I Have to Ask: Show Don’t Tell

Posted on June 17, 2019

West Allis

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Jenny Kosek, City of West Allis, Wisconsin, writes about the importance of graphic design in local government.

Remember those aptitude tests you took in high school that told you what career paths you’d be most successful in? Mine were pretty true to form – actor, writer, marketer – and I did indeed go down those paths. But under the sweeping title of “marketer,” one thing I never thought I would be was a graphic designer. Yet the bulk of my career has been spent doing graphic design.

I suppose it was inevitable, although the aptitude tests never suggested it. In school, when given a choice of projects to creatively present a book report, I always picked “create a poster.” When my family got our first computer circa 1997, I immediately began using Microsoft Word to write, layout, and print a bi-weekly magazine for my peers (charging a monthly subscription fee of $5 to cover ink and paper, I had a strong fanbase of about 20 subscribers to that little number).  

Since then, I’ve shaped my professional marketing career around equally strong writing and graphic design skills, and have built a diverse portfolio of design projects that rivals that of any formally trained designer. This has made me a valuable addition to teams and allowed me to work strongly as a lone-wolf marketer in smaller businesses.

The reality is that many of us who become marketers have no choice but to learn some amount of graphic design. If you’re lucky enough to work with a team that includes a graphic designer, that person will eventually take a sick day or vacation, and projects need to move forward in their absence; more often than not in local government, the marketing or communications person is also a dozen other things, including, by default, a graphic designer, because there’s no one else to make the brochures, social media graphics, or posters. Whether you work with a team or work solo, cloud-based design tools such as Canva® have put the ability to create beautiful, effective graphics in everybody’s hands. There’s no excuse not to be able to create simple graphics, and if you’re in communications in any level, basic design should be part of your toolkit.

If you’re saying “I’m not a designer!,” neither was I when I started my career. But I was willing to learn, and I had the privilege of working in private-sector marketing agencies under experienced professional designers who generously encouraged me and helped improve my design skills. I have taken what I learned from them to continue designing effectively in the public sector:

Define your brand, and use it consistently. That’s a big one, and it’s the first step to ensuring sophisticated designs. You don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars going through a re-branding, but you should use what you have. If your city doesn’t have a defined brand or marketing plan, you likely at least have a logo. Leverage it. Use fonts and colors in your graphics that match or compliment your logo, and include your logo in your designs to stamp them as your own. Use the same fonts and colors across your pieces so they are clearly, consistently yours. Don’t choose a wacky font for each piece – pick one readable font for headlines, one for body copy, and stick with them in all of your designs.

Size it properly. There’s no excuse for incorrectly sized online images, yet we still see them: the Twitter post with a picture that’s half cut off, the website homepage where every photo is sized differently – we see it all the time, and it is the hallmark of amateur design. SproutSocial® and other social media management platforms provide free guides with the most up-to-date pixel dimensions for social media platforms, so you always know what size to format these graphics. Sizing your graphics appropriately will immediately make your designs look more professional.

Different pieces serve different purposes – modify accordingly. For most communications efforts, we need to create multiple pieces: a poster, a postcard, social media graphics, website graphics, etc. Nothing says “lazy design” more than taking, for example, a poster design and simply resizing the poster graphic for a Facebook post. You will end up with properly sized graphics, but it’s not going to be as effective because it hasn’t been modified for that specific channel. Know what different pieces do, and modify your designs for each piece:

  • Posters, banners, larger print materials, and social media graphics should use bold images and as little text as possible. They should serve as teasers to drive viewers to another channel, like a website or Facebook page, to learn more. Think of them as mini-billboards, and keep them as minimal as you can.
  • Brochures, handouts, booklets, and flyers can have more text than those other pieces. Break up this text with bullets or by using boxes or other shapes to pull out important information like dates, times, and event locations. As we all work to be more inclusive, you may wish to create two-sided bilingual pieces to engage as many people as possible. You have the space to do so on these types of print pieces.

Check out a campaign I recently designed and view the various sized graphics I created for different channels to see how they were modified.

Kill clip art; use stock photos wisely. Clip art is so me-with-that-first-computer-in-1997. Canva’s paid account includes hundreds of free illustrations and stock photos, and if you Google “free stock photos,” you’ll find dozens more options. Stock photos are not the enemy; bad stock photos are. You know the ones – the white background photos of a generic “business person,” possibly holding out a blank notecard with a question mark on it, or with a lightbulb illustration over the person’s head – no, no, no. Choose modern, attractive stock photography, or better yet, use your own photography of your city and your events to create a sense of ownership and intimacy in your designs.

And while we’re killing bad design, please stop using the font Comic Sans. Please. Stop. Using. Comic. Sans.

Good design should happen on any project. If you’re challenged with “jazzing up” some wordy, complex pieces like lengthy reports, presentations, or strategic documents, don’t be afraid to take some risks. Experiment with infographics, or at the very least use shapes to pull out and call out key pieces of information. Fill as much as half the page with a beautiful photograph to create visual interest, and don’t be afraid to use color for headings or subheadings (as long as it’s consistent with your brand).

Observe. All professional graphic designers I know have one thing in common: they never stop learning and pushing their designs to new heights. They get new ideas from simply being aware of design in their daily lives. They take time to study the layouts of magazines, advertisements, and mailers; they notice the typography on eye-catching signs in stores; they admire an attractive social media ad, or quickly identify something they don’t like on a public banner. Design is everywhere – look at it, study it, and be inspired by it.

Graphic design is a skill that any communications professional can learn. Being able to assist your organization with creating effective, appropriate graphics is an invaluable skill that will help engage your audience and build trust in your municipality.

Supplemental Reading

Podcast: Law in Plain English with Jenny Kosek & Dan Bolin

The Write Stuff

Four Lessons from Rebranding West Allis

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