What strikes me most about the visual identity of libraries is how little attention is paid to the actual identity of the institution when aesthetic design choices are made. This is most evident in choosing a typeface1. Let me explain.

A great example of typeface appropriateness are the neighboring schools in Cambridge, Mass Harvard University and Lesley University. They are literally across the street from one another, but each uses their typeface to tell you what kind of school they are: Harvard uses Georgia for its text, although that first choice is likely because Utopia, the more elegant and “Harvard-esque” typeface, is not a very commonly installed font2. Helvetica is the sans-serif compliment that is relegated to small text and links. These use of so much Georgia on the page says that Harvard is a sophisticated, elite school. Lesley uses the same typefaces: Georgia and Helvetica, but in exactly the opposite proportion. Helvetica is the predominant typeface, with Georgia buried in secondary pages as the typeface for quotes and news headlines. Helvetica is a light, modern face that is practical and highly readable. They say that Lesley is a school unburdened by the trappings and rituals of history.

I thought about these choices a few years ago when I worked with the Seidman College of Business to redesign their website. As West Michigan’s premier business school, they needed a sophisticated, modern visual identity. Their website at the time was the default University template, which used the font Arial (with Helvetica as a backup) for nearly everything.

Arial does not scream “business school” to me:

The words Business School in Arial regular font

Arial is a sans-serif typeface, which means it does not have the little details at the end of each stroke, and seems more casual than you would expect from a reputable business school3. (This has as much to do with the typeface as it does with what we associate with business schools.) Look at the same phrase in Didot, an elegant serif typeface with very thin strokes:

The words Business School in Didot regular font

Which of the two business schools is better? In my unscientific survey at the office, 100% of respondents picked the school that used Didot. And why? Because it looks more refined, more sophisticated, and moneyed. Exactly the qualities we expect from a good business school.

So when redesigning the Seidman website, I switched the headings of the over to Georgia, a sophisticated but not snobby serif typeface that was designed for the Web. It looks great in all caps, lending an air of class, but it doesn’t have such slender strokes that it seems better than you. Georgia is a serif typeface that wears a suit, but still mows its own lawn on the weekends in shorts and a t-shirt.

I felt it was the perfect face to balance Arial on the business school website, because visually it says business school while still staying true to Grand Valley’s identity.

One recent advertising campaign for Grand Valley State University also does well, I think, in choosing typefaces. GVSU is a state school known for quality teaching, affordable prices, and a great football team. We’re not known for research, endowments, or ivy and brick. In the past, our marketing teams paired very elegant fonts like Optima and Palatino that seem to be claiming that GVSU is a very different school. However, the most recent ads and publications return things to normalcy by using what appears to be League Gothic, a great workhorse sans-serif, paired sometimes with Georgia.

A recent Grand Valley State University Ad for the Full-time Integrated MBA program

So what does this have to do with libraries? Everything. Take the following example. What kind of library do you think this is?

The word Library in Comic Sans regular font

If you guessed Children’s library, then you’re starting to understand how typeface choice tells us a lot about the identity of the institution the letters represent. (If you said “public library,” then that is just a sad commentary on the state of public library design budgets.) As a side note: please never use Comic Sans. For anything (except maybe a lemonade stand sign).

Now look at this library:

The word Library in Garamond regular font

This is Garamond, the typeface of choice for the Newberry Library, an independent research library in Chicago with an amazing collection of manuscripts and rare books. Can you imagine their logo in Comic Sans?

The old expression that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it could be applied to the selection of fonts: it’s not just what you write, but what font you display it in4.

So when redesigning your library’s logo, your website, or making a sign for the bathroom door or the circulation desk, take this advice: know your library, then pick a typeface that suits you. Smart companies pay people a lot of money to make these decisions, and while we don’t have the money these choices are just as important.

  1. The difference between a typeface and a font was succinctly summarized by Norbert Florendo as “font is what you use, and typeface is what you see.” I am sure I misuse them in this article.
  2. Until recently, specifying a font on the Web was a probability game, since the viewer had to have the font installed on their computer. So you’d specify the font you’d _like_ to show, in this case, Arial, and then give backup options in case that font wasn’t available.
  3. Not all sans-serif typefaces are casual. Museo Sans is a wonderful, sophisticated sans-serif typeface.
  4. Frank Chimero demonstrated this in a talk from SXSW earlier this year by resetting the New York Times in Comic Sans. (See slide 20).