Arch Nexus Photo by Josh Allred

Library Design: The Art of Architecture

Libraries are about people, not books.

Libraries are about people, not information.

Libraries are about people and people are about community.

“The library as people reflects the shift away from building collections to building human capital, relationships and knowledge networks in the community. People are at the center of the library’s mission to inspire and cultivate learning, advance knowledge and nurture and strengthen communities. While there are thousands of stories in the public library, the ones that matter most come with the people who use the library.” (

Even librarians are embracing this shift from collections to human capital as they work in a world of information much greater than books. Librarians are now the finders of the “right” information, they are sifters find the most applicable or best instead of only finding the information that library customers are seeking.

Just as libraries are about people, so is library design. As people we have strong connections to place, history, nature, and our personal human experiences. Successful library designers will draw on the human experience as it relates to place, history, and nature to create wonderful and inspiring places.

Experience Architecture!

Have you ever experienced architecture?

You do it every day.

Everyday you enter, pass by, or see a building. For most people that includes home, work, and many other places. Good architecture and good design will enhance the human experience. Our environments have a significant psychological affect on our lives. We have many environments, some are mental and emotional environments that are in part dependent on our relationships with others. We also have physical environments of nature, cities, and buildings (architecture). Just as people and relationships affect your psychological state so does architecture.

Architecture creates feelings and affects our psychology on both a conscious and subconscious state. Just one of many examples is the affect of natural light and views inside a building.

“. . . design typically emphasizes providing views and managing daylight– specifically increasing daylight while eliminating glare. These two design features have both been correlated with improvements in performance on tests of office workers. In a study of 200 utility workers, workers with the best views performed 10% -25% better on tests. Workers in offices without glare outperformed workers in offices with glare by 15% or more. The consensus findings in a review of 17 studies from the mid 1930s to 1997 found that good lighting “improves test scores, reduces off-task behavior, and plays a significant role in the achievement of students.”37 Another synthesis of 53 generally more recent studies also found that more daylighting fosters higher student achievement.” (

All architecture affects us psychologically whether for good or for bad. While good design enhances the human experience, GREAT DESIGN inspires the human experience.

What constitutes inspiring design?

How does a building create an inspiring feeling?

How does your physical architectural environment make it more likely that you will have an inspirational experience?

It all comes back to our five senses (how we experience our environment) and fundamental principles of human psychology. Simple, yet complicated. That is the world of architectural design.

People are naturally connected to place, history, and nature.

We all have places in our lives full of memories. Childhood homes, vacation spots, the tree in the park, the library . . . These places, what ever they are, simple or significant, bring back memories. Our memory embeds these places in our subconscious. Place plays a significant role in inspiring our human experience.

History connects us to the past, teaches us lessons and inspires us to continue or change as we progress forward. There are so many inspirations that come from those before us; quotes, art, architecture, stories, memories, actions, service and many more. People are connected to history in many inspiring ways.

Humans are often heavily drawn to nature. Natural light, sunshine, park, forest, trees, mountains, river, trail, gardens, or flowers. There is a connection between these living things on more than just a scientific level of dependence for food and air. Nature and its shapes, colors, smells, wide open spaces of curiosity and discovering are some of the most inspiring sources for design.

Libraries are the the perfect crossroads where people and architecture meet. Where curiosity and discovery happen. Where learning and building occur. Where the potential to reach for inspiration is great.

This nexus of people and architecture creates a special opportunity that most projects don’t have. To create inspiration in such a public place where all are welcome. A place where many come to discover new worlds unveiled behind the pages of books, behind the screen of technology, and right under their own hands in maker learning. A greater opportunity ceases to exist.

To create such an inspirational place we must understand and draw on the inspiration that is afforded us through place and history, even the history of the place, the community, the city where such a connective design is to be unveiled again and again as people discover new things daily within the walls of library design.

Arch Nexus Photo by Josh Allred

The design of libraries is truly a form of art for the community. Standing as an icon of community gathering, a place for all, a place for equality, and a place for stretching, growing, and learning. To better understand the art of architecture one must differentiate the difference between art and design.

A simple explanation of the Art of Architecture, the design of buildings, is simply a very large version of artistic sculpture that creates an symbolistic icon in the communities it serves but there is so much more. There is a distinct difference between art and design.

One of my design mentors, David Cassil, taught me long ago the difference between art and design. That difference is function. The design of something must meet certain specific functional requirements specific to then needs of people. Whether it be a toothbrush, a car, or a house they all have specific basic human needs that must be met, cleaning teeth, transportation, and shelter. If any one of these does not meet that function then the design is flawed. A car that doesn’t transport you from point A to B isn’t a great design no matter how beautiful it may look. Architecture is the same, it must have both art and function to be a great design.

Here is the simple equation:

Design = Art + Function

Library Design = Sculpture (Art) + Library Function

However as we have seen in the past decades function can change over time and so we must design with flexibility and adaptability in mind so that our libraries are growing and changing along with the environment and community they serve.

A successful designer will seek out the inspiration through interviewing people of all demographics served by the library. Inspiration through research about the history of the place the library serves. Inspiration through understanding the natural environment that once was that place before man changed it. Inspiration about giving back to the environment instead of taking from it.

Through tools of outreach, of “Going to Them” with interviews, ideation sessions, and informative activities that tap into the psychology of the people’s needs and wants the inspiration for greatness is found. Using tools that cross cultural, generational, and linguistically poised barriers will create something unique and meaningful.

The SEED process (Social Economic and Environmental Design) is a great outreach process that taps into the communities needs and identifies issues the design of the library can directly affect. (

Design concepts are then developed from the many sources of found inspiration. Design tools of words, poetry, drawing, painting, abstracting are used in creating models, sculpture, and inspirational forms and spaces. A place where art rules the inspiration.

Where most designers struggle and often fail whether student novices or seasoned professional, the transformation from concept to building is the most difficult. Combining the function and the art so that one is dependent on the other with out losing the core essence of the concept is reserved for only the best of the designers. Those designers that understand and create at this depth of symbiotic design between art and function truly change and inspire the human experience.

Dollars and budgets however can not be pushed aside. They must be understood and adhered to. However if you want inspirational architecture that will inspire the human experience of all that come to the library, you must, if even for a brief moment, push it aside. Let inspiration rule for that moment that you allow yourself to push outside the borders of the budget box and find the conceptual essence. Then, and only then, can you then bring it back to budget and still maintain the essence of what was found in that sacred search for inspiration. By thinking outside the box and then bringing it back into the box you will have something much greater, much more inspirational than if you tried to maximize the design within the box.

True library design must go much deeper than just an inspirational form and space. It must relate to humans, to our emotion, to our memories, to our height, our reach, our touch, our sight, all the way down to the sounds and smells and in someways even the taste of the building. How the size of spaces in buildings relate to humans is called scale. Scale is looking at the size of people and relating the space to those people in order to create an inspirational experience.

The details, the textures, the compression and release of space that Frank Lloyd Wright mastered, the light and shadow, the contrast and the drama, it all comes together as a part of experiencing architecture.

The design comes alive as it relates to people. Most people can’t verbalize what it is about a space that makes their experience better but detailing and understanding the intersection of materials, planes, lines and how they touch, or almost touch and how the light adheres or bounces from their surfaces begins to change the great influence great architecture truly has.

Call to Action: Download this series of images that goes back and forth between the inspiration found and the architecture created in the award winning Millcreek Library & Community Center designed by Arch Nexus so you can begin to learn how the inspiration of a place can influence the design of architecture and ultimately enhance the human experience.

Click here for your free download: