Empowering Teens with Environments that Cultivate Creativity

Marilyn Mason, then the Director of the Cleveland Public Library, gave us one of the wisest pieces of advice when we began working with her. She told the design team, “Be visionary, because the realism will take care of itself.” She was right. A project’s program, budget and schedule will dictate a required result further down the line — but at the onset of the design process is the time to tap into truly visionary ideas.

Access to technology and spaces to explore and create new content is becoming more & more prominent in libraries, as seen here in the ImaginOn Teen Loft in Charlotte, NC.
Access to technology and spaces to explore and create new content is becoming more & more prominent in libraries, as seen here in the ImaginOn Teen Loft in Charlotte, NC.

In more than fifteen years collaborating with the most progressive librarians in the country, I have had the opportunity to explore visionary ideas. I believe that innovation is better executed in the design of spaces for teens than anywhere else, but even I have become skeptical of whether we are tapping into the potential to design exceptional environments for our youth. After all, isn’t a teen space the place to test convention — to draw on the strength of rebellion, anarchy and the teen spirit?

Over the years, I have worked with teen patrons and involved them in the design process for several projects, including the prototype YOUmedia space for the DreamYard Arts Center in the Bronx, the Teen Loft at ImaginOn, and the Joe and Joan Martin Center, in Charlotte, NC. As a result of creating spaces based on the wants and needs of teens, I have also enjoyed seeing new models for “mainstream” adult and children’s library services emerge and be successfully executed.

When we design for teen services in the public library, experimentation and creativity can provide teens with an environment that is truly unique. Teen spaces also provide opportunities to efficiently and effectively test new ideas that may inform augmented services for a larger patron constituency.

Teens enjoy the freedom they’re given in their dedicated space to hang out, mess around, and geek out.
Teens enjoy the freedom they’re given in their dedicated space to hang out, mess around, and geek out.

There is no doubt that the YOUmedia/Learning Lab model has impacted design for teen spaces; “Hang Out”, “Mess Around”, and “Geek Out” are now commonplace in the teen librarian’s lexicon. The Maker’s Space model is also rapidly transforming what we consider a library to be, and nowhere are these programs more effective than with the 13-18 age group. Add in program components like gaming, movie nights and animation studios — teen spaces, by the activities they house, are most definitely looking and feeling different.

All library designers are still challenged by a design approach that results in spaces that still look like libraries. Yes, they are more colorful; more flexible (hello casters!); and even more trendy (Ikea, here we come!). But why are we holding onto a vision of spaces that best served a traditional library model? In our office, we have become collectors of “our favorite things.” We gather ideas — no matter the source — that can spark and inspire a transformation in the experience of end-users (of all ages). For example, when I recently visited the Venice Biennale for Architecture, so many of the pavilions could have easily just as been amazing and creative teen library worlds. What is a library if it not a place that can take us outside of ourselves?

We root our designs for teen spaces in conventional core principles that can then form the basis for innovation. In 2010, I made a presentation at the American Library Association Conference in Chicago titled, “Capturing Kapow! Transform Your Teen Spaces to Transform Your Teens.” As a part of the presentation, we asked a basic question of the panelists: “what do your teens want?” Although some of the specific examples that were used have become quickly out-dated (like Flash Mobs) the techniques, generally applied to both programming for teens and designing spaces for teens, still hold true.

These include:

  1. Let teens curate their identity
  2. Allowing for customization
  3. Providing platforms to stay connected

And most importantly, “join their space; don’t expect them to join yours.” The panelists of teen librarians were emphatic that parents should be discouraged accompanying their teen children in the library. The most successful teen programming allows teens to take ownership of their spaces, their bodies, their minds and their activities.

Librarians, whose mission is to enrich the lives of their patrons, need to know: what makes for a happy and healthy teen? The Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents (ages 12-18) provides a prescription. Librarians reviewing this list will know which particular assets their programming can support. However, the assets I always quote when working with library building committees (especially the ones who don’t understand why the teen space needs room for a gladiator fighting ring, a rock concert, a fashion show or a sleepover) is that teens need at least three hours a week of recreational activity and three hours a week of creative activity in addition to at least three hours a week of reading for pleasure. There’s no better place to provide that support than in the public library.

Principles for Teen Space Design

What does this mean for designing teen spaces in public libraries?

  1.  Involve your teens in every step of the design process.
    From programming, to space planning, to color selection, to furniture selection, collaboration with teens is an ideal way to provide a platform that allows them to “curate their identity” and “customize” their space.
  2. Provide for a variety of activities
    Teen programming can encompass “traditional” library activities such as reading, group study and reference gathering, but it can also include poetry readings, movie nights, gaming, and really, whatever programming your library is willing to offer. There are two ways to approach this, which depend on programming priorities and space constraints.The first is to design with the assumption that at any time, the entire space can be transformed. Furnishings and equipment on casters and/or lightweight furnishings can easily be moved to accommodate varying activities.The second is to actually design spaces for dedicated programming. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a space can’t be flexible. If your space were to have a stage for the weekly poetry jam, the stage can always be used as a gathering area when not in use for performance — and who knows what impromptu and creative, self-directed programming can then take place?
  3. Let the Teens design their own piece of furniture … and build it!
    One teen designed a four-person group study table with retractable leaf that transforms into a ping-pong table — a perfect piece to support a combination of traditional and contemporary library activities.
  4. Buy a “wow” piece of furniture. The best way to show respect to teens is to invest in a couple of pieces of furniture that represent what they consider the trends of their time. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Because, in the teen world, trends can change as rapidly as one-three months, it is okay to think about “recycling” furniture.
  5. Be creative (cheaply!) with Paint.
    Simple color and wall graphics can instantly transform a space.

The DreamYard Arts Center YOUmedia space is a case study that applies these principles — as well as the outside of the box thinking that stems from designing from user experience. When I began designing public libraries, the “correct” starting point was to identify the quantity of materials and determine the quantity desired seating; then, we began with 25% equal distribution of public space, materials and collections, seating and staff areas. All of us designing libraries now know that these rules of thumb have been turned on their heads. As library designers and space planners, we struggled with what techniques could be utilized to properly support a user-centered design.

For the DreamYard project, we asked the client and end users to write narratives. These user-generated stories allowed us to understand, in detail, what DreamYard envisioned for the teen experience and became an innovative tool that we have now introduced into our programming tool-box.

Located in the South Bronx, the DreamYard Arts Center is an after-school program that uses the arts as a vehicle for augmented learning, development and empowerment for youth of all ages. DreamYard received one of five prototype grants from the MacArthur Foundation to create a YOUmedia prototype for their teen population. Based on the Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia program, DreamYard was selected as the community center model.

For DreamYard as an arts-based program, we designed a space that incorporated the mission and identity of an art studio coupled with that of a digital learning lab. Thus, the primary forces of design were rooted in experience and identity, a departure from the conventional approach based in collections, materials, user-seating and security. The painted feature wall is inspired by fusing the color spectrum (arts) and the digital matrix (technology) to reinforce the equal importance and relevance of each program in serving the programmatic mission.

Ultimately, by revealing ideas that spur our creativity, we are empowered to think bigger, bolder and more creatively with our resources — including our teens. As innovative designers, we have the ability to pull end users outside of themselves; a good library planner, programmer, or consultant can help realize goals with practical applications of furniture and equipment that can meet any program, budget, or schedule. Empowering end users with tools for optimum creativity will result in contemporary environments that serve the evolving mission of the public library more than any conventional
process can.

Additional Resources:

  • ImaginOn
    The Joe & Joan Martin Center, Charlotte, NC
  • YOUmedia Network
    Reimagining learning in the 21st century
  • DreamYard Arts Center
    The Art of Inspiring Education
    Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out
    Term coined by Mimi Ito, Professor in Anthropology at UC Irvine


Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan is the Principal at Margaret Sullivan Studio, a full service design firm in New York. She is also a LEED® 2.0 Accredited Professional and a leader in visioning and designing innovative cultural centers, with a special focus on public libraries. She skillfully collaborates with stakeholders and the design team to gain a holistic understanding of the 21st-century public library delivery service model. Her specialty is translating innovations into physical spaces. Margaret worked for several prestigious architecture firms prior to establishing her own firm in 2014. Her firm is currently working on projects with several public libraries, including New York Public Library (NY), Richland Library (SC), Las Vegas-Clark County Library District (NV) and Salt Lake City Public Library System (UT).