During the past seven months, the essential work of medical professionals, teachers, farmers, grocery store workers, truck drivers, transit operators, and delivery personnel has rightly become a central talking point of the pandemic. Amid the turmoil of 2020, their contributions have been absolutely vital to communities of every size across the globe. Their work has been, quite literally, a matter of life or death for both themselves and the people they serve.
When I worked in the creative department of a big advertising agency, the running joke was that the work we were doing was decidedly not a matter of life or death, yet the urgency surrounding every project indicated the opposite. Everyone in the ad industry has heard (and lived) dozens of stories about dedicated agency employees missing important life events, sleeping at the office, working 80 hour weeks, skipping vacations, etc., all in the name of meeting a client deadline. Advertising is a trade notorious for the high-stress environment it has cultivated: a constant grind to churn out more, higher-quality work, at an unrealistic pace, sustained over an unreasonable period of time. Paradoxically, it’s a badge of honor to have worked at such an agency—a rite of passage, a necessary step to get to the upper echelon of agency leadership.
But when that type of environment inevitably leads to employee burnout, people are left to reflect on what it all amounted to and weigh the value of their work. The conclusion often resembles little more than a shoulder shrug. Is pithy copyrighting and clever typography and elegant user experience essential to selling more cell phones or fitness apparel or consumer packaged goods? Who cares, really.
So we agency folks are left to wonder: why subject ourselves to this creative agony? Why all the anguish over positioning and word choice and tone? Why fret and fuss over font choices and color palettes and kerning (whatever that is)? The answer is, because all of those things are foundational to good communication. And being able to clearly, concisely, and effectively communicate—now more than ever—is essential work.
In his 2019 post, Death by Powerpoint: The Slide that Killed Seven People, James Thomas makes a pretty compelling case for the importance of design when presenting information. In crafting their report assessing the risk of the space shuttle Columbia's reentry into Earth's atmosphere following a malfunction, Boeing engineers failed to recognize the value of:
The engineers (experts in their field) assumed that because they were presenting their report to other experts (NASA officials), the data packed into 28 slides would sufficiently convey their conclusions. They failed to summarize the points they felt would most clearly illustrate their point of view. They failed to leverage their own expertise.
The most salient point was in the smallest font, at the bottom of a text-heavy slide, under a misleading headline, amid a confusing bullet-pointed list. They buried the lead.
In a text-heavy environment, font and color choices have the ability to convey importance and urgency. Word choice is crucial, especially to clearly communicate a binary choice. They failed to convey the next best actionable next step to prevent catastrophe.
It’s hard not to draw some parallels between the communication failures of the Columbia tragedy and the communication failures surrounding the coronavirus pandemic in this country.
The CDC and the NIH, despite their best efforts, have been undermined in their attempts to leverage their position as expert advisors.
The information being put forth by leadership at the federal and state levels is confusing, poorly organized, and inconsistent.
And the tone of the reporting around the pandemic varies wildly—from dismissive and disbelief to outrage and alarmist.
All of which means not enough people are on the same page and there’s no alignment about how best to proceed. If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is approved, the information around its deployment has the potential to be so confusing that too few people will get it to effectively prevent the spread of the disease.
This is where I think creative agencies have a big opportunity to make an impact in our new COVID reality. We are the ones with the skills to help organizations lead with the right information, craft messaging that takes the right tone, and position themselves to make the greatest impact.
During this year of unprecedented challenges, what could be more essential than providing people with clear, concise, and actionable information? The urgency to do so is driven by much more than a client deadline.