The Design of Voting

We can fly a man to the moon, but we can’t design an effective ballot. What gives?

It’s amazing to know that we, as American citizens, cast votes to elect our officials; however, it’s equally disappointing when your experience at the polls is nothing short of confusing.

Earlier today, I cast my vote at my local polling place. Having done this for several elections, a few things stuck out:

  • many voters didn’t know what precinct they lived in,
  • others were unfamiliar with the voting process, and, most importantly,
  • the ballot appeared to be designed by a third-grader.

And “designed” is used generously. Shouldn’t this be simpler?


Ballots should be designed for two things:

  • Legibility: Know your audience and assume that voters will have a difficult time reading small or light type. Typeface matters!
  • Ease-of-use: The last thing a voter should be when reading a ballot is confused. Keep the design as simple as possible while still communicating key information.

That’s it. A legible, easily understood ballot will make for a much better polling experience – which should be more a celebration than a frustrating nuisance!

How do we guarantee this result? A few design enhancements can go a long way.

Embrace space

First, we must separate key blocks of information. The federal election, state election, and local races and questions should all be given ample white space in between each other. Similarly, each candidate should be clearly marked and given air to breathe. Cramming several candidates into less space may save paper, but doesn’t provide clarity or a satisfying experience to the voting public.

Simple instructions

Work under the assumption that this will be everyone’s first vote. Perhaps the voting area of the ballot comes with a line of text reading, “Vote for one of the following candidates. If you vote for more than one, your vote will not count.”

For local elections (perhaps state representatives), ballots might read, “Vote for one of the following state representatives. State representatives work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and represent districts across the state.”

This seems overly simple, but can help voters feel more confident about their voting responsibility.


My ballot used similarly-sized type for the entire document. There was no dominant element and all the information held similar weight.

Altering the headline size on a ballot can make a huge difference. Each section (federal, state, local) should have its own heading, all consistently sized. The next level of information (the candidates’ names) should have a smaller type treatment. Finally, supporting information like a candidate’s party, address or explanatory text for a question should have a tertiary treatment and size. The size and weight of type should work like a funnel or headline structure for a web page.

Civic importance

Just as it’s the responsibility of Americans to cast an educated vote, it’s just as important for local and state governing bodies to design a simpler voting process.

With so much cynicism and voter apathy surrounding voting, the experience must be made simpler and more enjoyable. Americans should feel empowered every election, not frustrated and pressured.

In short: save the ballot and save our elections!

Digging in and Doing Good

HB is comprised of designers, storytellers, writers, teammates and friends. Each “HBer” is unique in his or her own way, with differing histories, hobbies, habits, hopes, ambitions, expertise—the list goes on. But despite all of our differences, there are a handful of things we all have a steadfast commitment to:

  • Our families and friends;
  • The quality of our work; and
  • Having a positive impact on our environment and community.

HBers recognize the value and importance of volunteerism and charitable efforts to create a better world for future generations. It is through these efforts that we hold ourselves accountable to our commitments.


With that in mind, HB is thrilled to partner with CitySprouts, an amazing organization that develops and maintains gardens at public schools throughout Boston and Cambridge to inspire teachers, students and families to have a deep, hands-on connection to the food cycle, sustainable agriculture and the natural environment.

Last week, HB kicked-off its CitySprouts work at the Andrew Peabody School in North Cambridge, where we assisted in garden prep work for the spring season.


We’ll be continuing our work with the organization in the months to come, so be sure to check our Twitter and Instagram feeds to see more of the fun and gardening action!

If you’d like to learn more about CitySprouts, please visit or check out Ripe for Change, by CitySprouts Executive Director Jane Hirschi.


#HBerTakeover: Get to know the names, faces and personalities behind HB

Check out how our HBer’s live their daily lives – whether it’s standing on the sidelines cheering for the QB, mastering the Bo Staff as a black belt, or kicking back with Brad Garrett on a Friday night…HBer’s never have a dull moment.

Over the course of the next six months, the HB team will show our followers what happens in our lives, both in and out of the office.

Each week, a different HB team member will take over the HB Instagram. Think of it like an all-access pass to HB and our people (with a Valencia or Hefe filter for special effects).

Check out some of our photos posted so far @hb_agency or #HBerTakeover!



Where Does Culture Come From?

shutterstock_126293858In a recent article featured in Communication Arts, Wade Devers takes a whack at agency culture, whittling it down to “the work.” He starts,

Culture. I hear that word all the time and, quite frankly, I’m getting really tired of it. But the reason I’m getting tired of it is because when people talk about ‘agency culture,’ they seem to leave out the very thing that defines it most: the work.

Whoah, man.

Sure, this is a bold, new, ballsy position to take. But if you haven’t been able to guess by now, I disagree with him. And, actually, after many of my coworkers read and discussed this piece, I found out that I’m not the only one raising an eyebrow.

Devers’ basic premise, that good work creates good culture, is flawed. The two can’t be separated like that; good work is part of good culture and vice versa. Furthermore, the environment in which people are expected to work directly influences the quality of the work they produce. Will producing great work help company culture? Of course! But it won’t beget great culture if there isn’t already something there to build upon.

In a similar vein, Devers conflates a desire for good culture and the desire to be known for having a good culture. I don’t think most people want to be known for their game rooms. Do you? I think they want to be known for that great idea for X campaign that came to them while they happened to be playing pool with their coworkers one afternoon.

And this is why his lists of “great” and “lousy” creative cultures are misguided. Devers switches from discussing agency culture to creative culture, which are two different things. But, if we look beyond that, I can pick out attributes that describe HB and other places I’ve worked from both lists. Is our office quiet? Are our spaces uncluttered? Our whiteboards cleaned? Are many HBers nostalgic for another time? Yeah! And for great reasons that don’t have to do with culture: we’re focused, some of us are neat freaks and many of us have HB tenure like crazy. These aren’t markers of anything “great” or “lousy” they just happen to be neutral attributes that are colored light or dark by entirely different things called company culture.

So when Devers offers a laundry list of ideas he’s heard that make him want to stomp, scream and shout about culture, he’s missing the point. It’s not the quirky offices and perks that make up a culture. It’s the people behind them, making the suggestions and opening up these dialogues that create agency culture.

For example, at HB we now have an “inspiration board,” which is actually this odd, metal wall hanging that people attach images and quotes to with magnets. Is the inspiration board what contributes to our culture? No. What adds to HB culture is the fact that we have senior staff who wanted a place where HBers from all sides of the company could share ideas, ask for opinions and offer constructive criticism. They then figured out how to turn this space into a reality and now the board is papered over with ideas and input from many of my coworkers.

This is the kind of engagement that culture is made of. It comes from peoples’ generation of an idea and their execution of it, more so than in the idea itself. It’s not about ping pong tables AND it’s not about the work. It’s about the people.

From startup to corporate giant, failure is an option

Lisa Raiola

Founder Lisa Raiola at the Hope & Main headquarters

Rhode Island is a small state with a big reputation for high-quality, locally-sourced foods. The state ships most of its food outside of its borders, creating an opportunity for the Ocean State to strengthen its economy by bolstering its inter-state commerce. It’s an opportunity that Lisa Raiola is working to realize with her food-based startup incubator Hope & Main.

Raiola started the project specifically to support local food businesses and cultivate Rhode Island’s economy. She believed in it so strongly, that despite receiving no state assistance to start the project, Raiola secured a $3 million loan from the federal government by putting up her house as collateral. Few would argue that conviction is an underpinning of successful entrepreneurism and so far, Hope & Main is already starting to prove this theory true.

Being invited to speak with Hope & Main’s inaugural applicant class about marketing and branding on April 26 was a thrill. As a technology-focused marketing communicator, it gave me pause to consider the essential elements of any successful startup in 2014.

When preparing for my talk, the unifying message throughout the presentation was something for which HB’s own Kevin Hart was recently quoted in BostInno.


Empower Your People to Fail

From what I’ve seen, the HB team is dedicated to a lifetime of learning. When you have a strong desire to learn, you won’t let anything get in the way of it, including the risk of failure. This culture emanates throughout the company and starts from the top down.

Any startup – whether it’s a bakery, a technology business or a marketing communications agency – needs to accept the failure risk as an essential element in achieving overall success. Embracing this culture at our own agency has given us the chance to work with other scrappy, passionate and talented people from small startups to Fortune 1000 companies.

Identifying opportunities to work with people who exude a love of learning will leave you more satisfied professionally and result in some exciting projects.

Every day I watch HB in a steady state of evolution and growth. The companies I’m working with are experiencing this, too. We’ve given ourselves permission to fail, and by its very nature, cultivate success at every turn.

HB Out and About

We’re a busy bunch here at HB. From breakfasts with Arianna Huffington to after work events at our office to discuss the latest marketing trends, we appreciate a good industry event and have attended quite a few in the past three months. Were you at any of the same events as us? What did you think of them? Share your feedback with us on Twitter at @hb_agency.

We’re scheduled to attend more than a dozen events in the coming months so please let us know if you’ll be there too.

Where we’ve been:

Photo credit: Maryanne Keeney, President, PubClub New England

Photo credit: Maryanne Keeney, President, PubClub New England

April 15 – Justin attended the South Shore Web Collaborative Meetup. He joined fellow web designers and developers on the South Shore to talk shop and, of course, drink beer.

April 10 – Perrin and 499 of her closest friends enjoyed breakfast with Arianna Huffington at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Breakfast. Promoting her book “Thrive,” Huffington shared gems that Perrin plans to laminate for her cube: “if you’re tired you can’t lead” and “turn off all devices and escort them out of your bedroom.”

April 8 – Allison attended the TechCrunch Boston Meetup where drinks were flowing, attendees networking and tech startups pitched their brilliant ideas.

April 7 – HB Agency hosted the first N2 Corridor Tech Meetup. At the event we heard from Jeff Mesnik, president of Needham-based ContentMX, a content aggregation platform used at HB. He spoke about the Google Conundrum, that is, how to use content as a way to make Google an effective sales and marketing tool. Attendees learned how and why content should be deeply integrated with an organization’s brand, the role that employees can play and why email remains important. In true HB style, we conversed over pizza and beer while making new friends in our neighborhood.

April 7 – Todd spoke at Manhattanville College’s Insights into Leadership Speaker Series, “The Power of Building Content and Community.” The event provided a great discussion about balancing the needs of the content creator with those of their community, and how to measure the success of your social media content creation and engagement efforts.

April 4-6 – As Perrin believes that the best PR professionals think like journalists, she and Catherine spent three days at Boston University School of Communications’ 16th annual narrative journalism conference, “Staying Savvy, Skilled and Solvent in Journalism’s Wired Era.” Keen to learn more about the discussion? Check out #narrativeBU on Twitter.

April 4 – Ruth and Chuck attended the MassTLC Sales and Marketing Summit, “Building a Lean, Self-Perpetuating Marketing Machine.” The theme was Growth Hacking, a practice where marketers are forced to find repeatable buying patterns on a very small budget. In addition to the panels, there was a group of startups that shared their company’s vision.

March 25 – HB Agency hosted PubClub of New England’s #PRMadness Mixer. In true March Madness style, the first of its kind, #PRMadness was an integrated mixer where attendees reviewed and discussed a bracket full of the most eye-catching and successful infographics, headlines, integrated campaigns and videos from the past few years. During the event, attendees voted for the most creative options to determine a champion. See who won here.

March 19 – Catherine and Todd attended a General Assembly class called “Building Brand Relationships Through Storytelling.” The class was led by CEO and founder of Small Army, Jeff Freedman. Attendees gained insight into why and how companies must develop strong relationships with its target audience for business success.

February 28-March 1 – HB Agency co-hosted IPREX’s Global Leadership Conference, “Doing Digital – Being Digital.” At the conference, emerging young leaders from agencies within the IPREX network came to Boston to learn about and discuss inbound marketing, content strategy, B2B communication, social media in a crisis and measurement. More than 40 attendees attended from Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and many other cities around the world. Not only did attendees gain knowledge and insight into our digitally-driven industry, but also developed relationships that will last a lifetime.

February 20 – Catherine went to the Women in Media Mentoring Initiative hosted by the Back Bay Social Club. Often networking events remain contained to the event topic, but this group actually pairs people together as “co-mentors,” which helps extend the conversation.

Where we’re going:

April 24 – Ruth will be at the Betaspring Open House.  Betaspring is a technology startup incubator out of Providence, R.I. Each season they bring on promising companies and help them grow in Betaspring’s fast-paced 12-week program. This event is a showcase of new members and also a chance for attendees to hear updates from Betaspring alums.

April 26 – Ruth will speak about branding and marketing food startups at Hope and Main, a food startup incubator out of Rhode Island.

April 28-29 – Justin, Ian and Adam will be in Boston at An Event Apart with fellow digital practitioners and speakers to learn all things web – code, content, usability and design.

April 30 – Molly and Julia will attend BostInno’s first ever Boston Upfront. This in-depth, all-encompassing look ahead will take a deep dive into what’s next for Boston through three short films with top influencers who are shaping the face of the city.

May 2-9 – Christine and Kevin will be at EMC World in Las Vegas. From pre-show online and offline materials to onsite way-finding and booth graphics, HB works closely with the EMC Events team to bring EMC World to life.

May 4-6 – Chuck will speak about “Taking the Leap: The Whys, Whens, Hows and Whats of M&A Growth”at the 2014 PRSA Counselors Academy Conference in Key West, FL. Designed by the PRSA Counselors Academy Section, this event provides senior-level public relations practitioners, from multinational agencies to independent practitioners, with the tools and techniques to anticipate new trends and opportunities.

May 3 – Julia will attend ProductCamp Boston 2014. At the only full-day unconference for product managers and marketers, she will discuss the latest developments, learn about product marketing, startups and design, and schmooze with other professionals over breakfast and lunch.

May 6 – Mark will once again take part in MITXup, this time at the Quincy Innovation Center. MITXup is a marketing mentorship program that matches pre-screened startups to marketing and communications mentors to help entrepreneurs be successful in telling their story, marketing their business and generally, shouting louder and prouder.

May 7 – Amanda will be at Lesley College to attend a portfolio review for graduating students.

May 7 – Many HBers will be at Greentown Labs for its Grand Opening and 3rd Anniversary Celebration. At the party, Greentown Labs will thank all of its members and supporters – past, present and future – who make Greentown Labs what it is today: the largest hardware-focused, clean tech incubator in the Northeast. HB works directly with Greentown Labs on its marketing initiatives and we’re excited to see what the rest of 2014 brings.

May 15-18 – Nicolas will speak at the IPREX Annual Meeting in Chicago. He will give a talk about the future of marketing and communications, and how agencies should prepare for it.

May 20 – Mark will serve as a judge for the next Master Slam. The topic? Crowdfunding vs. Angel Funding for Early Stage Startups. Competitors with differing viewpoints will argue the eternal startup question in a new take on the traditional storytelling competition.

May 21 – A non-partisan alliance of CEOs, executives, entrepreneurs and investors will meet with political leaders to promote long-term economic growth and prosperity for all in Washington, DC for The Alliance for Business Leadership. If you’re attending, say hello to Nicolas.

May 21 – Julia, Katherine and Molly will attend PRSA Boston’s 3rd Annual Social Media Summit at Bentley University. The event will feature sessions about paid, owned and earned media, content creation and driving engagement.

June 5 – HB is psyched to attend, and partner with, TEDxCambridge, to celebrate the world-class innovation within Cambridge and the impact it is having globally.

Why you should meet us there:

We’re fun (you’ll probably take a selfie with us), we’re good note-takers and tweeters, and we’ll definitely find the bar. Tweet at us @hb_agency if you’re attending one of the events listed above, we’d love to meet you!

Selfies, Bagels and Other Reasons To Work at HB

enhanced-9520-1397081786-30I know it sounds cliché when I say working at HB means more than fulfilling a role. But I don’t care—I’ll say it anyway. In fact, I’ll even put it in print and publish it right here on this blog.

Because it’s true. Working at HB is an understanding. It’s a Way. Being an HBer means you understand that Perrin will never touch the dirty dish sponge; that if you smell something great cooking in the morning, you know it’s probably Julia’s doing before you even turn the corner; and that the weekly PR team meeting will probably never happen. It means you have an opinion on the kind of chocolate Nicolas gives out, that you know Kevin’s three favorite words [censored] and that Ruth has bamboozled you into a selfie. It means you expect four o’clock pushups to go down, everyday, even if you don’t take part; and it means you chase any exercise (difficult writing assignments and client calls included) with a piece of candy from the liquor boxes in the conference room.

But maybe more important are the underlying traits we share that make The HB Way possible. These are the things we bring to the table, uphold in one another and seek out in all new HBers. Things like having the guts to try new things and risk failing, or a dedication to teamwork founded in good humor and effort. Things like a penchant for carbs, coffee and seasonal beers.

If I still have your attention, check out this BuzzFeed post we created. It includes pictures, videos and gifs of what work and life are like here at HB HQ. If you think you’re a good fit for our team, visit the HB careers page to learn more about open positions!


Balancing Eyeballs, Wrecking Balls and Hardballs: Journalistic Integrity and Native Advertising

wallNewsrooms always put up a solid wall between the business and journalistic sides of publishing. This wasn’t something imposed by readers, viewers or listeners, but by the newsrooms themselves. For journalists it was a point of ethics, and they spent many hours discussing the ethics of influence. Being a journalist means that people trust you to tell them what they can’t see; if they can’t trust you do that, then you lose your ability to speak.

To see these ethical standards at work, just look at the ethics sections on places like AllThingsD or TechCrunch. Writing on the Huffington Post, Associated Press Standards Editor Thomas Kent points out that a key way to identify a journalist is asking “Does the person or his organization guard against conflicts of interest that could affect the product? If conflicts are unavoidable, are they publicly acknowledged?”

This barrier between journalist and business interest is becoming increasingly muddled thanks to native advertising. These strategies are very interesting for those of us who need to reach the audience of a given publication, but there is also worry about eroding the very integrity that public relations is designed to harness, thereby hurting just about everything we do.

Back in the 90s as a young news producer I tried launching a business segment. My ultimate boss, the station general manager, the woman who approved my paycheck each week, walked into the newsroom and handed me a company to profile. Of course it was a potential advertiser, something I didn’t realize until after running the story. We killed the segment not long thereafter.

Still, in small-town New York State, this semi-permeable wall was the norm; commerce influenced coverage. Big cities and big newsrooms had the luxury of building a far more solid barrier, and it was a regular topic in journalism school. We’d spend hours every Friday discussing the role of influence, what constituted influence and its impact on reporting. One of my favorite professors exhorted us to not eat the food put out at press events, lest we be influenced by some really great smoked fish.

In This Town, Mark Leibovich points to all the ways in which politicians and journalists become influenced by the money and access that flows freely around the former swamp on the Potomac. In this world, parties, fame, cash, food and access are all commodities, as long as no one openly admits to being influenced. In this world, Hardball host Chris Mathews can move from the political world to the “journalistic” world without missing a beat. The whole thing makes turning down a spread of bagels laughable.

This obviously has great implications for someone in PR, which is, after all, about “influencer relations.” Our goal is to be ethical even as we position our clients to be part of journalists’ stories. It can be a tough balance. An extreme case in point is Miley Cyrus. Sure, her antics gain lots of attention and selling albums, but is the attention she’s receiving helpful for the long-term viability of her brand? Sinead O’Connor seems to think not, though Cyrus acknowledges that her antics sell music. Why should she stop?

Here at HB we operate in the business-to-business world and don’t often encounter cases as extreme as a foam-finger-waving, hyper-sexualized, barely-of-age twerker on national television. Well, not yet, anyway. I haven’t had a client CEO publicly swing naked on a wrecking ball (at least not our client).

With this balance in mind, news organizations continually face a tough decision: how far do they go in trying to make money while also informing the public? What do they give up when placing one above the other?

The other day I sat in a meeting of people participating on a hyper-local blog and the subject of hiring came up. Given the troubles facing hyper-local news, including cutbacks at AOL’s Patch and layoffs at the Boston Globe hyper-local sections we broached the idea of hiring a full-time reporter to do the daily work of collecting news and information. To do so, of course, means having some sort of budget and among the ideas were display ads and native advertising. Display ads got shot down as impractical and native advertising had an “ick” factor that seemed to turn off nearly everyone in the room.

Still, local publications have begun embracing the concept. In a Digiday article, one editor noted that asking local organizations to pay for press release placements isn’t all that far afield from what they had been doing. “Preston Gibson, director of development at the Cape May County Herald said, ‘The content is the exact same content we’ve published [in print], but now we’re getting paid for it.'”

The fear, according to the purists, is a blurring of the lines between content that is paid and that which is editorially independent. Over on Business Insider, Henry Blodget points out that entertainment has always paid the news bills and sites like Buzzfeed have simply built on that concept.

Journalism snoots love to snicker about Buzzfeed’s cat pictures. What they’re missing is that Buzzfeed’s formula takes a page right of the playbook of traditional media: Successful publications and networks in print and TV have always funded expensive journalism and news with feature content with broad appeal.

The best course of action here is to clearly let readers know when they are reading “sponsored” content. As an example, traditionally we’ve understood when an ad is on TV, it interrupts the flow. Now, however, many shows are selling the content itself. Watch Hawaii Five-0 and see the good guys drive GM vehicles (the model names carefully written into the script) while the team uses Microsoft products. That’s advertising, but a lot less overt.

On the digital side my fear is that even with clear notification readers won’t really notice.

Years ago as a freelance writer I did a story about a local tea store for a beverage magazine. The shop’s owner loved the piece, but kept calling it an “ad” and even offered me free tea (I turned it down, see above). The idea that she confused a paid advertisement with an editorially independent article bugged me. She wasn’t the only one. How often do we hear people quoting something they heard about on a TV advertisement as “fact”? When a person argues a point and references something “they read,” do we question the source of the information?

While the stakes may be low when reading a car review and one may go easy on an advertiser, they rise considerably when that same level of influence is put behind more government-driven news, like a local article sponsored by a developer touting a change in zoning laws. This is already happening in the business-to-business tech media, in which many sites freely mix independent editorial content with paid submissions. The flags acknowledging paid content are often so obscured as to become irrelevant.

The bigger question may be “what’s lost?” If people don’t really notice or care when something is sponsored as opposed to editorially independent, then what happens to the quality, breadth and depth of the news they receive? How can they make informed decisions if the information itself comes from paid sources?

Marissa Mayer's decision isn't a "women's issue"

Brette seen here at her desk on a particularly cold day.

Brette seen here at her desk on a particularly cold day.

A lot of the discussion surrounding Marissa Mayer’s call for Yahoo! employees to return to the office full time has focused on the fact that she’s a woman balancing life and career. People are calling the decision wrong-headed or even a “snobbish” one that negatively reflects her (and Yahoo!’s) view of women in the workplace.

But if we continue to portray this as a woman’s issue, we will have completely missed the point. This is a work-life balance issue, and a family issue, for both genders. Where you work and the hours you devote to that work is your decision, whether you’re a man a woman, albeit one still dictated by economic realities. I would argue that Mayer is not picking on women, but rather signaling–however loudly–that culture change is underway and that perhaps it’s time for Yahoo! employees to decide whether Yahoo! is the right place for them.

If you look at it this way, her message, though certainly disappointing to many, isn’t terribly different from that of Barclay’s CEO Antony Jenkins when he issued his ultimatum to bank employees on meeting ethical standards after a crushing scandal: as’s Derek Irvine put it: “Live and work by our values, or leave.”

At Fresh Ground we give our employees (and ourselves) flexibility to do the work no matter where they are. So on any given day you may find an office full of people or a bunch of empty desks. Factors that drive the decision can be as varied as the commute time, the weather, what work needs to get done or when we need to pick up children.

My wife and I both own our own businesses and we split parental duties. I’m often the one dropping my children off at school and picking them up, then shuttling them off to soccer, piano, Karate, Chinese, tutoring or any of a number of different activities.

Technology has made this possible. At Fresh Ground our office numbers can be set to ring our cell phones and our desk phones, our data is hosted in the cloud, our computers are all laptops and we often use free tools like Google Hangout and

Still, there’s nothing like face-to-face interaction. Our culture drives people into the office. We learn from one another, we toss ideas around, we ask for advice. We’re collaborative.

A great blog post in the Harvard Business Review points out how Mayer is a data-driven CEO who, most likely, looked at the data of the best performing projects and teams, looked for consistency and made a decision that’s right for the company.

That’s not a decision driven only by what’s friendly for “women” but one that’s best for the company. We don’t know what other decisions she may make to ensure that Yahoo! is more family-friendly, but I suspect she’ll bring in other ways to support parents’ needs. But let’s dispense with the idea that this is a “female” issue and look at it for what it really is: a decision by a CEO who knows her stuff and wants to make her company stronger.