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!

Why I hate it when you like it!

How we love to “like.”Like2

We use the word constantly and with little thought. Like has become the milk-toast of affection. Not that it ever meant much; I remember using it when a high-school girlfriend asked what I thought of her brother who consistently threatened to beat me up. “I like him,” I cautiously said.  Meaning, “I could live without him.”

Today Facebook allows you to “like” the photo of a firefighter emerging from a burning building with a swaddled baby in his arms. Moments later, you can use the exact same like to show your amusement at a waste-of-time video about a kitten sheltered between a Golden Retriever’s paws. Sometimes you even like things that you dislike, because someone you like posted it (or worse, asked you to like it) and you don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. He or she will see that you liked it, like that you liked it, and like the next thing you post for your “friends” to “like.” In making “like” the currency of approval for billions of people sharing trillions of pieces of content, Facebook has utterly devalued a word that already struggled for significance.


Must I really like, comment or share?


But the thing I like least about liking is far more insidious: the term’s over-use is among the clearest indicators of our utter self-absorption as we participate in public conversations. Because liking is all about ourselves—the overfed consumer of information wandering the digital landscape in search of the next like. This self-absorbed bottom-feeding impacts much more than our personal lives. It has crept into the professional arena, which I personally find even more depressing. Walk into any meeting where people are evaluating creative concepts, and you’ll hear more likes than you can count. Why? Because if given the opportunity, we default to thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe. Faced with any situation, our instinct is to react to what we like and don’t like.

Our education and professional training should save us from our thoughtless judgements as we strive to do great work. We should never evaluate work with our own likes and dislikes, but rather put ourselves in the target audience’s position. At HB, we deliberately remind ourselves and our clients to ask not whether we like something, but instead ask if it works according to the criteria we set for the audience. But despite these reminders, we easily fall into the trap of evaluating work based on personal preferences.

This individual, center-of-the-universe perspective is one of the reasons why crowdsourcing produces mediocre work. A friend recently invited me to evaluate designs that he crowdsourced with 99designs, a company that glibly notes “Make 850k+ designers work for you.” (I’ll leave ethics aside for this discussion… but really??) My friend also crowdsourced the design evaluation to an informal team of friends and colleagues. I participated in the process, and the web site asked me to rate each design option on a five-star scale and include a comment. I was invited to do this several times as my friend went through design iterations.
I assume that, like me, each committee member had varying degrees of knowledge specific to the business: its personality, voice, goals, stakeholders, priorities, industries served, etc. in addition to any other success criteria for the design. But none of this was included in the presentation of designs, so it would be difficult for anyone to remember such details while evaluating. Those details and decision-making criteria would have enabled us to bring intellectual rigor to a process that was quickly becoming about liking or not liking.
The designs I saw, a handful among the 187 that my friend received, revealed that the designers created visual representations of the entity’s name instead of relying on background information and criteria for success. I figured this was because the crowd-sourcing business model encourages designers who want to get paid to play a numbers game—submitting as many designs as possible as quickly as possible. They have little incentive to invest time and energy into the story that should inform a great design, and they probably know that the people coming to them aren’t that discerning; many will probably ignore much of the preliminary work they did, if they did any, the minute they see pretty things and default to liking or disliking.
The crowdsourced evaluation committee is in the same boat as the designers: we’re all busy professionals, wondering, “how little time can I spend on this to honor my friend’s request but not sacrifice too much of my scarce personal time?”  The quickest solution is to avoid deep thinking, focus on what I like, and add a comment or two to show that I took it seriously. I noticed the other evaluators were doing just that, most often speaking of their personal reactions to the designs rather than trying to rate them against established criteria.

Does any of this matter? As it turns out, my friend is happy with the design he selected. He likes it and likes the fact that it cost $10,000 to $20,000 less than a local agency would have charged him. The costs are probably there in the time he invested, the time that numerous designers who weren’t the winners invested, and the time his group of friends and colleagues invested—but those costs stay with those groups and do not hit my friend’s P&L. In the old days, my friend would have gotten Cousin Joe’s niece, who just graduated from college with a degree in graphic design, to do something for a few bucks oFedexn the side or for free. The crowdsourcing model gives him much more choice of selection. What bothers me is that the designs he got, like so many designs I’ve seen from crowdsourcing models or Cousin Joe’s niece, suffer from rookie mistakes that experienced designers would not make.
I don’t want you to like designs that HB creates. I want you to feel they work. Sometimes you might even fall in love with them because they’re so much more than a pretty face. If you’re hoping your brand moves beyond your local sphere and want your visual identity to tell a lasting and layered story over time, liking it is not enough, no matter how many people like it, especially if those people are uncompensated friends taking time away from activities they value more to chime in for your project.
Imagine if the Fedex logo had been crowdsourced by designers trying to get clients to like something they did as quickly as possible before moving on to the next opportunity to make a few bucks. Based on what I’ve seen in crowdsourcing, the logo would most likely have included a plane or a truck, and an envelope. Many people would have liked it, the way they like a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Read about the Fedex logo here and get a glimpse into what sophisticated design can offer.
Perhaps I’m living in the wrong age. The world is moving quickly, we all have too much to do, and liking might be the pinnacle of what we give and get. Even if that’s the case, I believe we each want to discover more meaning, make the greatest impression, have the longest impact… and liking doesn’t help achieve such goals.

As Matthew May concludes in his piece on the Fedex logo: “Lindon Leader’s design is considered by many to be one of the most creative logos ever designed. Not because of what’s there but because of what isn’t.” I don’t “like” the Fedex logo. I think it works according to what I imagine the company set out as success criteria. I love it.

13 PR Types Who Should be On the Naughty List for 2013

Santa's Naughty or Nice List

PR people often get criticized, ridiculed and looked down upon, sometimes for no reason. But there are times when we definitely deserve it. That’s right PR people, there are a few of you giving the rest of us a bad name with your naughty behavior. In fact, 13 types of PR professionals earned a spot on the Naughty List this year.

1. The Email Blaster – Reporters hate this and so should you. Sending out one generic email to a large number of reporters comes off as impersonal, lazy and, frankly, ineffective. It’s not that there isn’t a time or place for an email blast – there is. However, if this is how you primarily interact with journalists, congratulations! You just booked a one way ticket to PR purgatory. With a simple copy/paste and a touch of personalization, you can change how reporters perceive you.

2. The Scaredy Cat – In PR, at one point or another you have to go with your gut and take a risk. This could be as simple as how to deal with a client issue when the boss isn’t around or taking a gamble on a risky pitch. Boldness, confidence and instincts are all a part of PR. As PR pros mature, hiding from taking charge won’t work.

3. The Repeat Offender – Yes, we are all guilty of emailing reporters more than once if they don’t respond. However, it is crucial to not send the same email over and over again. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved and makes PR people look lazy, unprofessional and annoying. If you need an answer, write a new email each time or call. Matt Rosoff, editorial director for CITEworld gives insight as to what can happen if you do this (hint, blacklists do exist).

4. The Buzzword Person – Hey buzz word guy, no reporter, client or PR person wants to “circle back with you,” “reinvent the wheel,” or “grab the low-hanging fruit.” Can we cut this out of our language? While we’re at it, can we take out the words, “robust,” “optimize,” and “social media guru.” I’m just trying to “call out” the unnecessary jargon we use that makes people’s eyes glaze over. “Moving forward,” please make sure to add this to your “action items.” If you disagree, feel free to “reach out” and we can “touch base” about it later. If this doesn’t sound reasonable, please check out Yahoo Columnist and former NYT writer David Pogue’s response to PR pitches.

5. The Anti-Double Checker – These people call reporters by the wrong name in a pitch or don’t think to check what beat they cover. Perhaps they misspell or mispronounce the client’s CEO’s name. Come on guys, it’s hard to get much worse than this. Just ask ReadWrite reporter Dan Rowinski who still gets pitches from PR people calling his employer ReadWriteWeb, which changed its name in 2012. A simple double-check can solve this problem. Everyone messes up, but make sure to learn from it. Better yet, read your materials out loud, maybe even to another person. Not taking the time to do things right can make or break a relationship.

6. The Lazy Man’s Media List/Agenda Compiler – These documents are part of a PR agency’s life blood, so they have to be up to snuff. No one wants to open a media list and find wrong emails/numbers, misspelled names or out-of date publications. Sending an unfinished or sloppy agenda to a client makes your agency look unprofessional. Finally, you personally end up looking bad and have wasted everyone’s time. If you are chosen to put a document together, make sure to do it right.

7. The Clueless Pitcher/Researcher – In the same vein as number six, this naughty person doesn’t do their research. Whether it’s reaching out to reporters or doing research on publications, a PR person should always know the basics: how a journalist like to contacted, beat, style, etc. This chain of tweets between TechCrunch Writer Alex Wilhelm, founding partner, CEO of Knock Twice Mike Barash, TechCrunch Writer Ryan Lawler and author April Peveteaux demonstrates what a PR person needs to look for when pitching reporters. In terms of publications, don’t pitch a byline to a publication that doesn’t take bylines. If you know a certain magazine doesn’t cover product launches, then don’t pitch them a launch! With a little common sense and quick information check, this person can end up on the Nice List if they try.

8. The Long Pitcher – My favorite word in PR is brevity. Lengthy emails are not as appreciated as you think. From the reporters I have talked to, most hate long, intricate missives. The best thing you can do is get to the point as fast as you can. If they want the story they will take it no matter how detailed the pitch, but they need to be able to understand what you are pitching in the first place. If you can’t get to your point in the first few sentences, the pitch isn’t worth sending. Again, David Pogue can shed a little light on this very common problem.

9. The Email Bitcher— This is a very naughty PR person. If a reporter does not respond, most of the time it means they don’t want it. It is in poor form to go back to said reporter and complain about how they should check their messages more. Journalists have lives, as well as having hundreds of other PR people hounding them every day. Sending a complaint email makes a PR pro look immature and unprofessional. This is a great way to not only get on the Naughty list, but a reporter’s blacklist as well.

10. The Mis-Opportunist – This PR person does not take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. They miss out on being able to meet and talk to clients, reporters, other PR people and potential new business without realizing it. There is so much potential to network and make new connections at events or conferences that to not take advantage of this can be detrimental to a PR person’s career. Even though it can be difficult to start conversations with strangers, the benefits will surprise you.

11. The PR “Pro” Who Doesn’t Understand Their Client – A PR person that doesn’t get what their client does will not make it in this industry. We act as the mouthpiece for our clients, translating their stories for journalists and other influencers. We need to know their market, technology and competition as well as they know themselves. Understanding a client product or service can be difficult; reach out to a supervisor if you have problems. At the end of the day, the person who doesn’t understand their clients doesn’t get, or keep, a job.

12. The “Too Cool for School” PR person – They think they are the coolest thing on two feet – they have the contacts, the knowledge and don’t think they need anyone else’s advice. In their eyes, they are better than everyone else. Unfortunately for them, PR is constantly changing and there will always be something new to learn or a new person to meet. Just because someone has a close relationship with a famous reporter doesn’t make them the best PR person. We all have contacts and we should all strive to continually build our reputations.

13. The Script Reader – Nothing is more cringe-worthy than listening to a PR person sound like they are pitching from a script (which they probably are if they sound like that!) One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from reporters is how PR people don’t get to the point, won’t let the reporter answer and sound mechanical. There is no harm in sounding like a human; it might even be appreciated. Don’t be scared to engage with reporters, they don’t bite. Make sure to give the journalist the opportunity to respond too – rambling off a spiel sounds rehearsed, and a reporter will stop listening after a few seconds. Many times a PR pro has only one shot, so make sure it’s a bull’s-eye.

If you know a PR professional doing these things, please place a lump of coal on their desks. It’s tiring hearing from reporters how much we can stink. I propose that this holiday season we give all reporters the gift of flawless PR.

12 PR Tactics That Can Save You From Indescribable Horror

Scary PR TacticsWith Halloween 2013 behind us, there are still things out there haunting the PR halls.
Before you get tricked into thinking your PR tactics don’t need improvement, here are twelve simple things that can save you and the rest of us from the horrors of bad technique.


  1. Pick Up the Phone – As much as reporters are going to tell you to only connect with them via email, you still need to pick up the phone. It’s worth warning you that if you do decide to call, you better have a good reason. Note: Following up on an email you sent yesterday is not a good reason.
  2. Go Beyond Traditional Media Relations – With all of the social media tools out there, now’s your chance to get creative and have some fun with pitching.
  3. Review Your Entire Press Release Copy – It surprises me how many PR people do final read-throughs of their client’s press release and don’t read the entire thing. Yes, you need to read every single character on that page, from the contact information to the boilerplate. You never know what mistakes you will find.
  4. Check Your Links – If you are going to link to anything, whether it be in a press release, a pitch or a blog post, check your links. The last thing you want is to send an email to a client in the early afternoon and they get a glimpse into your lunch reading material.
  5. Use a Signature – You know what’s scary? When a client or reporter, or even your boss, has to dig through their inbox because you barely ever include your signature in emails. Use your signature. Every time.
  6. Don’t Wait Until the Witching Hour – Nowadays, the lead time for editorial calendar opportunities can be up to four or even five months in advance. If you wait until the month before you can kiss that opportunity goodbye.
  7. It’s Not All About You – PR professionals need to be their own PR people. If you call a reporter, stop by your colleague’s desk, or even just try a quick IM to a client, remember that they are busy too. Before you start into your one-sided conversation (at least for that first minute anyway), remember that they may be in the middle of something. Simply asking, “Do you have a quick minute to chat?” goes a long way.
  8. Take Your Expert Pitch All The Way – If you’re taking the time to put your client out there to media as an expert, do yourself a favor and tweet about it. I’ve landed numerous inbound media inquiries just by doing this one simple thing.
  9. Remember That Not Every Awesome Article Is Awesome – It took weeks to land that feature article on your client and it finally hits the web. When you send it over to your client the worst thing you can do is to rave about it. You just never know whether there is a line in there that they might absolutely cringe over, or perhaps there’s a factual error that you didn’t notice. Send over articles in a neutral tone and let the client praise you. Then you can share in their excitement. If you don’t, you risk looking like you have no idea what your own client wants.
  10. Use the Right Medium to Communicate – When you send out an IM, email, telephone call, Facebook message, smoke signal; whatever it is I want you to think: What is the purpose of this message? What is the outcome I am looking for? When do I need a response? You just might realize you’re using the wrong medium and not achieving your goals.
  11. Search Is Your Best Friend – Before asking a client about the details of the new product release, their CTO’s bio, or whatever other information you need, for the love of all that is holy, search for it first. Search your emails, your shared files, the internet – doing a quick search keeps you from asking repetitiously and looking like you don’t have your PR act together.
  12. The Most Important Desktop File You Will Ever Use – I can’t stress this enough. You need to have a client contact sheet on your desktop. This is a document of all of your clients’ contact information; this includes cell phone numbers, emails, proper titles and office addresses. I usually have the C-level management and other day-to-day contacts on this sheet. Most of the time when I need to use that sheet, it’s for an urgent matter.

Give these a try and let me know how they work out for you. If you would like to add something to the list, drop a note in the comments. Together we can save ourselves from the horrors of bad PR tactics. For that I will be truly thankful. Happy November.

Really irregardless, sort of like a couple

A big pet peeve of mine is imprecise or incorrect language. For instance, the expression “so don’t I” drives me nuts, because people use it to mean “so do I.” When I hear “so don’t I,” I always respond by saying, “You don’t?” I guess that drives other people nuts. Here are a few others: Irregardless is commonly used instead of “regardless.” For instance, “I like him regardless of his political views” means that I like him without any regard towards his political views.If you say, “I like him irregardless of his political views,” it actually means that whether or not you like him depends on his political views. If that’s not what you mean, then use regardless, not irregardless.

A couple more, one being couple: Couple is two. “What a nice couple.” You say that when you mean two people who are together. “Give me a couple of hot dogs, please.” That means you want two hot dogs. If you mean more than two, then say, “a few” or “several.” Sometimes people say the colloquialism, “a couple of few.” At least that’s how it sounds to me. I don’t really know what they’re saying, but I hear it often. If you know what “a couple of few” means, please comment on this blog post and tell me.

I thought of a couple of pet peeves to write about, but then more came to mind. So I’m writing several. It’s sort of like a whining session… oops! Let’s talk about “sort of” and “like.” I think of these as equivalent: fillers that should be excised from most of our vocabularies. You can even add “very” and “really.” The way I see it, these fillers are used to do either of two things: 1. replace silence. 2. be combined with a poor word choice to indicate a word that the speaker/writer can’t think of. For example:”Dude, it was like really scary.” How about saying what it actually was, such as, “Dude, it was terrifying.” No filler. Appropriate word choice. If there’s a split second of silence that you’re filling with sort of, like, very or really… then let there be silence. Silence adds dramatic tension. Silence gives you time to think of the right word. Silence is golden. Be okay with silence. Silence is your friend. Over and out.

Pet peeve: exclamation point overuse

I consider myself fairly open to diversity of all kind: race, religion, education, socio-economic background, and even eating habits. However, when it comes to a few (yes, just a few) of my pet peeves, I never forget an infraction. While the list is long, today’s top pet peeve is overuse of the exclamation point, especially in business.

An email that I received today included an exclamation point in the subject line and the salutation line. Plus, every paragraph had at least one. I realize that email correspondence requires us to use certain tools to convey tone, but encourage everyone (myself included) to take the time to craft the right message so that the words do the work. Use your exclamation points sparingly so that they actually mean something when used.Do you have a pet peeve to share?