The Speaking Wall


‘funkandjazz‘ via Flickr Creative Commons

At Cambridge Judge we’ve long since abandoned any attempts to elicit views on our information and library services via email. Nor do we expect to receive many comments or opinions on our social media channels (Facebook Group, Twitter, and Blog) however good they might be. Until recently the most fruitful avenues have been our annual survey, usability interviews, and the termly student feedback committee (which deals with IT and building issues as well as library matters). However, we have suddenly found ourselves with a new kid on the block which has quickly become the most active platform for our users voices: a graffiti wall.

I was at a presentation at UCL last year in which an ethnographer working for LSE detailed how she had left flipcharts in various areas of the library there in order to gather informal feedback on use of the space. The simplicity and immediacy of the approach appealed to me.  I was put on to the idea of a wall rather than a flipchart thanks to the excellent book Universal Methods of Design by Martin and Hannington, in which the authors detail the use of a large format piece of paper in a public place for feedback. The example in that book is of a graffiti wall in a public bathroom which they consider to be an effective method to choose in that environment due to the natural presence of graffiti there. That may well be but I was immediately convinced that we should try the technique in our Information Centre. I also knew exactly where it should go.

For years I’ve been trying to find an appropriate use for our four large noticeboards. Having completely run out of ideas I’d even elected to obscure one of them with a large plant! The main noticeboard on our Mezzanine floor (or ‘first floor’) had been a place for random posters and more recently had a brief life as a place specifically for students to add their notices without the need for them to ask permission – an offer that none of them took up. This particular board has a large volume of passing traffic given that its situated next to the door – a fact also established by Georgina through her behavioural mapping when she discovered that most of our users visit the Information Centre in order to go straight up to the Mezzanine to study. Having chosen a location, all that remained was to order a roll of very large paper, attach some markers on string, and establish who was going to take responsibility for monitoring it – responding to messages left there, photographing it as a record, and replacing the paper when it was full. Sarah and Georgina agreed to monitor it between them, checking it first and last thing for messages every day.

In just over a month we are already on to our fourth refresh of the wall and not as you might be thinking because of lewd messages. The nearest we’ve come to that is the truly hilarious underlining of the first four letters of the word ‘analytics’ which we decided to leave where it was. All the other messages have been questions, suggestions, and responses thanking us when we’ve acted on their feedback and improved the environment as a result. There is no question that the graffiti wall has been directly instrumental in resolving many issues (some of which we would not have been aware of otherwise): the disturbance of this quiet space by the frequent bang of the Mezzanine and Gents loo doors – easily resolved by adjustment and oiling of the door jam; a request for more informal furnishings/comfort – cushions and beanbags were duly purchased; the noise of the aircon units – the motors inside are now being replaced due to the number of complaints on the wall; and the suggestion that the Mezzanine door out to the first floor be opened as a second entrance/exit to the Information Centre – we opened this door to users for the first time at the start of last week.


It would be misleading if I didn’t qualify the above by making it clear that we have been aware of some of the above issues for a long time. I should also add that some of the solutions discussed on the wall were generated by the ethnographic research that both Georgina and Ange have conducted. However, the wall has unquestionably had the effect of concentrating our minds, prompting us to take action quicker and has also helped to convince us that students definitely want those improvements that we had initially identified ourselves. As you can see from the examples in this post our users are choosing to remain anonymous on the wall but myself and Georgina are often signing our responses to give them authority and to reassure users that the matters raised are in hand.

As a low-cost method of gathering user opinion and engaging in user dialogue our graffiti wall has been a great success. It has played a significant role in resolving both known and unknown issues, and has been a very useful means of proving that the we are interested in, and open to, what our users have to say and pretty damn responsive too. The biggest test of the graffiti wall lies in the future as work on the extension of the business school is set to begin just beyond the Mezzanine wall. Can it still foster good relations amidst a soundtrack of drilling?

I’ll leave you on a lighter note, with a request for a real-life library cat, inevitably set to spiral into a wall-wide debate on cats vs dogs. I must check how this one has developed when I’m back in work tomorrow.

Dogs forever!

Andy Priestner




  1. This is not the only library space in which cats have been requested! Do you reckon there’s one library-loving cat obsessive in town, or is there an underground campaign? There’s a paper in this, surely – ‘Cat & class: the effect of felines in the library study environment’…

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