They couldn’t be serious. I was thunderstruck, betrayed, frozen in disbelief.

It was Saturday afternoon, and I had stopped dead in front of the Bibliothèque Forney, a favorite spot in my neighborhood. The Forney is a whimsical little castle, a Renaissance-era structure that is the home of the design library in Paris—but not for much longer, apparently.

Forney - Facade
Photo by Josh Clark.

The Forney was obscured by a sheath of scaffolding and an enormous billboard promising that it would soon be transformed into an office park. The sign showed a gaggle of businessmen glad-handing in front of a Frankenstein architectural combo: A steel-and-glass skyscraper jutted up and out from the library’s stone walls and turrets, one of which was now an elevator zipping up to the penthouse offices. Coming soon! A panoramic restaurant! A 400-car parking garage! Office space available at 15,000 euros per square meter! And, oh yes, a helipad on the roof!

Across the street, a glass sales office had materialized, and a plasma screen showed 3D visualizations of the new building from every vantage.

The breath just went out of me. The whole project was so garish and greedy, so careless of the history and texture of the neighborhood. How could my adopted city let this happen? At that moment, I was deeply disappointed, heartbroken, even angry. And as it turns out… totally gullible.

As I looked harder at the signs, the whole thing simply became too ludicrous. It dawned on me: Saturday night was Nuit Blanche, the all-night event when artists fan out across Paris and create installations and interventions in the city’s public spaces. Turns out that the elaborate installation was a hoax by H5, a graphic-design firm that also makes TV ads and music videos.

When I returned a little after midnight, the group had pumped up the presentation even more: The sales office was now manned by reps in red blazers, handing out brochures and lapel pins for the fake real estate company, Immorose (literally, “pink real estate” in French; the embedded “morose” is a clever bit of wordplay).

I wasn’t the only one taken in: “We thought there would be debate,” H5 told the newspaper Libération. “That was the goal. But not to this degree. It’s unimaginable that so many people took this at face value.”

Community caretaking

I was relieved (and a wee bit embarrassed) to find out that the whole thing was just a gag. But it also got me thinking about the responsibility of businesses and designers to go carefully when making changes to places and things that a community holds dear. As it happens, this theme was also popular with speakers at last week’s Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in London.

Websites and online services may not have the venerable pedigree of the Forney’s Hôtel de Sens, but they often have followings that are just as devoted. Even subtle changes in form or content can result in the same visceral feeling of disappointment and betrayal that I felt with the dramatic transformation of the Bibliothèque Forney.

Unexpected changes that don’t rhyme with a community’s expectations or an established image can lead to headaches, even outright revolt. (“You can change the words all you want, but people will go crazy if you change the colors” of a website, Erika Hall of Mule Design Studio observed, somewhat cynically, in her excellent FOWA talk on copy as interface design.)

Communicating change

When Web 2.0 darling rolled out a new comment system three months ago, the announcement was greeted with jeers and complaints. Several negative posts appeared at the site, each with thousands of diggs. Speaking at FOWA, Digg designer Daniel Burka conceded that the dust-up would have been avoidable with more up-front community interaction, previews and beta testing.

This is one reason that Big Medium 2 has been in beta for so long. With its significant changes in navigation, functionality and design (yes, even the colors!), the risk was that some folks would find it difficult to get their bearings. The lengthy beta process has provided a wealth of feedback to make the transition go as smoothly as possible. This kind of long-term commitment to feedback and design iteration is important; projects can fly off the rails without clear and consistent communication.

For example, when Flickr required users earlier this year to ditch their old Flickr sign-ins in favor of Yahoo accounts, Flickr fans rebelled with a noisy round of complaints and even defections. Although the relatively innocuous change had been announced 18 months in advance, it hadn’t been mentioned for months and came as an unwelcome surprise to many who took it as a sign that parent company Yahoo was clamping down.

At FOWA, Flickr’s community manager Heather Champ chalked the problem up to a lack of consistent communication and not enough clear explanation of the need for the change. “If you have to make a change in the community,” Heather said, “start talking about it six weeks in advance. Sometimes you’re going to have to do things that are unpopular. Don’t wait, just rip off the Band-Aid.”

Mass-market mediocrity

Of course, all the communication in the world won’t help you if what you’re doing is just plain crass. Like adding a helipad to the Bibliothèque Forney, wholesale transformations that contradict community values will always be non-starters. Beware the easy buck, the bland business model or the dreary design decision.

“If you aspire to mass-market mediocrity, that’s always there for you,” Erika Hall said at FOWA. “But the question should be, ‘How can we do better? Where can we innovate at the edges?’”

A great example of that type of innovation is how implemented advertising. “I hate ads,” Wordpress creator Matt Mullenweg said at FOWA, adding that he was pretty sure that bloggers at would feel the same way. “Don’t punish your regular readers with ads. They’re not going to click on them, and you’re only going to irritate them.”

His solution was instead to show ads only to first-time visitors coming to the site from a search engine. These folks, he reasoned, were in search mode and, for them, a set of Google ads might actually give them what they’re looking for. For everyone else: No ads at all. The approach resulted in unusually high click rates while regular readers were spared the advertising. Unlike the red-blazered reps of Immorose on Nuit Blanche, Matt’s ad scheme respects both the integrity of his real estate and the ideals of his community.

After all, change is often a good thing and, in any case, is inevitable. The Bibliothèque Forney itself has been far from static (since its construction around 1500, the building has been home to an archbishop, a cardinal, a queen, a jelly factory and a stagecoach factory). Change is OK, but it should be organic and fit with the values of the surrounding community. When in doubt, leave out the helipad.

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