Ethical & accessible design in libraries

Librarians & designers agree: With great power comes great responsibility.

Between my career as a graphic designer and my journey as a library student I have observed more than a few similarities between the worlds of design and library studies. The end-goals of access to information and improving understanding feel so similar it’s like we’re saying the same things just with different buzzwords.

Whenever I use the word design here I think it is helpful to imagine it outside the realm of purely visuals and aesthetics or just “helping capitalism get dressed in the morning.” At its core, design communicates through a hierarchy of information (sounds familiar right?) and strives to make the complex more digestible and memorable. As librarianship strives to improve information-seeking, it makes sense that these disciplines could and should cooperate.

Both library school and design fundamentals share a learning approach rooted in best practices that, once understood, can then be interrogated and improved in response to new ideas or new technologies. Hopefully this introduces you to some design-y perspectives and lessons I have learned throughout my career that might apply to your own experiences with librarianship!

Good design and systems are invisible.

It is a sad story that we only notice things when they break or don’t work like they should. For behind-the-scenes library employees, and for gendered caretaking labour in general, we often don’t get acknowledged for our unseen labour. As a result it is important to speak up for yourself about what you or your team contributed, especially to those at the top who may not know that the nitty gritty details are actually vital to the system functioning properly.

At the creative agency I work at we have spent a lot of time and effort developing strict company-wide file management standards on Dropbox. For most people it is a boring unimportant process – until the day comes where you can’t find a really important file for a really important deadline, then it suddenly matters a lot.

Confusing design is a form of misinformation.

Democracy is a design problem, especially where election ballots are concerned, and Florida’s 2000 election ballot is a textbook example. Think of how many votes worldwide are either spoiled or misdirected because of recklessly confusing design?

When creating any sort of instructional or interactive materials in a library setting think of how your layout, wording, font choice/size, or colour combination work to communicate a legible and easy-to-understand message without excluding anyone. Is it accessible to those who are less familiar with English, can it be seen from a distance, is it colour-blind friendly? An easy way to improve your posters, flyers, social media communications, etc. is with some audience testing. Ask colleagues or trusted patrons if your message is clear. This process can often reveal unexpected snags and will make sure you’re designing communications that serve your larger community instead of just your personal preferences.

Empathy is our superpower.

A huge convergence of designer and library missions is the principle of service for the client or patron. Soft skills, customer service, motivational interviewing, active listening – all of these skills are not typically taught in a school setting but are necessary for effective communication. Whether I am counselling a client through a design project or you’re assisting a student’s research-related question, having someone really listen and try to understand their perspective can build a trusting relationship and help you solve their problems more efficiently.

Designing with accessibility in mind.

This seems like an obvious thing to consider – but it is also very easy to forget that our own experience of books, screens, interactions, and physical spaces is not universal. In the design world we are often tempted by what is visually enticing but technically terrible for accessibility or for the target audience’s needs. Laziness is the enemy of ethical design as it means we lean on stereotypes or harmful assumptions. These design choices – or the act of not making a choice and defaulting to whatever is easiest – can influence unexpected biases. This goes for defaulting to “the way things have always been done” as well and we should interrogate what “normal” or “neutral” means and make an effort to actively influence the outcome to be more sustainable and ethical.

I encourage all librarians and information professionals to imagine how library communications, marketing, programming, collections development, archival strategies, and even how you talk about your work, could be viewed through a lens of design thinking and – most importantly – how your library skill set could in turn shape the design world to be more ethical and self-aware.

Where do you foresee design and librarianship naturally intersecting and supporting or influencing each other?

Lyndsay Wasko is an online MLIS student at the University of Alberta with an undergraduate degree in Communication Design from the Alberta University of the Arts. Outside of school she works as a designer and illustrator at Daughter Creative, where her work has been internationally recognized in Applied Arts and Communication Arts publications. In 2020 she was selected as Calgary Public Library’s Children’s Illustrator in Residence which inspired her to pursue an MLIS degree. In her spare time Lyndsay enjoys long YouTube video essays, D&D, and generally aspires to the life of a Beatrix Potter animal: baking, sewing, gardening, and exploring nature. Learn more about Lyndsay at

Feature Image Credit: Spider-Man (1967) “Double Identity” (Know your meme)

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