Help Points

These are interesting, so I can’t help but keep snapping pictures of them and writing about them. Help points, or reference desks, or information desks: they are common in a variety of different locations, and they wear so many guises. At the Apple store, they did away with the furniture and turned a massive staff into uniformed, technologicaly-equipped help points themselves. To be honest I’m undecided on how well that works. It works when the staff come to you exactly when you need them, switching the tables on “just in case” information points. (In the Apple store, the information points come up to you!) What’s required to make that work is a) uniforms, and b) a tremendous number of staff. Have you ever counted how many staff there are in an Apple store? It’s twice as many as you think. And then there’s the people behind the scenes we don’t even see.

For locations who can’t hire that many staff, or who can’t dictate a uniform for the staff they, furniture and lighting often steps in to create an obvious, approachable point for people to find and move toward when they have a problem or a question.

Here’s the main desk at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

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I know a lot of forward-thinking librarians are anti-desk. Especially anti-big-desk, and anti-“just in case” staffing. I can’t stay I’m anti-desk or pro-desk. I don’t think these things can exist without a solid, proactive service model behind it, and I think whether a space requires a designated desk, and what kind of designated desk in that case, is entirely dependent on the context of the institution. If it’s purpose is to act as that gravitation point, almost like a meeting place, an architectural feature so obvious you can’t miss it if you tried, ideally tied to a well-considered service model, a giant yellow desk might be just what you need. If your space requires a staffed visibly beating heart, then you might as well take to 11. That’s obviously the direction the V&A took.

You cannot miss this information desk at the V&A. For one, it’s glowing yellow. If you had to direct someone to it from another part of the building, it would be pretty easy to know you’ve found the glowing yellow desk. The second key element of this desk, for visibility, is the outrageous light fixture above it. I’ve seen this trick on a much smaller scale in a variety of other libraries over the last few years; when you want a space to be designated as unique by your patrons, one way you can do it is with big, bulky furniture. Another is with dramatic lighting.You really can’t miss this blown-glass bit of drama:

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Nobody’s missing that. These are all visual cues to highlight a point in the building where patrons should direct their attention. Given the size and scope of the building, the drama of their help points has to step it up and make a scene.

But as I said, context is everything. There are many other interesting forms of help point. This one is in the gift shop of the National History Museum:

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These are tills. They’re small, unlike the glowing yellow desk at the V&A. They’re slick and low-profile in a tight space, but right smack in the middle of the merchandise. It’s impossible to miss them, in spite of the fact that they’re not flashy, glowing, or under a halo of tremendous lighting. The Natural History Museum is a building dominated by stone. It’s got a very obvious look about it, and hasn’t especially modernized all that much.

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So those ultramodern, slick, white pods in this space really stick out.

It’s all fine and good to have easy-to-find tills in a gift shop, or a glowing yellow front desk in a large, well-regarded museum. But what about places where there isn’t one obvious front door, or one big foyer? What about big, sprawling spaces where different kinds of help are required all over the place?

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This is a help point inside the tunnels of the tube. You find them all over once you get down into the many tunnels that lead from one line to another. It’s the physical version of the online help chat widget we place on pages of the library’s website; press the blue button if you get lost and want some help working out where you should be heading. Unlike the Apple store, Transport for London doesn’t have enough staff to litter help through the miles of tunnels, stairs, escalators and elevators that make up the London Underground system. But you can access someone by pressing a button.

These are obviously not as friendly or approachable as dramatic, staffed desks. There’s no one smiling at you, encouraging you to come over. But it’s all about context; most people walking very quickly through these tunnels knowing exactly where they’re going and don’t need the extra obstacle of a desk, a smiling face, or fancy lighting. Context really is everything.