Howard County LPPRP Public Meeting

Tips to Design for Public Engagement

In my previous post, Designing to Connect Communities, I explained why content visualization is useful for communicating complex ideas. Today, I want to share three basic tips of creating a good content design and some examples from Nspiregreen’s projects. These tips may be useful when designing a PowerPoint presentation, a poster, or any other document to communicate your ideas more effectively.

Consider the audience

When we do outreach in the District of Columbia and other cities, we expect to engage people from a variety of backgrounds, education levels, and even languages. Therefore, we know that we need to focus on using simple and non-technical terms, as well as graphics to explain complex transportation and environmental concepts. If, on the other hand, we are preparing an internal document for a client, we use more technical language while at the same time maintaining a visually appealing design.

Below are different versions of a poster we created for the Rock Creek East II Livability study.  Within the study area there are a large community of Amharic and Spanish speakers. We designed a poster in English, Spanish, and Amharic.

Figures 1- Considering the Audience

Use images instead of text

Images are a universal language that can facilitate communication (you can read more about this in my previous post). When we work with communities, we not only use simple, non-technical words to explain a concept, but we create diagrams, illustrations, graphs and figures that help the reader to better and faster understand the ideas we want them to understand. Our aim is to reduce the amount of words used to describe a process or other ideas.

When I am in the process of designing a poster, I take some time to get inspiration. I do this by searching for design ideas on Google or Pinterest, including how to create an appealing process diagram or illustration that could help summarize an idea. There are many online resources of free or low costs images, icons, and illustrations.

Here is an example of a board we created for a public meeting for the DC Stormwater Plan, where we reduced the text to the minimum, and we used icons and graphics to support a list of action items.

Figures 2 - Use images instead of text

Choose the colors carefully

There is a fine line between a nice design and a document that looks like a piñata. We carefully choose the colors we want to use for each project. Having too many colors can be distracting, making it difficult for readers to focus the attention on the content. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 4 different colors, which might include black and white.

For instance, the Vision Zero Action Plan we worked on last year (here are some good insights we had: link to 2 blogs) contained 2 main colors: red, which is the District of Department of Transportation (DDOT)’s branding color (our client), and blue. The other 2 colors are white and black. If you need more color variations, as we did, using different shades of those colors work well. The following image is one of the pages of the Vision Action Plan, which summarize some statistical facts through graphics, using only the branding colors.

Figures 3 - Choose colors carefully

To create visually appealing documents, there is no need to be a professional graphic designer. As any other skill, it takes a bit of research, time, and practice. Following these tips might give you a good place to start. If you find these tips useful and you want to know more, stay tune as I keep as I keep posting more tips in our blog in the future.

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.

Sewer Systems in the District of Columbia - Graphic

Designing to Connect Communities

Graphics and images serve as a universal language for communication. The first records of human communication are drawings, and they have served as a means of communication among many cultures and throughout many generations. Even today, as children, we start learning names and ideas through colors, graphics, images and drawings. Why do we stop as adults when it is clearly a useful resource for communication?

Transportation engineers, urban planners, environmental scientists, and architects are some of the specialists that use technical language as part of their day-to-day communication. Although technical terminology might be very helpful to communicate complex information in a specific field, it might also create a barrier in interactions with people without that technical knowledge. For instance, imagine a group of experts in psychology participating in an engineering technical meeting about how to construct bridges. Even though all participants might have extensive professional trainings, they do not share the same technical language, which will can make communicating difficult. Now instead of psychology experts, imagine people from very different backgrounds, education levels, and even languages going to that same meeting.

When we organize public meetings at Nspiregreen, we experience these types of situations where experts in a field want to share their ideas and obtain feedback from community members. Graphic designs, maps, and other ways of content visualization help to simplify ideas.  We develop graphics, content visualization, designs, and interactive activities to help connect these two groups, experts and non-experts, and support their communication. Visually appealing and colorful designs for posters, handouts, and informational boards translate technical information to help the community visualize and understand complex processes. The interactive activities we design allow people not only to understand, but also to generate informed decisions to provide feedback for the projects.

For example, compare Figure 1 and Figure 2. The figures show two different ways to describe the same concepts related to stormwater management.

Sewer Systems in the District of Columbia - Document vs Graphic

What figure did you look first? Did you look at the Word document or the graphic?

When organizing and designing public engagement events, we have to consider that people have limited time to understand new complex and technical ideas, and give feedback based on informed decisions. The graphic on Figure 2 summarizes the process of how stormwater is conducted through a system in Figure 1. In addition, there are are no unnecessary technical details. It highlights the basic elements of the system that people need to know to understand the process in a visually appealing and even fun way.

Surprisingly for us, not only has the community found the graphics valuable we have created for them; but, also the project team members who are experts in their fields, have found them very informative, visually appealing, and useful. Artistic and creative resources such as graphics are highly underused and undervalued in the scientific communities. Our society tends to separate art from science as if they were opposites, but in reality they complement each other. If used together, they might even create a more powerful impact in engaging more people to participate in public events and local projects.

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.





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