August 6, 2015

Top Tools for Building Better Project Communications

Ariana McBride

This post is the second in our blog series on how cities and towns can increase participation in their local community’s design efforts.  Ariana McBride is a planner with more than a decade of experience in community and organization development. She is the Director of Strategic Capacity Building for Ninigret Partners (NP), a boutique economic design firm based in Providence, RI.  She served as a recent CIRD Resource Team Member in Franklin, NH. To read Ariana's past entry click here.

Most small-town community improvement projects are run on a shoestring budget.  Community project teams view professional community outreach materials as luxury items - rarely as necessities. In today’s media rich environment, people are inundated on a regular basis with high quality content from organizations big and small.  How can small cities and towns craft “must read” content that resonates with their target audiences?

As you will find in this post, creating a first-rate community outreach strategy doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, and can make a big difference in catalyzing support for your design project.  Here are some key considerations to keep in mind along with a suite of great free tools that anyone can use to build better community outreach materials:

Start with the big picture

Community Outreach materials shouldn’t be regarded as one-off or stand-alone elements – they support a larger community effort.  Ideally, your project team has thought through some of the bigger communications questions like, Who is our audience? and What’s the message that will resonate with each audience?   Tools like Resource Media’s Communications Workbook can help a community walk through these bigger picture communications questions.

Nail down your “call-to-action”

Remember the mantra less is more. Help people who are already suffering from information overload  quickly grasp why your project matters to them and how to they can take the next step, whether it be attending a meeting, taking a survey, or volunteering their time.  

Optimize channels

What works well in a newsletter might fall short online and vice versa. Are you designing for the web or  for a paper brochure or for a Facebook post?  Each format has its own best practices.  A Google search will yield dozens of guides on different formats and the CIRD website has resources on how to effectively use project newsletters or make the most of social media.

Follow graphic design principles

Graphic design has four design principles:

  • Contrast:  Emphasizes the differences among elements to emphasize what’s important.
  • Repetition:  Repeats certain design elements to help people follow the design.
  • Alignment:  Organization of elements on the page to provide a sense of order.
  • Proximity: Grouping certain elements together to create a relationship among them.

PaperLeaf, a design firm out of Canada, has a great infographic illustrating these principles.  It also has good resources on the other elements of design as well as color theory (i.e. how to pick good color combinations).

Find royalty-free images

Flickr is a photo-sharing platform that allows users to upload and share images.  It’s a great source for free images so long as you follow the Creative Commons licensing guidelines. If you are looking for some other go to stock photo sites.   Entrepreneur recently featured 14 other top websites for royalty free images.  And Freepik is a great source for imagery like icons and backgrounds.

Edit your images

PicMonkey is a user friendly online tool for photo editing.  If you like Google products, Picasa could be the tool for you.  It’s a downloadable program that allows you to organize and edit your images.  And don’t forget about the basic capabilities that exist in MS Paint or even within programs like MS PowerPoint.  Sometimes some small tweaks, like re-coloring, are all it takes to make a picture worth a thousand words. .

Choose your look

Think about color and fonts.  Tired of the preset color templates in your computer programs?  Kuler and Piknik are two fun tools for designing your own color schemes.  Font Picker is a simple tool you can use to compare available fonts on your computer, allowing you to type in text and compare fonts until you’ve found one you like.  If you are looking to branch out into some new fonts, Dafont has a great library of freebies.

Craft infographics

There is an ever growing number of great online tools for infographics or similarly styled products.  Piktochart, Easelly and Venngage are a few of the best.  These come with preset templates that you can easily customize or you can simply design your own.  Also, these products feature stock icons and allow you to upload images from your computer.

Make maps

We probably have all used GoogleMaps to get directions but did you know it also is capable of map making?  Check out Google’s MyMaps to create basic project maps – you can do things like create polygons, label features, and measure distances.  OpenStreetMap is a popular crowdsourced online map that users can customize and share.   If you are looking for an alternative to more robust programs like ArcGIS,  then QGIS could be for you.  It has more of the high- end functionality of Arc, but it’s free and openly sourced.

Becoming familiar with these tools may take a little time, but it’s worth it.  Not only will they enhance the look of your community outreach materials, but can also be used multiple ways in the community design project itself.

Remember to keep the people you are trying to reach front and center in your communications.  Focus on what will get your message across to them using channels with a look and feel that will capture both their attention and their imagination.