Bureau Blank

Ideas + Execution

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A team designed for the future of cities

above and beyond

A team designed for the future of cities

For over three years, our founder Dan Blank and I have been working closely together establishing the focus and overall strategy at Bureau Blank. We’ve accomplished amazing things with our partners, our clients and our team. We made a pivot into GAIN (Government, Academia, Infrastructure, and Nonprofit), working at the intersection of ideas and leaders driving positive change in our communities. As a result of projects we worked on following that pivot, we found that cities really are the epicenter of GAIN and someplace where our unique skills as an agency can have the most impact. That’s inspired us to focus our work on projects for cities and organizations that serve them. At the same time, we’ve built a team strong in both their expertise and commitment to that mission of improving the experience and quality of life for people living in cities.

As I transition into the role of Bureau Blank’s President and COO, with a clear mandate and an exceptional team, my focus will be on our clients’ experience, deepening our expertise, and increasing the impact we make in cities.

1. Client experience
Bureau Blank exists to do phenomenal work for our clients. I’m excited about building new partnerships and using the expertise our team has in GAIN to serve our clients in unexpected and delightful ways. One of our goals in working with you is to leave you with tools to continue and build upon our work using your own industry and personal knowledge. We call this empowering expertise.

2. Deepening our expertise in design
We fully embrace human centered design. It’s not a buzzword for us but a way to create meaningful work that finds real opportunities to solve problems. We talk about our UX practice here and how we think about wireframes for testing here. Part of my role is to ensure that we’re leveraging the best thinking in the way we do our work. This is done through continued training for the Bureau Blank team, participating in our local AIGA chapter, and through an iterative cycle where we create > learn > share > and create again.  

3. Impact for people living and working in cities
As Dan wrote here, I spent a good portion of my career working directly with the city of Jacksonville. That view from the inside paved the road that uniquely positions me to understand the challenges that cities and the organizations that support them face. As my role in the city evolved, I was ambitious and enthusiastic. It was also clear partnering with experts in design thinking to tackle challenges was one of the quickest and most successful paths to good solutions.

Bureau Blank is in a very unique position to bring that design thinking — coupled with our focus areas in GAIN —to solve the challenges that stand in the way of a better life for everyone. That thought encapsulates my tangible excitement about the projects we’ve already done (with New York City’s Office of Digital Services, Technology and Innovation, or with Living Cities) and the projects we’ll do next.

With my goals laid out, I’m curious, what are yours? How can we work better together? What’s your vision? What excites you about the work you do? I encourage you to send me a message.

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Bureau Blank’s new President & COO

our go-to guy

Bureau Blank’s new President & COO

On September 1, 2016, our Director of Client Service John Kester will be taking the reins of Bureau Blank as our new President & COO.

With our focus now squarely on working with cities and the organizations that support them, this is the perfect moment for a leader whose personal story combines years of experience working inside city government with designing communications and digital solutions to improve everyday life for people.

While those who’ve worked with him know John’s track record, including our collaborations with NYC’s Office of Digital Strategy, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Infrastructure group or Living Cities, you might not know that he:

  • Spent nine years with the City of Jacksonville working on technology strategy, design and brand

  • Is six-sigma certified in continual process improvement

  • Has led human-centered design initiatives inside Jacksonville’s energy authority, with the NYC Department of Probation and with municipal leaders inside mayors’ offices across the country

  • Is a passionate advocate for the performing arts (both within our company and in New York City)

As Bureau Blank’s founder, I want to see our company continue to make a tangible and positive impact on the way we experience life in cities and for both our team and clients to thrive in the process. John brings an incredible combination of successfully leading our client engagements, helping to build an amazingly talented and multidisciplinary team, and years of hands-on experience in city government. He is singular in his ability to advocate for both client and team.

Having started Bureau Blank twelve years ago, I plan to start something new, undoubtedly building on what I’ve learned here. I am now excited to see what John and this incredible team can imagine, create and build for our clients and partners in the next twelve.

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Connecting Residents with Innovative Services

Marketing is a Must

Connecting Residents with Innovative Services

Seeing so many creative, smart, effective policy interventions and programs bubbling up in cities nationwide gives me hope in these challenging times. At Bureau Blank, we work with teams supporting women entrepreneurs launching small businesses in New York, using active design and planning techniques to improve public health, and improving the lives of low-income people across the country through innovations in urban practice.

As someone with a communications background, I know how tough it is to get the word out about those ideas to residents, even in the best of circumstances. (Or with the healthiest of advertising budgets.) People encounter so much messaging and content every day, especially online. How can cities cut through that noise to connect residents with great ideas and programs? Because it’s not enough to have that great, data-driven program or pilot project. You have to market it.

I know you know this, dear reader; I also know how many times “do we have to?” or “we can’t, we have no money” concerns arise in conversation with myself and other strategists.

Let’s address “Do we have to?” first, as the question gets at the merits. Marketing can help cities up their impact in many ways. If program performance metrics include the number of residents reached, number of signups, the percentage of a community served, or “bang for buck”, or cost-per-participant, marketing is the lever that can make a difference in meeting your administrative goals. Or, you can not do so, and hope that folks find you.

Second, the no-money problem. Of course, most cities and nonprofits have really tight budgets — that’s the reality, especially if you’re a smaller city. It’s helpful to remember marketing encompasses many activities — and not all of those cost money. Does your policy initiative have a public champion? For instance, here in New York, First Lady Chirlane McCray has been on a speaking tour promoting #ThriveNYC since its launch. There is, literally, an uptick in site traffic after she’s made a speech or community visit on the subject. You can also activate supporters to talk about your service on social media; it’s more personal, effective, and creates momentum for your new service or policy to see multiple people advocating its use and impact.

Using target audiences is another way to get more bang for your buck. Even with a limited budget, precise outreach via social media can yield big returns. Remember, different platforms reach different communities especially well. Snapchat may not get you a lot of engagement with seniors, but if you’re looking to reach Generation Z, it’s a great bet.

Regardless of platform, what works best in city services, or any type of marketing, is a personal approach. People pick up on insincerity pretty quickly; on the other hand, hearing themselves reflected in a personal story can make a powerful connection to your service. That’s the approach we took with the New York City Small Business Services outreach campaign, featuring the voices of people of color and women business owners. That campaign leverages newspaper, social media, and subway ads to spread the word near and far about what SBS can do for underrepresented business owners.

It’s also key that your communications team is empowered to use all avenues at their disposal to get the word out. In the fast-moving digital world, that may mean embracing new methods of reaching audiences that you may not personally use — but your audiences might. (“Snapchat?!”) Digital marketing and communications is analytics-driven, and your team can measure your campaign’s impact in order to adjust tactics and even platforms. Meeting folks where they are shows that you’re listening to your constituents.

To sum up, if you want to truly make an impact in your city, make sure you market that great new program.

  1. Doing so will improve your financial bottom line and program performance metrics.
  2. Marketing doesn’t have to cost a lot — or any — money to be effective.
  3. A genuine, personal approach enables your audience to connect with your work well.
  4. Empower your communications team — internal and external — to use cutting-edge digital platforms to reach your audience where they already are.
  5. Measure your results and fine-tune your tactics to make a bigger splash.

Seen any particularly inspiring campaigns lately? Fill us in!

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The blueprint for successful web design

Wireframing

The blueprint for successful web design

Before jumping into the execution of any project, one of the most important things to have is a plan. Planning ahead helps create a clear path that is driven by strategies and objectives which help lead to desirable outcomes. It is often said, “If you are not planning ahead, plan to fail.” When it comes to web design, the best way to not fail is to plan your project around strategy objectives and follow a tried-and-true design process. A crucial part of that process is wireframing, which is the first step in shaping the site itself and reflects the project strategy and content organization in a tangible medium.

Wireframes are used to establish the content organization and structure, as well as the interaction architecture of a site before moving into visual design. In terms of a complete design process, wireframing falls after both the content strategy and site map have been developed, and before the visual design and development phases.

Generally, wireframes are presented in either sketch or digital form, and stripped of any design elements (graphics, logos, photography, color, etc) beyond what is necessary to understand what is being outlined in the wireframes. Take this scenario as a baseline example of best practice: it is not valuable in the wireframe stage to decide whether a button should be red or blue, but it is valuable to use shades of gray to indicate active/inactive states, hierarchy, or other information).  

There are three main reasons why wireframes should consistently be a part of the design process.

  • Low-touch design makes it easier to experiment, explore, and generate multiple ways to arrange layout and content hierarchy.  This makes it easier to conduct iterative user testing on a variety of layouts, allowing the designer to narrow in on the solutions that work best.

  • Rapid prototyping and running user tests with wireframes is an efficient way to study how well user interactions and flows are working while allowing for the ability to make revisions on the fly.

  • Wireframes are great to review with clients as a way to confirm content hierarchy and site functionality will meet client needs and align with communication goals while the design itself is still flexible.

The ultimate goal for wireframing is to get stakeholder buy-in and approval on content structure and hierarchy, as well as interactions and high-level layouts. Once this approval is given, designers are free to narrow their focus on the visual design stage, confident they are building on top of a strong foundation.

Want to see how some of your favorite websites look like in the wireframe stage? Check out the links below.

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Offline communications in the digital realm

Reaching residents in their daily lives

Offline communications in the digital realm

In today’s digitally connected world, cities are increasingly communicating with residents through the internet, social media and smartphone applications. However, using more traditional marketing and communications methods are still effective ways to spread public awareness. For instance, public transit is an integral part of any city, with opportunities for advertisements on subways, buses and light rail. Daily newspapers offer another. Both are terrific ways to reach residents regardless of where they live and their ability to access the internet. These ads are oftentimes the initial interface between residents and a campaign. The most effective ads will prompt residents to go online to learn more, sign up, spread the word and take action.

Here in New York City, we’ve worked with a number of city agencies to develop public awareness campaigns to inform New Yorkers about laws and programs that affect their daily lives. We have worked with the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, the NYC Office of Small Business Services and the NYC Commission on Human Rights to develop effective campaigns to communicate and amplify their messages to residents throughout the five boroughs.

Public awareness campaigns require strategic design and two key components to have the most impact:

  • Visualization - Commuters are constantly moving, so there’s only a small window of opportunity to grab their attention. To do so, you will need to choose an effective visualization of your message based on the type of campaign or message.

When designing the concept for the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs’ Paid Sick Leave campaign, we focused on weaving together bright, evocative illustrations of positive health with specialized typographic treatment – elevating the simple messaging around being “100% Healthy” to resonate with the diverse, multi-lingual audience of New Yorkers directly impacted by the new legislation. The importance of health transcends cultural boundaries, and our visual focus mirrored that universal value.

To spread the word about the Minority/Women Business Enterprise (M/WBE) program for the NYC Office of Small Business Services, we chose to leverage real life success stories of participating M/WBE business owners whose personal experiences speak to the effective support and benefits gained from their certification through SBS. Through the medium of photography, the proud and positive profiles of these individuals generate an empathy and authenticity that can call like-minded entrepreneurs to action.

  • Messaging - Statements should be concise and language should be simple to get your message across quickly and clearly.

To amplify last year’s Fair Chance Act, we played with language to reach audiences on both sides of the employment process and drive behavior change towards eliminating discriminatory practice. The resounding affirmation expressed in the key messaging– which reads “Criminal Record? You can work with that”– is made simple and clear with the supporting copy presenting a synopsis of the legislation and a helpful resource to learn more.

In drafting the Credit History Discrimination Campaign for the NYC Commission on Human Rights, we elevated the empowering message that New Yorkers are “more than their credit score” to stand in stark contrast to the array of faded credit statistics encircling the photographed individuals. The ad speaks directly to “you”; there are few things that grab one’s attention more than affirmative statements that seem to single you out from the rest of the crowd.

Coupled with wide distribution, powerful, attention-grabbing campaigns have the potential to reach residents at every intersection. Across NYC, there are more than 40 versions of the M/WBE subway ads in 10+ languages, ferries and local newspapers; 3,000 Fair Chance Act subway car ads; 300,000 Paid Sick Leave leaflets distributed to businesses and 2,000 subway, bus shelter and phone kiosk ads in both English and Spanish. Each of these public awareness campaigns were able to reach and inform a diverse range of commuters traveling across NYC about the services and laws that impact their lives in the city.

Photo courtesy of  jaғar ѕнaмeeм on Flickr under shared license.

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Keeping people at the center of the city experience

The User Experience of Cities

Keeping people at the center of the city experience

Cities are complex combinations of communities, systems, resources and services. As residents, we all interact with the city and each other on many levels. As with any complex system, whether it’s an app, a website or your everyday life in the city, design can play a direct role in making your experience a good one or a bad one, an easy one or a difficult one, a useful one or a frustrating one.

In our work creating communications, design and digital projects for the GAIN sectors (Government, Academia, Infrastructure, Nonprofit), we’ve become increasingly focused on the city as the epicenter of social systems. Health, education, workforce, financial empowerment, infrastructure and the built environment: they’re all present in the city. And in many instances, they’re critical systems that we rely upon every single day, no matter what our career, economic status or level of education.

It’s been very interesting as a design consultancy to be thinking about the work we do, not just in terms of content strategy, user experience design or technology development for a website or campaign, but as actually helping to shape the experience of New York City residents. Our work has spanned communications design (explaining how to operate your small business within the governing law), services (finding mental health resources or tracking probation clients’ community engagement) and raising public awareness (about new laws that protect job applicants from discrimination).

Having worked across these different dimensions, we’ve built insights into what we see as key components of the user experience of cities:

Visual Design: in addition to helping to make complex content accessible and engaging, visual design can help build familiarity and trust in the city brand for residents and visitors alike.

Content: it’s critical from two perspectives:

  • First, what is the content strategy? How do we take the bulk of what is trying to be communicated and a) structure it into a clear narrative and b) define the key takeaways or themes that need to come through. 
  • Second, we think about information architecture or taxonomy. When dealing with complex or long-form content it’s important to define a framework for organizing the content – is it by category, over time or by application? How do the different content types relate to one another and how can we create a system of (visual) navigation or interactivity that makes the content work for the user and not vice versa?

Usability: intuitive, simple, a positive experience – not always the core values than come to mind when thinking about government services, but they can be. This is an area where lessons from the private sector can really drive a better experience. Whether in digital services or a retail experience, think about how to remove barriers and smooth the way for an easier, more efficient interaction.

The role of human-centered design thinking: what feels like second nature to a designer in terms of process doesn’t always happen in city or social impact projects. Design services and create communications for the people who live in the city, build an understanding of their needs, their context and their experience and let the insights from that process guide the creation or refinement of new services. Interview people across demographic backgrounds and go to them where they are. Let service providers from within the city absorb the context of “customers” first hand. Designing around the needs or perspective of the city agency only takes into account part of the interaction between city and resident and arguably it’s the needs of the resident that should be thought of first.

Over several years of work in our city, these components have been critical to the success of our work. In NYC, we’ve worked across agencies and organizations to keep residents and user experience at the center of design and service delivery. These agencies and organizations include:

  • Office of Digital Strategy
  • Small Business Services
  • Mayor’s Office of Innovation & Technology
  • Department of Consumer Affairs
  • Department of Sanitation
  • Economic Development Corporation
  • Department of Probation
  • Commission on Human Rights
  • Emergency Management
  • Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC

We see our work to improve the experience of being a New Yorker as part of a broader trend in which Cities nationwide and globally are thinking more like modern, technology and service-driven businesses (see alpha.nyc.gov as an example of start-up thinking in action in city government). Cities and their residents (provider and customer) arguably have much more at stake than the typical commerce transaction, especially when dealing in issues like housing, jobs, health or education. As a team, we like to work where design thinking, strong communication and user-friendly technology can have the biggest impact and the user experience of cities is a great place to put our skills to work.

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