All posts by Glen Gonzalez

About Glen Gonzalez

Glen is a Partner and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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Easy Choices

Do simple names help employees make complex decisions?

HDHP/HSA: An Overview 

Since its inception in 2004, the adoption rate of the High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) has been growing. Today, approximately 30% of covered workers in the United States participate in an HDHP. Originally offered as an alternative to PPOs and HMOs, the HDHP was intended to incentivize consumer behavior in healthcare. Its plan design, which allows it to be paired with a tax-advantaged Health Savings Account (HSA), was distinct from existing medical plan options and the name alone made it easy for HDHPs to stand apart.

The Challenge of Naming a Plan

As acceptance has grown, so have the options. Employers are increasingly adding not just one HDHP, but multiple HDHPs. In these cases, quickly distinguishing one HDHP option from another through use of a descriptive plan name can be challenging. 

This is due, in part, to low understanding among employees of key medical plan features:

  • Premium: the amount the employee pays for the coverage each month
  • Deductible: the amount the employee pays for covered services before their insurance starts to pay
  • Copayment: a fixed dollar amount the employee pays for certain healthcare services
  • Coinsurance: the employee’s share of the costs of a healthcare service once coverage kicks in 
  • Out-of-Pocket Maximum: the most the employee pays during the plan year before the plan starts to pay 100% of the allowed amount

Generally, higher deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums result in lower premiums and multiple HDHPs are distinguished from each other by these amounts (rather than by features such as access to out-of-network providers).  

Comparing these multiple plans can be challenging for employees because there are many variables must be compared against one another.

  • How much will this cost me each month?
  • How much health care will my family use?
  • How much risk am I taking over the course of the year?
  • How much will my medications cost?
  • How much can I save in HSA over time?

These are not trivial one-to-one cost analysis. They are highly individualized and impactful for most employees’ health care budgets. Therefore, finding simple, easily understood names for the plans is also difficult and complicated.  

Common Approaches to Naming HDHPs

Metallic Plans (Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze)

This is likely the most familiar option, as it is employed by healthcare.gov. Similar to how they are used in the Olympics (or by jewelers), these metals distinguish plans by actuarial value with Platinum being the highest followed by Gold, Silver and Bronze. 

Metallic names seem to offer an immediate recognition of value. (Would you rather have an ounce of bronze or an ounce of Gold?) However, metallic names are problematic, because it’s not necessarily clear to the employee what that value means. 

It could easily be inferred that Platinum plans are most expensive, but that’s only true with regard to premiums. Yet, high premiums may be a waste of money for people who don’t use very much health care.  It could also be inferred that Bronze plans are worth less, but they could be a better deal for the employee based on their use of health care, and a greater ability to save money in an HSA. 

Deductible Amounts

Including the deductible amount in a plan’s name immediately conveys useful information about the underlying plan. However, as mentioned above, employees might not necessarily understand this concept. For example, some employees might be willing to pay higher premiums in exchange for a lower deductible because they may assume a lower deductible means “more” or “better” coverage.

Some employers use only the individual deductible in the name (which can cause confusion for those who choose family coverage), and some use both the individual and family deductible, (which can result in long or clunky names).

  • Single Deductible Approach: HSA $1,500 and HSA $3,000
  • Both Deductible Approach: HSA $1,500/$3,000 and HSA $3,000/$6,000

Comparative Descriptors

Another approach is to use descriptive terms that attempt to convey how the plans are different. However, these approaches have similar pros and cons as the metallic names; they have inherent meanings but might mislead employees.

  • HSA Premium and HSA Standard 
  • HSA Plus and HSA 
  • HSA High and HSA Low 
  • HSA and HSA Core 
  • HSA and HSA Basic
  • HSA and HSA Value 
  • HSA High Use and HSA Low Use

Non-comparative Descriptors

Another approach would be to use descriptors that merely indicate the two options are different without implying any comparison. These labels have no inherent meaning. Employees would have to learn what each means over time.

  • HSA Blue and HSA White
  • HSA 1 and HSA 2
  • HSA A and HSA B

Conclusion

There is no right or wrong approach to naming HDHPs. The metallic names, though simple and easy to understand, are imperfect. Other comparative and descriptive methods also fall short. Simplicity cannot be the ultimate concern. 

Employees need to understand the features of their health plans through effective communication and tools that help them model and compare the offered plans against their individual circumstances. Any name will work, if it is properly supported with information employees can usefully access and apply.

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Feelings

Hold on, I’m going to get all emotional on you …

A few years ago, a client asked me to help them promote workplace safety to employees. During site visits to two of their production facilities, I quickly realized that they were already doing plenty of communication about safety. Upon driving up to one of the facilities, I was greeted by a 20-ft billboard bearing a brief, charmingly scripted safety message. 

Safety messages were everywhere. One facility even conducted daily safety briefings. What in the world could possibly be left to say? 

Face-to-Face Discovery Matters

After speaking with managers, supervisors and employees, I realized that these people cared very deeply about safety and about keeping others safe. One manager even choked up while relaying to me a story from earlier in his career about a co-worker who was badly injured on the job. I think I saw his eyes tear up. 

On the plane ride home, while I pored over my notes, that story kept popping up in my mind along with the image of this otherwise burly man getting weepy on me. That’s when I realized what was missing from this company’s communication about safety: emotion.

We’re People, Not Computers

The workplace is the domain of logic and data. You have to back up what you say with proof and facts. You have to be in control of yourself. You have to be poised. You can’t let your true feelings poke through. But we are human; humans have feelings, and feelings are a way we communicate with each other. They are a cunning way our inner selves let the truth slip through our well-crafted facades. 

The reason the manager’s story was so memorable was not because it was a particularly unique story, but because of the way it made him feel. I could see he was passionate about safety, and I needed to let employees see that passion.

During that trip, I just so happened to pick up a book called Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in the Brain. Chapter 17 was “Impact Booster #4: Emotion.” 

Back in my office, I flipped through another of my other favorite tomes: Made to Stick. Chapter 5: “Emotional.” 

Then, I watched a brief video clip of a speech delivered by another client’s new president and CEO. He stood before his company’s sales force and, while extolling the company’s competitive advantages, he paused. He seemed to get choked up. Then he said, “I am proud of you.” If it weren’t so sincerely stated, it could have been an eye-rolling moment. I’m not a salesman, but his passion made me want to jump up and sell something!

Emotion Is Part of the Message

Emotions help us form memories. They are like a bookmark in the mind for a passage of time that has particular meaning for us. The authors of Neuromarketing say that emotions communicate directly to the decision-making center of the brain. 

An emotion drives you to act, and you can’t argue or debate with emotion. It’s immediate and real. Just think of our reliance on emoticons in text messages. We already know that our audience needs the additional context of our emotions to really understand what we’re saying. 

Communication in the workplace is no different. Employees are like any other audience; an emotional appeal will help get their attention. It also will help your message squeeze through their cynicism and doubt. And later, when they’re driving home or having lunch, they’ll remember the passion and the sincerity (sincerity being key). It will stir their own feelings, and their feelings will influence their behaviors.

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How to Give Better Feedback to Graphic Designers

Better graphic design means better communication. So, being able to communicate effectively with the graphic designers on your team can enhance your ability to achieve your goals.

All else being equal, pictures are remembered better than words,1 we learn from images more successfully than from text, and strong visuals can connect with an audience faster — and with more emotion — than words alone.2

In fact, humans have been using images to communicate for about 30,000 years longer than we’ve been using written words.3 You’d think we’d all be really good at giving graphic designers constructive feedback by now. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

At Smith, our creative work is a collaboration between writer and graphic designer. Regardless of who’s leading the project, both communicators have a stake in the project’s success, and both are charged with creating highly effective and creative communications for our clients. One role is not more important than the other and the   blend of these complementary skill sets generally sparks a better outcome than if just one of us were working alone.

I’ve been collaborating with graphic designers for more than two decades, but I’m a writer by trade and training and partnering effectively with graphic designers was something I had to work at. Still, I’m not immune from giving my design colleagues at Smith the kind of feedback that sometimes just isn’t helpful. So, I asked them to help me put together a few basic tips to help those of us who aren’t graphic designers to provide more useful feedback. 

Here goes …

1. Instead of Telling the Designer What; Tell Them Why 

If the designer doesn’t know why something is broken, they can’t properly fix it. Rather than telling a designer what to do, try to explain why you want something done. I’ve found that, when I do this right, the designer is more likely to come back with a solution that is far better than anything I imagined.

Instead of …Try …
Replace the photo with the attached.Can you find a new photo? The brand guidelines ask for natural situations and the people in this image look too posed.
Clean up the sketch I provided.Create an engaging visual that simplifies the data I’ve attached.
Make this brighter.Can you call more attention to this particular element? – OR – Can you confirm these colors align with the brand color palette?

2. Keep it Objective

When it comes to employee communication, good graphic design is not about personal taste. Usually, the aesthetic is determined by the organization’s brand identity system and not about what we like or don’t like. When we approach a project, we put our personal opinions aside and try to execute within the guidelines we’re provided.

Because we work with a wide variety of clients, we work with a wide variety of brand identity systems. But we know our clients don’t enjoy that same variety. Each client has only one brand identity system that they see day after day … project after project … year after year. It’s easy to feel trapped within the confines of the same colors, the same fonts, the same graphics … over and over again.

We also know that some agencies out there don’t always feel obliged to stick with a client’s established brand. They can sometimes find quick favor with a client by “pushing the envelope” or being “fresh,” but going off-brand is not a recipe for success. Sooner or later, the agency or the internal client will find themselves at odds with the marketing and brand teams. They also run the risk of confusing their audiences.

So, when reviewing work that must adhere to an established identity system, it’s important to evaluate it based on how well it aligns with that system, not on how much you may personally like or dislike it. 

Instead of …Try …
I’m tired of [company’s primary color].Can we use more of the secondary colors from the palette to distinguish this campaign?
My boss loves dogs. Can we use a photo of a dog somewhere?On our new Pet Insurance flyer, can you … 
I love this. / I don’t like this. This layout perfectly aligns / doesn’t align with the brand standards.This image perfectly reflects / doesn’t reflect the workforce.This is a great use / misuse of the color palette.

3. Be Concrete

For those of us who aren’t graphic designers or visual artists, graphic design is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. I struggle to find matching socks, so color theory is beyond my comprehension. But, getting color, composition and imagery right is not guesswork. It’s not a hunch and it’s not magic. While creative people have their natural abilities, the craft of design takes study, practice and effort. When you find yourself tempted to say something nebulous like, “It needs something,” “Make it pop” or “Work your magic,” ask for some time to chat with the designer. Feel free to think big and bold, but try to describe as concretely as possible what you want your audience to think, feel and do. Good designers know how to listen, to probe and to understand what you’re struggling with. Give the designer a chance to understand and address the real issue — especially if you’re not sure what it is!

4. Familiarize Yourself With the Tools and Craft of Design

The technology available to graphic designers can make the impossible seem possible, but “photoshopping” isn’t always a solution. Be curious. Ask your designer how they do what they do. Ask them what applications they use. Let them share some of their behind-the-scenes work with you. This will give you a better understanding of the work involved and help you become a better creative director.

Bonus Tip: Make Your Copy Edits Impossible to Misunderstand

The tips above are focused on giving feedback on the design, not the words. When giving copy edits to a graphic designer, keep in mind they are not the writer and making changes to copy is not the same as editing it. Try to leave no room for interpretation in your mark up. For example, rather than describe the edit you want (“insert language from page 2”), copy the exact copy you want into your comment and indicate exactly where it should go. 

Let’s Connect

Do you have any tips or techniques for communicating your vision to a graphic designer? Are you struggling to get your ideas executed? We’d love to hear from you. 

1 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1003125/

https://www.pwc.com.au/the-difference/the-power-of-visual-communication-apr17.pdf

3 The oldest known figurative art 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journey-oldest-cave-paintings-world-180957685/

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