Thursday, April 26, 2012

Public Space Critique

    I was able to visit the North Lake County Annex. This building houses the Christmas Valley Sheriff's station, New Beginnings Intervention Center, Veteran's Affairs, the Department of Human Services, the satellite office for Lake County Mental Health, and the office of the public health nurse, at present. 


     Probably the first thing that gets the attention of a visitor to this office is that there is very little information to help people know what direction they should be going. Granted, the building itself is very small, probably no larger than 1,500-square feet in total, but with the number of offices this small space contains, it is immediately confusing. There is a major lack of signage; even many office doors are bare. There is not a single sign which tells a visitor what offices are actually in the building. There is a sign on the road, but it only names two of the offices in the building. Thus, wayfinding in this environment is not considered on any significant level. One thing that I noticed is that some doors do have signs, which are made of printer paper. This is something that I realized is a problem for me, because if I see a printed paper on a door, I assume it is a note, and won't immediately consider its value for locating the correct office. My eyes have bypassed these "signs" several times, because I don't mentally equate printer paper to signage.

     The building is basically an "L" shape, and some offices are only accessible from outside, while others are within the larger portion of the building and accessible by entering a small corridor.I think the building really needs two signs outside that can direct visitors to their destinations. One sign should be dedicated to the three offices that are immediately accessible from outside. The other should be dedicated to the offices that can only be accessed by walking into the small corridor in the main building. I think both of these signs should be freestanding near the main entrance of the building and provide arrows to direct visitors either to the outer offices, or the offices that are inside the larger portion of the building. Additionally, there should be a sign inside the corridor, directly across from the front door that can be seen as visitors enter the building, which also has arrows directing visitors to their destinations. Instead of printer paper signs that were probably used because some office space is shared by different agencies on different days of the week, I think each door should have a more official form of signage that tells not only the agency name, but also the days and hours of operation for that particular agency. The offices that are shared will need two signs, and one office may need three, since Lake County Mental Health has three therapists who use the office on different days of the week. Additionally, I feel that the heavy wooden road sign that is realistically not adequate to convey changes in the office occupancy, should be replaced with a sign that can name every agency in the building, and leave the possibility open for new signs to be added or ones that are no longer relevant to be taken away. This office has seen changes in the recent years, and will continue to do so with the growing population, so I think this is a good option. Given that I used to work in signage, I know that a sign of this type is not difficult to construct, and can be easy to change.
 A sign of this type would work well for the outside signage to direct visitors to the proper office, because it is similar in style to the building itself, a complimentary color, and could have names and arrows added to it to help visitors find their way. 

Cohesiveness, Quality, and Audience

      There is a bulletin board near the front door that many flyers are tacked and stapled to. A lot of these flyers have been on the board for a very long time and contain information about county programs. In general, the bulletin board is messy and can be confusing because the public has been allowed to use it for their own advertising, even though the office inhabitants have strongly urged against this. I really feel that if a bulletin board must be used, it would look far more professional if the board were encased in acrylic or plexi-glass like many of those you see in school hallways. Additionally, I think the information needs to be organized in a manner that makes sense. As it were, the board is in total disarray to the point that one almost tries not to look at it. Another option would be to allow each office their own encased smaller bulletin board where posting for that office could be displayed. There is ample wall space for this to work. 

     Christmas Valley is generally a place of utilitarian purpose. Design doesn't matter much here. People don't seem to think about it or realize that certain design elements could make offices more user-friendly and inviting. Of course, in a space of service offices, I think the concern is even less considered, because the audience essentially has to be there. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the audience has not been considered here, from the chipping bright white paint on the interior, to the peeling and faded gray paint on the outside, to the hard chairs haphazardly placed in the corridor, to the lack of direction that the agencies give their clients. But in most places, even government and human service offices have catered to their audience to a greater degree than North Lake County has. Though, individual office-holders have put their own efforts into making the space more inviting. One agency head placed framed photographs of forest scenes in the corridor. Lake County Mental Health's office was painted, wallpapered, and two couches, and a rug were added to make the office more inviting. New Beginnings Intervention Center also painted their office, put down a rug, and added many framed posters intending to provide encouragement to clients. 

      Even if only to show community pride, I think the entire building needs an overhaul. This building was built in the 50's with a block-style and hasn't been kept up well, at all. The carpets are nearly shot through, the interior walls are smudged, cracked, and otherwise uninviting. The bathroom has worn orange linoleum, and a similarly outdated synthetic counter top. There is little clarity of purpose. The building seems like more of a rundown apartment complex full of strangers than a place where several county agencies coexist within the human service and protective services realm. There is little in the way of contextual information, aside from more posted paper signs, and I still just don't feel these are doing the trick. 

     My feeling is that in a building where stresses are likely to abound, many things could be changed to improve the mood of the building. I think the interior walls could use a coat of blue paint to calm those who work in the offices and those that visit them. I also think the hard chairs should be replaced with straight back chairs with some cushioning, as often people are forced to sit there for long periods of time. The plywood table next to the chairs needs to make its way to a yard sale, so that reading materials could be placed on a simple stand or rack that doesn't jut out into the walkway. The bathroom, with it's unfortunate dated style should also be upgraded and colored with hues that don't add to peoples' stress. I also feel that the shared-use copy machine which is tucked into what may have once been a closet, should have doors hiding it because it is constantly surrounded by a mess of paper scraps and the like. The view of the mess coupled with the rest of the disarray of the building adds to a sense of unease in the corridor. 

Overall Impression

       Overall, I have to say that this public space is a design nightmare. It's difficult to navigate, poorly kept, disorganized, uncomfortable, outdated, and disjointed. It's not user-friendly, and it's plainly confusing. Nevertheless, I think the problems could be fixed fairly easily, with a small budget. 


  1. It does sound like a design nightmare. I would have liked to see pictures to go with your observations. Unfortunately its government where budgets are so tight that basic improvements such as painting or floor coverings cannot be done unless they are leasing the space and its part of their lease agreement. I work in state government and we have such a tight budget that we also print names and office hours on paper. Some people make it look nice and others not so much.

  2. It sounds like this place could definitely use some design help. You have done a great job of explaining the building and offices. I was able to paint a mental picture of how it looks with the paper signs. This reminds me of the municipal building in my town. As soon as you work through the door you feel lost. Like you have said it would not take a lot of time or money to fix these problems.

  3. It sounds like that would be a stressful place to visit. It lacks direction and sounds like there is no sense of organization at all. This sounds very similar to the Capitol Building in Albany in the way that it is confusing to navigate. It is a tremendously beautiful, historical building but the signage is almost impossible to navigate unless you are very familiar with the building.

    Nice job explaining this building. I could imagine being there and feeling the frustration of not being to find your way around.

  4. The town I grew up in had a city hall that was almost exact but most likely larger (it was a mansion that was full of offices on the first floor). I would have to go see the city clerk and wouldn't have the slightest clue which office to step into. The only time they had any sort of system in place was for little league baseball signups.