Enhancing Learning Spaces with Environmental Graphics (Preview)

Creating Memorable Spaces

Children reading in a colorful space

Photo by Robert Benson

By Lauren Haggerty

“Hello friends!” greets a staff librarian with a warm smile, as young visitors and their caregivers enter the Children’s Library of the Boston Public Library Central Library in Copley Square. The room is busy with a mix of regulars nestled into their favorite spots and first-time visitors taking in the bright colors and welcoming environment.

Six years ago, we, the designers from the Arrowstreet Graphic Design Studio, developed the custom graphics that surround the room, and we are here to learn more about the impact they have on visitors. We are eager to talk with children and their caregivers about their favorite aspects of the room, why they visit, what makes them come back, and how their experiences here differ from other libraries.

Our work integrating environmental graphics in civic and educational spaces has proven to be an incredible tool to enhance spaces. They can set the tone of a space, integrate an institution’s culture into the fabric of the building, or influence the mood of visitors and students, resulting in more profound connections between people and places. More and more libraries and schools are using graphics to increase engagement, offer surprising learning opportunities, rein-force values, and highlight building features.

Creating Memorable Spaces that Reflect the Community
The Boston Public Library’s Children’s Library of today is a stark contrast to its predecessor, which was small, cluttered, and lacking views to the outside. As Michael Colford, Director of Library Services, is quoted, “What was here before this renovation was what was there in 1972. The carpet was the same carpet. We had brown panels. We had gray granite…There was never any color…Our children’s room was really substandard for a library this size.”

BPL leadership wanted to ensure the space reflected its urban location with Boston-specific elements and landmarks. It had to appeal to both children and adults, sparking imaginations with bold colors and confident gestures. The graphics also needed to blend the theme of “Read, Play, Learn” while conveying travel, movement, and progression. Put more simply, they wanted “wow factor.”
The overall design of the Children’s Library was led by William Rawn Associates (WRA), and the layout included five distinct zones: Early Literacy, StoryScape, Collections, a Program Room, and a space dedicated for tweens. Bold lines referencing Boston’s metro system welcome visitors at the entrance and guide them to the five zones, each featuring a different color. Custom illustrations depicting areas of the city combine with elements of reading, playing, and learning to create visually distinctive areas under one cohesive theme.

Child interacting with colorful graphics on a wall

The resulting design announces itself before reaching the door with a vibrant presence that can be seen from across the atrium. Upon entry, visitors are surrounded by original illustrations comprising five “chapters,” which tell a story of three lion cubs—the Children’s Library mascots—and their adventures in Boston. The youngest library users play along-side the famous ducklings, frogs, and swan boats of the Public Garden. Child-size town-houses create StoryScape, where children can gather for story time. Stacks of books featuring titles by local authors create the Boston skyline and provide a backdrop to the circulating collections. Curious George greets visitors at the entrance to the Margret and H.A. Rey Program Room while fishing in Boston Harbor. The story culminates with a mural featuring the Zakim Bridge, a metaphor for tweens’ transition to Teen Central on the opposite side of the floor. Each chapter is tied together with a single white line, which originates from an open book near the room’s entrance and weaves its way around the room depicting the lions’ journey through the city.

By utilizing local landmarks, an immediate connection is created between visitors and the space. By reimagining these familiar sites in a fantastical way—where books become recognizable bridges and buildings, and frogs from the Boston Common Frog Pond relax with a book under a tree—a memorable space is created for visitors of all ages…

Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 019