Stacks and Bike Racks—Austin Central Library Wayfinding

The people of Austin, Texas love their public library system—a lot. The city invested over $125 million and eight years into a new central location that spans 200,000 square feet of LEED Platinum-certified space. Local experiential graphic design firm fd2s was brought on to develop wayfinding and placemaking for the building designed by Lake Flato Architects and Shepley Bulfinch Architects.

Austin-based fd2s was the perfect choice for the new flagship library; the firm had a long and positive history working on projects with both Lake Flato and Shepley Bulfinch architects but, more importantly, had developed a set of sign standards for the Austin Library System in 2005 that had been deployed throughout the various branch locations. The new central library would replace one over 50 years old and its purpose was to be both a modern repository for information and education, and a multipurpose community center.

The striking building, in addition to retaining a 600-person event venue, art gallery, café and bookstore, bicycle corral, youth reading porch, “technology petting zoo,” rooftop butterfly garden and 373,000-gallon rainwater retention and filtering system, houses a vast collection of books, manuscripts and periodicals. The remarkable building is the only library in the United States to earn a LEED Platinum level of distinction for its sustainability.

While the neutral, practical standards fd2s had developed were perfect for the dozen or so architecturally diverse single-story suburban library branch locations served, they would require significant tweaking to accommodate the new six-story building, which can be accessed from multiple entry points and at different levels. “We were initially asked to apply these deliberately utilitarian distilled standards, but the building is multi-story, complex and has such a strong aesthetic that it required substantial growth of the system,” says fd2s Design Principal Curtis Roberts.

In keeping with the larger system, the wayfinding program is rendered in simple forms in a neutral palette; however, a judicious use of color provides quick recognition for various service kiosks throughout. The minimalist sign system was adapted for distance visibility and scale in a variety of mounting conditions throughout the facility and exterior applications, such as the lighted monolithic “library” lettering on the southwest corner and the literary quote-festooned scrim wrapping the northeast corner.

The fd2s design team’s scope included working closely with the architecture team early-on, assisting with nomenclature for entries, elevators, levels, departments and other key venues within the building—in addition to wayfinding, placemaking and donor recognition strategy and design. Roberts’ team performed significant research for the project, benchmarking numerous library facilities stateside and abroad to assess issues such as departmental and stacks identification, efficiency of patron-staff interactions and pervasiveness and prominence of wayfinding devices. Their research suggested that contemporary libraries experience a significant amount of change within their departments, which prompted signage designs that could readily accommodate updates.

The complexity of the circulation due to entry points on three sides and multiple levels required considerable mock-ups to vet the design. Patrons can arrive from the street level, parking garage or even local hike and bicycle trails via the “bike porch,” replete with valet. Because of these factors, the design team focused building orientation on parking levels and within the building on the elevator lobbies and identified entry points by landmarks instead of cardinal direction designations for ultimate ease of use.

Additional considerations were the decentralized customer service kiosks (Information, Reference, Look Up and Check-In/Check-Out) distributed throughout, a need for flexibility of stacks signage until late in the project, and a day-lit main atrium space with very few opportune surfaces for displaying wayfinding information. The design team’s solutions came in the form of pendant signage with custom identifying symbols and colors, and large dimensional letters placed on the floor and racks.

Over the course of the nine-year-long project, the community expressed widespread cynicism: Why should public monies be invested in an antiquated institution, which effectively could be replaced by the Internet? The Austin Central Library would be so much more—a source of hands-on educational opportunities, face-to-face exchanges of ideas and civic pride—dispelling the notion that libraries are an antiquated concept.

The public reaction to the project when it opened was remarkable; people were so pleased, they had seemingly forgotten the oft and publicly bemoaned fact that the building was both overdue and over budget. The project was well received by the architecture and design community as well: An AIA statement described the project as “a technologically rich hub for innovation and cultural intelligence.”

“Similar to trends in museum and exhibit design, where the goal is to move beyond artifacts-behind-glass to more immersive experiences, the design of this library invites discovery by offering media in a variety of forms and in an engaging array of spaces,” says Roberts. “The project wasn’t without challenges, but we are very proud of both our involvement and the outcome.”

Particularly, his team is proud of their contribution to clarity, as the wayfinding achieves the right balance of communication to demystify a large, programmatically complex environment—without losing an appropriate sense of discovery. They believe that the healthy dialogue they developed with the building staff and end users led directly to meeting the orientation and maintenance needs of the system.


Project Name: Austin Central Library
Client: City of Austin and Austin Public Library
Location: Austin, Texas
Open Date: October 28, 2017
Project Area: 200,000 sq ft
Overall Budget: $125,000,000
Experiential Graphics Budget: $350,000

Architect: Lake Flato Architects, Shepley Bulfinch Architects
Landscape Architect: Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

Wayfinding and Placemaking Design: fd2s, Inc.
Design Team: Ranulfo Ponce (senior designer), Curtis Roberts (design principal)
Fabrication: Capital Architectural Signs

Photos: Rachel Kay, Applebox Imaging