Bureau Blank

Ideas + Execution

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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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User experience matters because people matter

UX Workshops

User experience matters because people matter

What is User Experience?

User Experience, UX for short, is a crucial step within the design process that will reveal valuable information for a desired target audience. UX puts the user at the forefront of all design decisions, this is a human centered design approach that starts with the people we are designing for and concludes with solutions that suit their needs.

Why does UX matter?

User experience matters because people matter; it’s as simple as that.

UX aims to deliver positive experiences through innovative solutions that improve our way of life.  The users that will be interacting with the end product are the most important aspect of any project, therefore every strategic or design project should start with a human centered approach. We only have a few seconds to grab their attention and prove a product or service is valuable towards their lives while providing a positive experience as they interact with it.

Understand your users.

Before making any decisions, you must generate empathy for your users and see problems as opportunities. There are many ways to go about this, such as user interviews, environmental observations, user research, user testing; and of course, running great workshops. Workshops should always be common practice throughout the design process as they are a great opportunity to include stakeholders and teammates with various points of view to build a think tank where great minds come together to generate ideas and solve problems.

Here are a few tips on running a successful workshop:

Define your goals: Be Prepared! Goals are crucial as they will determine which activities are best suited for the desired outcomes. Understand why you are running the workshop and what you are trying to achieve. There are many workshop exercises and activities to unravel the answers you are seeking and a great place to start is with Ideo’s Design Kit.

Create an agenda: Plan ahead. Schedules are important as they will help prioritize activities and keep the workshop on track. Create a sequence with the activities so they can build off each other as key findings will most likely inspire an approach or perspective towards the next activity. While building out the schedule, also consider “nice to have” activities if time permits. Other than the chosen activities, plan for an introduction to align roles and expectations, have snacks, breaks, and share the agenda with the participants before hand.

Curate your team: Only invite key players. It is important to bring the right people together. Consider their contributions, skill sets, knowledge, and unique perspectives. A smaller team in an intimate setting is ideal, as members in larger teams can get away without participating and it is extremely important to have everyone contribute. It is also encouraged to invite clients and stakeholders to these workshops as they usually have a great deal of knowledge in the subject. Bringing in key players will involve them in the process and generate buy-in with the solutions that are discovered together.

Facilitate: Participate! One of the most important parts of facilitating a workshop is preparing the team for the upcoming activities and explaining why they are important, what the activity is set out to accomplish, and what is expected from the participants. Provide examples if necessary as this can help those who are unfamiliar with the process. It is the facilitator’s job to assess the room, create a collaborative environment, and make calls based on the participant’s contributions.

Closing: Next steps are crucial! At the end of the workshop make sure to thank everyone for their participation, recap on the workshop’s findings, and align expectations of what is next to come. Every moment from the workshop is extremely valuable and will be a part of the design solution, so it is just as important to capture notes throughout the workshop and organize all the findings afterwards. Always send a follow up email to the team which recaps the workshop’s outcome.

Facilitating a UX workshop can be challenging, but with the right plan, tools, and key players, workshops will prove to be the most valuable step throughout the design process. While going into a UX workshop as either a participant or a facilitator, remember to always have an open mind, be optimistic, open to the new, and don’t be afraid to move outside of your comfort zone. Have a blast!

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Creating the #ThriveNYC Site

the journey from content to a website

Creating the #ThriveNYC Site

Our Challenge

Late last year, New York City launched the groundbreaking Mental Health Roadmap report and initiative – you may know it as #ThriveNYC. How “groundbreaking”? ThriveNYC represents the city’s first large-scale policy approach to mental health issues, which don’t just affect individuals and their loved ones, but the city’s overall economic productivity and public health. More than 1 in 5 New Yorkers face a wide variety of mental health challenges each day. On top of that, for many people, there is still a huge stigma attached to discussing mental health issues. ThriveNYC addresses both the issues and the stigma, and needed its website to do the same.

In particular, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City (our client) wanted ThriveNYC to appeal to new moms, teenagers, seniors and veterans. Beyond those folks, the site had to reflect our city’s diverse, multifaceted communities and provide accessible resources wherever possible. To help us focus our process, we used these target audiences and got down to work.

Our Process

As always, we began our design and development process with the content. In this case, that meant I dived in to familiarize myself with the report, highlighting key takeaways and the overall organization. Then our designer Ellery and I sat together, pencils in hand, to consider a few questions:

·      What action(s) did we want our audiences to take? Why?

Checking out resources, care providers or sharing the site with friends and family, for starters; that said, we wanted to keep the site’s calls to action simple and clear throughout.

·      What did we need to communicate to our audiences? Why?

Mental health issues cut across every demographic and age group, but in many communities, there is still a great stigma that precludes asking for or getting the help people need. By using a visually engaging mix of statistics and photography to convey the energy and diversity of New York, we wanted people to know that they are not alone, and mental health is a concern for all of us; we’re in this together.

·      How could we make what began as a report feel more interactive for audiences?

Here, we thought of simple things: where could we use drawers to hide longer text sections, inviting audiences to click? Where could we bring the information to life?

·      What kind of an overall user experience would work best for audiences?

Right away, we knew we did not want the site’s aesthetic to evoke cheesy pharmaceutical commercials or feel in any way exclusive. We also wanted something active and lively that you couldn’t resist clicking upon. Those goals drove us to use a loop video instead of a static hero image, for starters.

More than anything, we considered our story: we wanted this to be an empowering experience for visitors that greets them respectfully, shares information and resources to access care, and helps normalize conversation around mental health issues.

We captured our thinking with sketches of the site’s wireframes, structuring the main page so that the main sections of the report featured engaging user experiences as they introduced the City’s plan of action: Act Early, Close Treatment Gaps, Partner with Communities, Use Better Data, and Strengthen Government’s Ability to Lead.

Then Ellery created a design concept to evoke that sense of commonality and reassuring engagement. He chose a color palette inspired by Mental Health Awareness Month’s green; bright filters for photography that evokes our target audiences; and collaborated with our other designers to create icons that jazzed up text-based content.

Our Results

Since the site’s launch in November, New Yorkers might have spotted ads on the subway, social media or TV encouraging them to check it out. (And tens of thousands of folks have done so already!) This spring, we were honored to be nominated for a Webby. Most of all, we’re proud to help convey New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray’s message that we need to shatter the stigma around mental health issues.

Photo courtesy of East Midtown Partnership on Flickr under shared license.

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Digital playbooks help communicate strategy and support the people implementing change

ideas and execution for cities

Digital playbooks help communicate strategy and support the people implementing change

As cities are expected to deliver both services and information digitally and on-demand, tools for communicating strategy and building this capacity are key to supporting the people at the frontlines of implementation.

Cities are complex systems with myriad stakeholders and different levels of resources and in different contexts. Whether you’re trying to broadly impact cities nationwide (like Living Cities #HereAndNow) or trying to coordinate and guide the efforts of a single city’s multiple agencies (Like New York City and the NYC Digital Playbook) communicating a vision and strategy and supporting it with useful tools is pivotal.

Digital playbooks, which may be toolboxes, design kits or guidelines, help serve that very purpose: to paint the big picture and then arm the people on the ground an approach to implementation.

Having worked on digital playbooks here at Bureau Blank, and reviewed others in the process, we’ve gathered some key takeaways to consider when creating your own:

  • Include users (residents) and stakeholders (municipal employees and their partners) in the process - Surveys and interviews are critical tools for gaining insight into various points of view. Ask community members what they need and observe their current experience to identify areas for improvement. User-centered research ensures that your playbook is designed around the resident, not the city agency, and sharing that research with internal city stakeholders gets everyone invested in the process and outcomes. 

The NYC Guidelines for the Internet of Things, a framework for using connected digital devices across the city, were developed through extensive research and engagement with the public, private and academic communities. Government agencies, offices and departments in NYC and around the world were surveyed regarding their use of sensor technologies to identify and organize best practices into a set of guidelines.

  • Create a content strategy - Synthesize research results, raw data and the content of your vision into a framework that will make content easy to understand and use. Think about how your playbook will be organized and presented through taxonomy.

The Living Cities #HereAndNow website, which offers up toolkits to urban leaders working to dramatically improve the lives of low-income people, takes this approach. Living Cities’ CEO Ben Hecht lays out a vision of a “new urban practice”; site visitors can scroll down to explore a range of tools organized by impact area.

  • Use design to bring content to life - rather than just releasing a report or document, use design to visualize ideas and interactivity to make content useful.

The NYC Digital Playbook presents its vision in a format inspired by 18F’s method cards. The Playbook establishes six guiding principles for the City’s approach to services and provides twelve step-by-step strategies for achieving them. Users can click on each strategy to see its corresponding principles and a list of actionable next steps. The Playbook also encourages collaboration as the City is providing a physical set of the strategy cards to agency teams to brainstorm and strategize.

In addition to the playbooks mentioned above, here are a few others we use as sources of inspiration and for help in guiding the process:

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Great feedback leads to great design

8 steps to great feedback

Great feedback leads to great design

Feedback may not be a fun process, but here’s the bottom line: Teams that share clear, open and honest feedback get to the best design solutions more quickly. Constructive feedback contributes to the education and development of yourself and your teammates, and helps to foster healthy debate and discussion.

See below for some pointers we’ve developed on how to be as effective as possible when giving or receiving feedback among colleagues or project partners. Have some you’d like to share? Reach out on Twitter @bureaublank!


  • Be specific about what you think isn’t working, and offer an alternative solution - even if you don’t think that solution is absolutely right.

Being specific about the exact elements that are troubling you will keep the critique on track and help avoid irrelevant discussion. (Experienced designers should also be able to articulate exactly why they don’t like something.) Offering an alternative is far more helpful than letting a critical comment hang in the air. The goal is to move the conversation forward and focus on how the designs could be improved by exploring other possibilities. Even a simple suggestion can act as a jumping-off point that leads to brilliant design.

Instead of “This typography feels wrong,” try “I don’t think the rounded typography you’re using here is appropriate for this audience. Maybe something more geometric could work.”

  • Frame purely subjective feedback as questions that facilitate a larger discussion.  

More often than not, your designer didn’t choose the color blue for those buttons because it’s their favorite color - they chose the color blue because they’ve done their research. Design is as much about data-driven and purposeful decision-making as any other position, so give your designer the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t making stylistic decisions at random. When it comes to giving subjective feedback, framing it as a question will open the floor to ideas and logic you may not have considered while still giving you a voice to offer your opinion.  

Instead of “I don’t like the green headlines”, try “I’m curious about the use of green for headlines. Can you walk me through that decision?”

  • The Project Brief is your North Star.

Any design project should have an initial project brief that outlines communication objectives, target audiences, metrics for success, and other details that can act as helpful guidelines when making design decisions. These briefs are what structure the constraints the design team works within. When you give feedback, make sure you’re thinking about how that bit of the design can help advance the objectives of the brief and bring your team closer to hitting the mark. Working with those goals in mind will keep the project moving towards successful outcomes and happy clients.

Instead of “I don’t like using data visualization for this information”, try “I’m not sure data visualization is the right way to represent this information when we consider our target audience is mainly teens. Let’s explore other ways to present this content.”


  • Take care when setting the stage.

The feel of the room is important to ensure your team stays focused on the work at hand. Keep the room clear of as many distractions as possible (no ringing phones, don’t set up in a high-traffic office area, etc). Have any relevant info or content handy, as well as any previous versions of your design (if you want them for comparison).

  • Embrace the initial silence, and let others speak first.

Give your team time to absorb what they’re seeing and have an initial gut reaction to it.  Don’t prime them to look for or at certain elements - if the whole point of a logo you’re designing is a little visual “Easter egg”, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot if you immediately ask people, “Do you see it?! Do you see the face?!” You may not have the chance to explain your designs to every single decision-maker who views them. So treat your critiques the same way - let the conversation get started before explaining your decisions.

  • Never - ever - give disclaimers.

Whatever you have at the moment you present is exactly right, and try not to admit otherwise - embrace the work you’ve done with confidence! Giving disclaimers will affect the way your teammates give you feedback, and defeats the purpose of getting critique on what you’ve brought to the table. If you really feel the need to give disclaimers to what you’re showing, your work may not be ready for feedback just yet.

  • Don’t take it personally!

This is by far the hardest one to master, and comes from years and years (and years) of practice in hearing critical feedback. Remember that - especially in a professional setting - your work is not you and you are not your work. Everyone in the room wants the same thing, and you have taken enormous strides in getting to that end product. When you’re creating visual solutions to complex problems, inevitably you won’t get it perfectly right on the first pass (and no one is expecting you to). Your team has trusted you as the design expert, and you are. Embrace critical feedback as an opportunity to explore other great design solutions and elevate your work even further.  

In conclusion, feedback is the most important thing you can get as a designer, so make sure you set yourself up for success.  

BONUS TIP: Learn the jargon!

The more you know and understand about design, the better your critical feedback will be.  We’ve compiled a few resources here to help you learn the lingo and understand how designers think:

  • Brand New: Presents in-depth case studies and critiques of brand identities
  • Fonts in Use: Explores the use of different typefaces in various industries
  • Identity Designed: Shares in-depth case studies and critiques of brand identities
  • It’s Nice That: Presents case studies and opinions on all things design

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