Shelf habits


Sagmeister & Walsh is a NYC based design firm. Courtesy

There is a trend among creative types to organize books by color. I first encountered this when an architect I was collaborating with described to me with great enthusiasm how he stacked his books vertically and organized them by color and size. As a book lover and collector, I was initially seduced by the pure beauty of a presentation of books in this fashion. I thought of it as a celebration of design and a fun new way to look at a display of books. But I have come to believe that this trend is a symptom of something else.

For me, there are three legs to the creative stool: content, design and implementation. The color-coded library is a symbol of form with no function. It looks good, but if I want to find a book and I don’t happen to know the spine color offhand, I’m out of luck. Great design solutions are both beautiful and functional. They should enhance understanding.

The problem with the color-coded library is that it is a wobbly stool. If I want to find my copy of Lolita, I need a second system to tell me that the spine of the edition of the book is yellow. To be charitable, I suppose it’s possible that I might discover some interesting parallels between content and color. Maybe nonfiction books tend to be black and white, romance novels probably trend towards the purple and self-improvement books are urgently red or orange.

But at the end of the day, the serious reader just wants to be able to get their hands on that James Salter or Evelyn Waugh when they have an itch (or in my case a stolen moment just to read.)

So I conclude that form should follow function. Color-coding books is an affectation. What’s worse, it conveys a lack of interest in the content inside the cover.

At PEM, the mandate to be a creative and singular museum permeates our everyday thinking. It goes so deeply that we use the term “PEMize” to describe the way we work on projects. We work hard to find inventive ways to be a museum, even to the point of questioning the core definitions of basic terms like: “visitor experience,”  “interpretation,”  “exhibition” and “publishing.”

So what does this have to do with the color-coded library? Simply that great design begins with an investment in content, whether we are talking about an exhibition, a book or an interface.

Editor’s Note: A Tumblr blog dedicated to “Selfies,” taken in front of peoples’ bookshelves, has recently popped up, propagating yet another phenomenon — Shelfies. See also a recent post from the Phillips Library called The Duty of Owning Books.

shelfie 1

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One Comment

  1. bryanne says:

    This is great! I’ve always thought using books as a design accessory in a room by organizing them by size and/or color was rude. Not to mention I have a hard enough time finding books organized by subject matter! But now I am wondering if there might not be an inventive way to combine the visual appeal of books on a shelf without disrespecting their content that still facilitates locating them. Hmmm….

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