your smart phone (native app or website), constantly update via intercom at the designated gate, and have an additional sign at each gate. They make it nearly impossible not to figure out where you are going and when you have to be there.

User-friendly Signage: Before I even get off my first plane to connect to my next, I know exactly what gate I need to go to and can view on the map where it is located via smartphone. This leads me to my next point: Scheduling and maps go hand in hand. When giving event updates or schedule changes, make sure to always include a link to your map (especially if it is a location update!) Keep the maps and update feed close together so your users won’t have to have 2 tabs open or do an additional search.


Make sure your users can navigate your library easier than the airport by:

  1. Positioning your easily read maps in multiple, in-your-face locations
  2. Keep all signage clear and to the point
  3. Provide numerous avenues for your users to receive updates and link it back to maps



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