Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Reimagine Your Media Center

School Media Sample open floor plan


If you read multiple articles about renovating media centers, the messages may start to blur together. You will read about flexibility, mobility, transparency and technology. You will read about future-ready facilities and project-based learning. It is curious that, when discussing ways to revolutionize learning, we end up too regularly sounding the same.

The role of the media center, often the largest classroom in a school, ought to vary widely based on the goals of your unique community. Creating an effective learning environment requires a planning process that delivers highly customized solutions grounded in your vision.

Start With Why

Identifying your media center’s role in the overall learning ecosystem is a crucial first step. The media center’s primary function is not to simply archive research materials. Information, through mobile devices, is literally everywhere.

If your community wants to create workspace for multimedia or STEM projects, or a quiet space for independent study, or a social place for small group activities, or a large instruction area to bring whole classes together, can your media center meet those needs?

School Media Sample open floor plan


Decentralized Space. Decentralized learning studios take the place of a traditional media center at the new West Muskingum Elementary Learning Center.

A good place to start the planning process is by imagining what you wish your students could do if barriers did not exist. The most popular spaces are usually the ones that offer resources found nowhere else in the school. A Design Thinking workshop can help to define these core capabilities.

Dreaming Through Design Thinking

Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to problem solving and design, has led to some of the world’s most innovative products and ideas. This process works best with a diverse team representing a cross-section of your learning community. Some common questions asked during a Design Thinking workshop are:

  1. What kind of space will make students show up early and stay late?
  2. What are activities students and teachers would like to do, but cannot now?
  3. How can we better support programs throughout the entire school?

Breakthrough insights can occur when everyone on the team is able to put themselves into the shoes of the people who will be using the space. An effective technique to achieve this level of understanding is empathy mapping, which asks each participant to imagine a day in the life of the teachers and students. Each person draws images and makes notes on what the users of the media center might do before school, during school and after school. Who will they see? What will they be doing? How will they do it? What kind of space and equipment are needed?

School Media Sample open floor plan


Research Commons. The media center at the new Colonel Smith Middle School is totally flexible, with no fixed shelving or casework.

The answers to these questions result in very different planning and design solutions. Some schools envision a research commons environment offering a mix of quiet spaces and areas for collaboration. Other schools desire a makerspace with tools for project-based activities, such as prototype fabrication. Other schools choose to completely decentralize the media center, with smaller resource zones spread throughout the building.

Whatever your vision, the Design Thinking process will help to clarify your options and to build consensus for an engaging environment that is truly transformative. This process also creates champions: people who are able to promote your vision to the community.

Putting Vision Into Action

Two recent media center renovations highlight the powerful results that come from an effective visioning and planning process. Both schools had the same basic goal: to modernize their existing media center. But each “why,” and the resulting design solutions, were very different.

Through Design Thinking, Viking Middle School in Gurnee, Ill., identified six core activities needed within their renovated media center: Gather, Focus, Present, Help, Build and Community. The Gather, Focus and Present areas achieve a coffee shop feel through soft seating options with pleasing colors and textures. The Help desk frees up valuable space through a reduced size and improved location. An outdoor center connects to the Community, while a makerspace and a STEM lab provide students with new Build experiences that are found nowhere else on campus.

School Media Sample open floor plan


Future-Ready Skills. Digital tools and multiple rooms with green screens support extensive video production activities at the Fremont Middle School media center.

At Fremont Middle School in Mundelein, Ill., the renovated media center takes on a very different role. The design brings cutting-edge skills to life by focusing heavily on video production and digital learning tools. Tech-integrated spaces include several green screen rooms, a media:scape system and multiple video production stations. Newly added glass walls allow teachers to easily supervise students while still providing the visual and acoustical separation needed for video production and sound editing.

While Viking Middle School and Fremont Middle School identified very different needs and goals, they both achieved results that are typical of a successful media center renovation. Both spaces provide new opportunities for learning and achievement. Both spaces are the heart of the learning ecosystem. And both spaces are a direct result of the dynamic vision set forth by administrators, faculty and educational leaders, creating a place where teachers and students want to be.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Authors

Greg Monberg, AIA, ALEP, LEED-AP BD+C, [email protected], is a principal and director of Design Research in the Oak Brook, Ill. office of Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.

Charli Johnsos, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP, [email protected], is the executive director of Fanning Howey's Illinois office.