Bad Design: Calgary Public Library


Library Signage

Neat is not a word you hear frequently as a term of endearment these days. Perhaps “neat” is not even something your parents would choose to use in an effort to describe something favourable in nature. In fact, according to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, the word “neat” dates back to the year 1649. Why is it being used as a centerpiece of an advertising campaign in 2008? That’s a good question.

It seems there are a lot of questions you could ask about this advertisement designed for the Calgary Public Library. For example, why choose black and blue as the palette for the ad? This colour combination carries negative connotations, primarily the bruised and battered feeling of placing a distant second in a two person punching contest. It’s not bright enough to attract the attention of a busy motorist rushing home to dinner, and it certainly does not give the impression that your local library is a vibrant centre of modern culture.

Furthermore, there are a variety of questions that also need to be asked about the design execution in this advertisement. The first inquiry being why so many fonts were used. Typically, as a graphic designer, you should attempt to keep your font choices to a minimum. Perhaps two fonts should suffice in most situations – a serif and a sans serif. In this case, at least four fonts are used in addition to bold, italics, and a hand written signature at the bottom. That’s too many.

The construction of the ad is also problematic. There is no flow in the layout. Your eyes are required to sweep the entire ad to gather information you’ll need to comprehend the message, and by that time it may be too late, especially in a car. A good graphic designer will engineer information in a way that gives your eyes a chance to see what needs to be seen one element at a time in order of importance. With the Calgary Public Library logo balanced precariously near the centre and everything else thrown in wherever it fits, efficient visual navigation is difficult.

From the archaic and non-relevant terminology, to the poor layout, and the dull colour scheme, this advertisement is a few letters short of a bad first novel and it’s unfortunate. Our library system deserves a better image. It’s a great resource that the majority of people ignore for the preconceived notion that it’s a bland, beaten down institution frequented by people who think books are “neat”. Now where would they get that idea from?

  • Grant Kaiser

    The word “neatest” was chosen through consumer research. The public simply didn’t accept words such as “coolest” or “greatest” in context with a library. One of the first rules of marketing is to not turn off your audience with a message they simply won’t accept or believe. People liked “neatest” as kind of quirky — something they felt was right in line with the library. That made them open up to the ad.

    Libraries face 200 years of stereotyping. With a $100 million advertising budget perhaps we could begin to fight it. With the tiny ad budget the Calgary Public Library has, it’s far better to work with people’s beliefs and stretch them slightly, rather than try to create completely new beliefs.

  • Kevin

    I also dislike these ads. The first one I saw was I think the hockey player one, and with the strange typography and layout it took me forever to figure out what it was trying to say.

    IMO, the a strong market for reading is going to be bus and train stops, which is where many of these ads are (correctly) being placed. To make the case for reading here I think you could hire an illustrator to show something along the lines of three people sitting on a bus bench. The outside two bored out of their minds with nothing to do, the inside one reading a book, being blasted by colorful images being read there. That would pretty much show how I feel at these places depending on whether I have a book or not.

    I do realize good illustrators can be expensive.

  • Neil Gilbert

    Thanks for the comments so far.

    I certainly sympathize with the lack of budget for advertising. I have a couple thoughts, firstly, perhaps attempting to present the library as quirky may be puzzling to some people.

    Secondly, I really like Kevin’s concept about adding colour and excitement. The feeling of being captivated by a good book instead of being bored is such a positive feeling. Especially using bus shelters and transit platforms, your audience is aching to be entertained!