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Communications Design Industry Discussion, Inspiration, & Tutorials

May 11, 2017

The Evolution of ENews

By On 10:01

I designed and sent out my first corporate e-newsletter back in 2010. The technology and the MagnetMail CMS were both fairly new to me. I was professionally familiar with the concept, but had never before had my designs virtually blasted into the inbox of over 10,000 professionals in one stroke of a keyboard! Years earlier, I was charged with layout of the quarterly (print) newsletter of the American Institute of Architects, a wholly different animal.

Today, I’ve just completed the layout of a new experiment in e-newsletters. My organization tasked me with turning a Google Site into the host and archive for our monthly news. I’m marrying website and newsletter here., now having the opportunity to hide expanded content in the eNews domain.  This is a far cry from the beginning of our marketing efforts…take a peek at the timeline:
From a multi-page PDF, to an online document, to today's site...
First, a print PDF that at times spanned 7 pages, Next 2-page Printable PDF, Now the Google Site

Enewsletters, while distinct in their layout and content are still built on the foundations of effective writing and basic HTML—things many design professions should be grounded in. What’s the difference between the e-newsletter, print newsletter, and a regular website?

Compare: Newsletter, E-News, & Websites

These three are all content marketing tools, simultaneously informational and promotional. However, they employ slightly different delivery methods.

The newsletter is largely a print publication, with multiple pages, multiple articles, and (usually) multiple advertisements, to financially sustain such a expensive routine undertaking. Printing costs money folks.

  • Benefits of a newsletter include, very importantly, the user experience. Newsletters are delivered to members, there’s a exclusivity in membership (… this is not something that just anybody receives)! Recipients of this newsletter can read and reread articles, dog-ear the pages, make notes in margins, use them to augment scholarly work, and save them for later…or even just place them strategically around an office or living room to look smart.
  • Cons of a newsletter: a major con is that while everything above it possible, you will rarely know if people do one or more of those activities. Paper and ink do not yield analytics.

Websites are fantastic for sharing your company, organization, and ideas with your target audiences and anyone else interested in your topic—who stumbles across your site. It’s a fact that many of us who should be updating our website content on a regular basis, rarely do. Instead websites are repositories for much important, if static, information. We more often rely on social media for up-to-the-minute updates for our clients, audience, and followers.

  • Benefits of websites: your voice, your design, your rules! This is a huge benefit over having an online presence comprised only of social media. As for others, your website is a unique URL that can the address for seekers of knowledge, truth, or your expertise. The more it gets known, the more it is shared, and saved, and distributed by search engines. It can grow in popularity without any additional monetary output on the part of your audiences ...hopefully that makes sense.
  • Cons of a website: remember to update your website! Larger sites can become unwieldy and difficulty to keep up-to-date on a regular basis. Sad but true.

This medium relies upon two things we’ve already discussed, effective writing and websites. The enews letter is not a fully developed website with sub-pages, main and secondary navigation. Instead, it’s snippets of useful, interesting content that leads the reader AWAY from the newsletter TO your websites, or contact forms, or articles, or informational pages…things that invariably live on your website, related websites, or your social media platforms. They also rely upon pithy, interesting writing.

Effective writing is a science: Enews designers go through rigorous testing—of seemingly simplistic aspects of the content—to find a formula that works. In my career, I’ve worked with different communications teams to test various aspects of organizations’ newsletters for the winning combinations that yield a  greater rates of  opens, click-throughs, reads, subscribes (as opposed to unsubscribe), and shares… much of the important testing starts at the subject line. Poorly written subjects mean your email might never get opened. Effective e-News testing goes beyond that, of course, from the placement of images in relation to text, to different ways to present seemingly indistinct information.

  • Benefits of ENews: If you want to know how many of your audience is reading your newsletter, it’s all right there in your analytics. Enews publications also dive traffic to other places here you can track your audience, your website, and social media streams.
  • Cons of ENews: Brevity is the key here. Your enews article MUST be a textual sound bite—the appetizer that entices your reader to click to read more, learn more, or sign up! It’s possible to host a feature article in your enewsletter, but it’s a terrible risk that your readers will stop there and not interact with the rest of the analytics driven document. Needless to say, you want good writers working on the e-news, people who can turn a phrase….not the most verbose member of your team.

Learn more about testing Enews and mailing lists from Media Shift
Learn more about testing campaigns from MailChimp

Apr 24, 2017

Multimedia Open House at Earl S. Richardson Library

By On 10:20

In moving to promote the multimedia resources, I planned a brief, 2-hour, open house event to showcase the newest resources available to the community. This was accomplished with assistance from the team in the IT department.

First, as always, I started with the concept of technology and multimedia. The ideas were flying fast and loose until I reigned them in…simplicity is key to getting across any message. I settled on the icon cloud theme.

There is a level of exclusivity to being invited in card, with a hand scribbled note.

I’m probably a throwback, a relic, but I believe that people like to receive invitations to RSVP in a tangible format, rather than electronic. The next idea that followed was the invitation card. This was to be hand signed and delivered before the electronic messages began spamming the entire community.

The incidentals were then taken care of by our event sponsors: the freebies and other give-aways were furnished by Panopto and Smart Thinking. For my part, I created a series of informational fact sheets and branded signage—along with the updated website and e-blast messages, to pull this all together.

The most important part, however, was the hands on demonstrations and explanations that were given during this brief event. On the day we saw over 100 people in the 2 hours and I repeated my elevator pitch for the Record & Go Studio two-dozen times…whew.

All in all, it was a success.

Mar 27, 2017

Don't Get Screwed by your Social Media

By On 10:11

Complaining about work on social media is like farting in an elevator. You can't escape the fact that you did it.

One morning I switched on my computer to find this series of status updates at the top of my Facebook (Fb) Newsfeed:

  • My boss calls me while I shower, she calls while I brush my teeth and pack my lunch, then I am trying to drive and she calls me again, so I pull over and try to talk to her, but she screams at me and hangs up a few times without telling me why she is flipping out. "WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?!!!"…
  • Two more days of being bludgeoned before the weekend arrives...in my next life I would prefer to have more choices...
  • She's gotten into the habit of abusing me, but since she pays me I am not allowed to complain. I think I need to start going home and being unable to work when she treats me too badly, because this shit will kill me. Must take stand, to preserve so-called sanity...

This old friend of mine, Robin*, was obviously disgruntled and feeling trapped by her chosen work. So much that she had to vent on social media. I sent her a concerned message about her tirade. In the end I had to ask “...are you sure you want to voice your disdain for your boss/job on the world wide web?”

I felt that I had to respond to her. This woman is my friend, and I’ve seen the worst case scenario play out in two similar situations. Individuals, friends of mine, have lost jobs in their respective fields after badmouthing their direct supervisor or company on Facebook. One of these has not been able to get another position in his field.

A Little Perspective

Of course, we should have the freedom to badmouth whomever we choose when speaking to individual peer networks. However, the internet is a complex arena where private conversation is concerned; Facebook doubly so:
If your privacy settings are set to only share your content with your peer network, you have a strong layer of protection from the rest of the web. But, ask yourself, “Do my ‘friends’ also protect their comments, shares, likes, and updates with the same settings?” Maybe some do, but definitely not all of them…

Once your friend comments on your negative work-related update, or shares it, it belongs to them and can appear to everyone who follows them. If they have an 'open’ profile then anyone who finds them on the internet can view their Fb activity—without even logging in!

To gauge whether you may potentially face negative repercussions at work answer this question, are any of your Fb friends also your coworkers, or close friends of your co-workers? If you’re not sure don’t risk your job by bitching unfettered on social media!

An Unforeseen Repercussion

Back when I was in grad school, a fellow student was going through a stressful time at work. In Fb status updates she told the world daily, that she hated her boss, her job, coworkers, and the company.

On one occasion I even commented that she was being harsh. She didn't care, she had been interviewing regularly and was preparing to accept an offer. Our paths crossed again three years later. I was tasked with vetting graphic designer resumes for an open position in my company and this woman applied. The memory of those graphic rants about the past job jumped immediately to mind. How long would it take her to become disenchanted before social media mudslinging began? Could I trust her not to badmouth my organization and friends online? Could I  risk unleashing her on my beloved organization? She did not get an interview.

Back to Robin…

She immediately responded to my note with this: “Guess who doesn’t care…Maybe I will get fired….if she's not gonna pretend she's nice and reasonable, I'm not either.”

I get it, she hates her job and plans to be fired. She’ll have the opportunity to find another job—and hopefully have a more fulfilling experience. Hopefully, when she is back on the job market she won't be applying with or interviewing with anyone who has had to read these hyper-negative status updates about her current boss.

*Her name’s not Robin
Reprinted: Still relevant...updated from the original—to accommodate recent Fb privacy settings... 

Mar 21, 2017

This Week:Event Planning!!!

By On 12:57
In my new role as instructional yadda yadda, I have had the opportunity to oversee the final touches on the university's recording studio...and in doing that, to build relationships!

 To that end, my team and another on campus will be hosting a multimedia open house later this semester--on the cheap.

We're working together to plan the events, activities, and promotions. For me it's imperative to get all of my work on this project done and dusted before the end of the month, as I will be otherwise indisposed for most of early April.

Detail of my sketches.
It's crunch time right now! However, I want to take a few moments to share my design process for these promotions. It's a bit elementary for seasoned designers--or in-house designers even--to develop a full, comprehensive creative brief. And unnatural for a team of 1, but as I'm partnering with others on campus, I had to spell out the projects, rationales, and various media by using a creative brief. And to be honese, it has helped me to focus more quickly that usual, for this period of hard work. After sharing the brief and getting team ideas on tweaks, I've begun to craft the various promotional messages (copy) and layout the various media (signage, digital and otherwise, a couple website updates that require custom photography and writing, and a small run of elegant printed invitations).

Here's where I went with the invites.

Mind you: we'll be printing and finishing, and delivering these babies by hand, and on the cheap. So I opted for B/W with no bleeds. This almost reminds me of a typography project that I've given students in the past--to make them think hard about their design decisions. Pictured is one of about 8 design solutions that I explored.

Cheers, S

Mar 17, 2017

This Week: Learn. Create. Grow.

By On 11:39

It’s been 6 months, and time to revisit the communications plan in the Office of Academic Technology Services (ATS). The team has been fighting an uphill battle (one with forward progress, at least) to grow their client base, and educate constituents about our proficiencies, resources, and services.

My brain has been racked for the past couple weeks, in anticipation of today’s team meeting: I’d be unveiling a new tagline and marketing materials that grow on the ones developed about half a year ago. Well, the reception was good. And the ATS team is ready for the continued roll-out. Picture it:

Academic Technology Services: Learn. Create. Grow

It builds back from our university mission and tagline; Growing the Future. Leading the World.

Click on a thumbnail to view full-sized "LEARN." poster:


5 Tips to a Great Design Portfolio

By On 09:07
Without any piffle, here we go:

  1. Ditch the Box: technology advances mean that we can leave the large portfolio case at home. Especially since a printed book that outlines your best works just as well. Some designers have ditched print altogether and showcase digital media samples; bringing a tablet/laptop on which to show their work. This can still allow for interactivity, if you design the digital portfolio with this built in
  2. Simplicity. Simplify. Simple: use an uncluttered simple layout.
  3. Brand Consistency is key. Keep the look of all consistent: the book, the leave behind, the resume, cover letter and business card.
  4. Get Feedback: once you’ve settled on your designs find out from peers, industry professions and art directors what they think.
  5. Leave a Leave Behind: after a stellar interview and portfolio review, you must put something in the interviewer's hand that will remind them of your fabulous self once you've gone. You want them to reach for their phone (or whatever) and have their hand linger over your leave behind...instead of making tha call they pick up your designed piece and handle it. At they review they can't help but ponder how awesome it would be to have someone with your skill, talent and creativity working on heir team... they could finally get "X" done right, etc.

Get some design inspiration from Pinterest

Mar 15, 2017

The Digital Divide (as I finally understand it)

By On 09:52

Many students grow up with tablets, laptops, and smart phones
Articles outlining the Digital Divide began appearing in Ed Tech (educational technology) journals a few years back; eagerly read by my black self and my white professional compatriots. As the newbie to ed tech I was less affected by the analysis and ramifications than they. Working in a small private university, with less than 20% financial aid kids and less than 14% minorities, our constituents were the direct heritors of the positive side of the divide. While the digital divide was definitely happening, it was happening a long way away.

Following the adage you don’t know what you don’t know, I read the articles but took a less-than-enlightened stance on the topic.


At that time, as now:
  1. practically all college students had smart phones, 
  2. many students that I encountered opted to complete homework (writing papers and discussion posts, etc.) using their phones, and 
  3. every poor person I encountered in Baltimore owned a smart phone.
I simply conflated the groups to develop my opinions on the subject. I recall once saying to my director, “The digital divide is largely becoming a myth…today more students than not [particularly poor inner city students] have access to the internet, online tools, and applications to get schoolwork done.” While superficially true, I had no empirical evidence of what poor kids were actually doing.

Impecunious youth at our private university were the ones who had to get work study jobs, but even they had grown up with the web at home.

It didn’t help my understanding not personally knowing people living in poverty and unable to afford the supremely necessary home computer. I simply could not relate.
A Commodore 64

As a kid of the 80s, I got my first computer at age 8—about a decade before computers became a necessary accessory for US households. My sister and I programmed computer games—in Basic—for fun. In high school and college I always had both a Mac and Windows computer on which to work—as a graphic designer and artist having both was a personal imperative. Between undergrad and graduate schools I purchased, used, and equipped with the appropriate software packages, a total of four personal computers (two Mac, two Windows).

Like I said, I didn’t know. And that was the missing piece in my puzzle.

Today, I work at a state school; a  public, historically black university with over 80% of its students in receipt of financial aid. The majority of whom are black Americans, a vast majority of those from the Baltimore area, and many of whom are using their first personal computers, ever.

Back in the private university world of privilege, the undergraduate students—who opt to complete homework on their phones grew up with desktops, laptops, and tablets in houses with secure internet access, wired and wireless routers, and monthly bills that were paid on time. They had the opportunity to bring their own laptops to schools that boasted open WiFi, or were given computers on which to work, by their schools. The poor Baltimore kids, some the first in their families to go to college, never had an equivalent or anything close. Even though today all of these kids have smart phones that can allow them to complete projects and do research on the fly, only the first group actually takes advantage of that fact.

On the wrong side of the chasm that we call the digital divide are the poorer, blacker students.

Personal interactions with a couple undergrad students finally opened my eyes: 

Nadia, Class of 2017

My department shares an office with the university’s library tech support team. Often students walk in with a computer or network problem. Rather than have them wait for one of the two technicians or leave a message, I usually field the easier questions to help get students back to the two things I’ve always taken for granted, understanding and access [to the computer].

On the morning before our first and only snow day of the year a young woman came in asking for help to install and start up Skype. She was scheduled to have the first important interview of her career on the following day. Nutrition and Dietetics undergrads are required to complete a six-month, 40-hour per week internship before they sit their certification exam. This university senior was nervous and excited for the upcoming virtual meeting.

Her problem was that the program was hanging up instead of starting quickly, as it had earlier. I ordered her to grab a seat at the coffee table, plug in the power cable, and start up her Macbook while I finished writing an email at my desk.

As she did this, I informed her that one way to avoid any issues with virtual meetings was to “ALWAYS use a wired connection, rather than rely on WiFi.” She did not know what I meant.

This is what a modem looks like
I explained what an Ethernet cable was and where to plug it in. She was still confused.

Admittedly, a bit perturbed, I asked her how she accessed the internet at her off-campus apartment. She used a WiFi hotspot from her phone, of course. And this has never given her a problem in the past. She does not and has never had a wired internet access at home, having always relied on the phone-enabled Wifi hotspot.

Understanding her predicament, I asked a few probing questions while I connected my spare Ethernet cable to her laptop and played with the Skype application. I started and restarted Skype, “have you used Skype on your computer—your phone—another campus computer before…experienced any similar problem…do you ever change network settings…do you have a login password for this Mac…what time is the interview…” etc. While we worked we also talked about her ambitions for the interview and beyond.

Within minutes I showed her how to see and edit her network settings, adjust and test her audio, uninstall and reinstall the Skype app (we got it working), and then gave a few tips about what to do during the interview to avoid technical snags.

This is a young woman who has a 3.5 GPA, and a passion for working with children suffering rare genetic disorders. She has excelled in a difficult educational field and has applied to one of the more competitive internships for her major—accepting under 50 students per year, nationwide. In her undergraduate tenure she has worked at the campus library, become well-respected in the Mathematics department (she told me that they would loan her of one of their laptops to take home for a backup interview computer), and has developed larger ambitions for a doctorate in the field of public health. If anyone does, this woman deserves every opportunity to succeed.

Michael, Class of 2018

A few days earlier, a young man came to my office with a problem, his professor had recently posted the weekly quiz online, but his computer did not allow him to download the necessary test-taking plugin. Please recall that I’m not tech support and I don’t actually know the precise fix for this problem. However, it’s something that has slowed my progress in the past. I suggested to him that the Windows firewall settings might need to be changed to allow the software download. An easy fix, if it works.

This young man did not have his computer with him, so I queried him more about the error messages then I gave him the number for the help desk and told him to call them while at his computer—he could then relay the specific errors or prompts to the Help Desk agent in real time.

The next day he returned to my office with his laptop and asked for my assistance. Normally I would have handed him my phone and restated my directive from the previous day, but the touchscreen laptop in his hand was the Toshiba Satellite, my latest Windows laptop, and frankly the bane of my existence (it’s not great). Rather than my sending him to the experts, we walked through a solution together. My assumption was right, a quick adjustment to his settings allowed download of the application.

On his way out, this third year student thanked me profusely and remarked in the doorway, “this is my first computer, y’know.” My heart melted for him. In another year he would enter the world of work (or graduate school) with only a 12-month experience in working with and trouble shooting his own personal computer.

The impact of his innocuous statement hit me. This thing—that I and a large segment of Americas youth take for granted—is foreign, a difficult concept, a largely unknown and misunderstood commodity to many poor black students.


Now, as back then, practically all students have smartphones, but the poor ones, the black ones, the ones from underprivileged Baltimore have never had a computer at home on which to write a paper, use the calculator app, or plagiarize from Wikipedia. So, they never developed the skills to transform their powerful smartphone into a powerful educational tool. They rarely make the leap to write that paper in Word 365 or Google Docs, using their thumbs and built-in spell check.

The Digital Divide is real. And it’s growing.

Mar 13, 2017

A Website is still Relevant

By On 07:04
Your Website Vs. Social Media Presence

Social media platforms are great for building community and knowledge of your goods, services, brand...but you don't own or control the platform. We'r all aware of the ever-changing landscape of social media: look at how 'groups', 'pages', 'individual' Facebook account (sharing and privacy) rules have changed in the past few years. Users get very little input on how these evolve.

A website allows you to market yourself on your own terms. On your own site you get to:
  • set rules and guidelines for how you share content
  • have and build direct relationships with your audience
  • organize your branding content how you want  it organized
Roberto Blake gives a lot of food for thought on the topic:

Jan 25, 2017

I Accidentally Invented a Better Commute

By On 08:49

I often wonder if part of the reason I love my job so (damn) much is because of my stellar commute. In the beginning I biked the 2 miles to my office until a serious wrist sprain changed my mind. Today my bi-pedal commute consists of walking, strolling, shambling, rushing, and occasionally running (to cross the street).

This morning, I got thinking about whether this walk is truly one of the sources of my happiness. I have only the anecdotal evidence of my experience—and common sense. While the trip is the same length, I spend more time being active; moving around. More time outside means more vitamin D from the sun, hence improved mood, and I’m also not sweaty every day like when I bike.

And, of Course:

  • Every morning I note the moon and stars visible to my left, and the lightening horizon to my right. Every morning I am serenaded by birdsong, startled by early dog walkers, and delighted by the showy display of sunrise.

  • Every morning—rain, shine, or snow—I’m in an excellent mood upon arriving at campus.

  • Every morning I have time to think over my morning, or the coming day, or the news report I heard on the AM radio, or just laugh out loud at something ridiculous that pops into my head.

 My wrist is mostly better, and I’ll begin biking again soon…maybe.