Category Archives: Design

And the Winner Is …

How one campaign wins four awards.

Wondering if you should enter your work in a workplace communication competition? Here are a few thoughts about choosing what to enter and where. 

I had a nice surprise in my inbox yesterday morning. I received notice that a communication campaign I worked on last year—a wellness program launch for CommonSpirit Health—earned its fourth accolade. 

I’ve earned awards throughout my career but not four different awards from four different organizations for a single campaign. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever entered a single campaign in more than one or two competitions. So, what made this one special? Why did it win? 

If you’re looking for some recognition for your communications team, here are a few thoughts on what to enter and where to enter it.

Je Ne Sais Quoi

I work on several campaigns for several different clients every year. Not every one of those is award-worthy. 

When I say a campaign isn’t “award-worthy”, I don’t mean the work isn’t good or that it failed. I simply mean it lacks that je ne sais quoi.

This lovely French expression, literally meaning “I don’t know what”, is sometimes used to describe an elusive quality that makes something appealing or distinctive. Based on my experiences, entering, losing, winning and judging these competitions, I think winning campaigns have that. 

When I sense the following while developing and executing a campaign, I start to suspect I might have a winner on my hands.

It feels different from the beginning. Not every communication project sets out to drive major change. The goal might be maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, or (in the world of HR and benefits communication) meeting a regulatory requirement. These kinds of projects are important, essential, but they have a different vibe from the outset. They don’t necessarily stir the passions and they’re not as likely to produce the kind of work or results that turn a judge’s head. The CommonSpirit campaign was different right from the beginning. The project had visibility at high levels in the organization and it was clear that the project team had high hopes. They were passionate, energetic and eager to push the boundaries. They weren’t just trying to get this thing over with. They wanted to make a difference. I knew this was going to be a creative challenge and a special opportunity.

By the way … be open to your campaign’s potential regardless of its subject matter. Some of the most interesting, creative work I’ve done has been on topics ranging from annual benefits enrollment to workplace safety to compensation surveys. Sparks can ignite anywhere.

It looks and feels special. There are certain campaigns I look back on that surprise me. I wonder: How in the world did I come up with that headline? I can’t believe the client approved this photo! In retrospect, good creative can feel like the obvious choice. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. For the CommonSpirit campaign, we brainstormed for days, combing through samples, brand guidelines and company communications, which led us to scouring the Bible. During the ideation phase, after we get out all the obvious ideas, I will sometimes feel like I’ll never figure it out. We’ll go down dead ends and end up in unexpected places. These steps can be frustrating, but they are necessary and good. I think effective creative employs uncommon words and images in a way that will be immediately welcomed by the audience. That’s the needle to thread. But a lot of good creative ends up in the recycle bin precisely because it pushes the envelope. Fresh ideas can feel risky and they can make clients feel uncomfortable. But when those risky ideas elicit a positive response, you know you’re on to something.

It achieves something special. The CommonSpirit campaign had clear goals from the outset—and they felt aggressive to me. I had never worked with this client before and it was a big project. A lot was on the line. Before the launch, I felt confident that, on their own, the deliverables we had created could win awards. But when the results of the campaign started coming in—70,000 new wellness program registrations in three weeks—I knew we’d touched our audience’s hearts and minds. We had achieved something special.

Know What You’re Getting Into

While I was studying creative writing and poetry in college, I entered a poem in a contest. In a few weeks, I received a letter indicating my work had been selected for publication. Beaming with pride, I took the letter to my professor. He quickly pointed out the contest was sponsored by a “vanity press.” They’ll print your work if you buy their publication. Basically, the only people reading that book will be the people who wrote it. Hopes dashed. Lesson learned.  

Entering communication competitions can be expensive and time consuming. And, they will get your hopes up. I’m not going to place a bet of time, money and emotion on something as mysterious as “I don’t know what”. I want a level of confidence that I have a real chance at winning something that is worth winning.

If you think you have a winner on your hands, here are some basic steps to take.

  1. Make a list of competitions you want to win. Google searches will pull up all kinds of results. You likely know some of the big ones, but there are other good competitions out there that are regional or have a particular focus. Make note of all of them.
  2. Narrow down your list by time frame. Some competitions are annual. Some accept applications on a rolling basis. They will all have guidelines about when the campaign happened. Choose competitions that make sense based on when you did the work and when winners will be announced. If you missed the boat on an award you’d like to win, put it on your calendar for next time.
  3. Align with the criteria. Before you start working on your entry, be sure you understand the criteria. I categorize competitions into two main types:
  • Quality. These competitions base judgement solely on an evaluation of the work itself. They don’t ask for results and they’re not interested in context. Basically, these are creators evaluating the quality of what you’ve created in and of itself. If you have a stunning piece of work, give these a shot. They can be great validation of the work you’re doing and a nice recognition for your team. Check out lists of previous winners. Are these organizations you’d be proud to stand alongside? If so, enter.
  • Quality and Results. These competitions place great importance on achieving results. They’ll want a solid case study outlining your strategy and outcomes. If you have a stunning piece of work backed up by an insightful approach AND compelling evidence of results, take the time to enter. These kinds of competitions (e.g., IABC, Ragan, Communicator Awards) have higher standards and there’s more competition but they come with greater notoriety and, I think, an overall higher sense of achievement.

Let’s Connect

Do you have a campaign coming up that needs award-winning strategy and creative? What tips and insights would you share about entering communication competitions? We’d love to hear from you. 

More Ideas

Are you leaving someone out?

One would assume that graphic design is accessible to its audience, yet a graphic designer’s decisions can inadvertently exclude individuals. It’s a simple matter of we don’t know what we don’t know.

When creating a communication, a graphic designer should consider more than specific communication objectives, brand guidelines, etc. For example, will the design effectively translate for those with vision issues or hearing loss?

What does this mean for graphic designers?

Designers may view accessibility as a barrier to creativity. Alternatively, accessibility can be viewed like any other guideline such as objectives, logo usage, color palette and typography. When accessibility guidelines are embraced upfront, they become part of the overall design challenge to influence an approach to engage the entire audience. 

What does this mean for employers?

Employee communication influences an employee’s experience and overall perception of its employer. Ensuring that communication is accessible will only strengthen perception of the employer and broaden the inclusion of a diverse employee audience.

General guidelines for design accessibility

  • The main point should be obvious and simple. 
    This seems obvious, but as a designer, sometimes we want to be clever or more abstract given the situation. And that is perfectly fine, providing the main point is easily distinguishable (you only have a few seconds to hook the user).
  • Color is just one of many design tools.
    There are variations and severities of color blindness, so consider what the design will look like in grayscale. If it works great in grayscale, it will be accessible to all (and it will be even better in color for those that are not color blind).
  • Contrast is critical.
    Adequate contrast between a background and text is even more important when considering color blindness because content may not be visible.
  • Make fields (and their labels) visible. 
    For someone that is color blind or has significant vision loss, filing out a form (long-hand or electronic) can be difficult if the field is not visible and its label so small it is illegible.
  • Ensure readability (not just contrast, but font size as well).
    Designers tend to love large and very small type. If the platform is electronic, hopefully the font size is customizable to a degree so the user can adjust accordingly. But in print, it can be much more difficult and limiting.
  • Be mindful of animation and effects. 
    Flashing effects and intense patterns can trigger headaches, vertigo and in rare cases, seizures. For motion graphics with such effects, first display a warning. Other solutions may include altering the video or providing an alternative to the video, like a detailed storyboard or graphic communication that combines still images and text.
  • Make motion graphics work effectively without audio.
    If a video works effectively without sound, then it is icing on the cake for those that hear well. If the video has significant voice over, like a training video, then consider providing subtitles or a transcript.


  1. How many Fortune 100 companies fail to meet at least one of six standards to make career pages/websites accessible?
  2. Many color-blind people think peanut butter is what color?
  3. How many men out of 12 are color blind?
  4. What famous musician had significant hearing loss and compensated by feeling the vibrations of the piano and using an ear trumpet?
  5. How many million Americans under the age of 65 have hearing loss?
  6. What percentage of U.S. websites fail at least one Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) failure?

Answers: 1. 89 2. Green 3. One. 4. Ludwig van Beethoven. 5. 30 million or 62% of those experiencing hearing loss 6. 96% in 2022

Helpful resources

There is a plethora of resources around design accessibility. Here are a few to get you started:

Color blindness simulator:

Hearing loss simulator:

Digital accessibility:

Web contrast checker:

Web accessibility testing:

Digital compliance:

So now you know! Enjoy the challenge of creating accessible design and reap the benefits by engaging your employee audience and influencing a positive experience.


More Ideas

Negative space is a positive thing.


Personal space, office space, open space, dead space, green space, storage space, outer space. We all need space.

As a graphic designer, there’s one kind of space that often gets a bad rap – that’s negative space, or the space that surrounds a subject or focus of a design. Many clients are uncomfortable with negative space or feel it is wasteful and cannot resist the urge to fill it. But negative space truly is a positive thing. Let’s explore why.

People shouldn’t have to work hard to absorb content. One of the most common complaints from clients is that employees don’t read. One way to engage employees is to make it easy for them to absorb content and compel them to read. That means making the composition of the content balanced, visually appealing, minimizing copy and enhancing content with visuals that support or explain the subject matter. In other words, eliminate the feeling of chaos.

If you have a lot of content that needs to be conveyed, consider the following:

  • Determine what is truly necessary. Stick to the top three things you want people to remember or take action on. As a communicator, you are a subject matter expert, so you have the full picture and its details in your head. But most often, people don’t need all of that detail.
  • Layer information. That means focus on the top three things, then provide direction to where more information can be found. This will keep your abstract thinkers happy as they typically don’t want all the details and keep your concrete thinkers satisfied because they can access more detail.
  • Incorporate visuals that offer meaning and provide a “break.” Leverage visuals, such as photographs, icons and infographics that provide a break from all of the words and enhance the meaning of the content. This is especially important given 65% of the population are visual learners!
  • Use negative space effectively. As covered earlier, negative space is your friend and will help keep people engaged and make content scannable.

Granted, there may be situations where you can’t get around dense content, like legal notices. But even then, hierarchy is everything and can create a positive experience for the reader that truly wants to find specific content or read all of the content.

You see, negative space IS a positive thing!

More Ideas

Heart 2 Heart

Connecting images to love and to health.

What’s Valentine’s Day without roses, candy and, especially, hearts? The symbolism is overwhelming and leaves little room for misinterpretation. If you see a heart during the first two weeks of February you know what to think. Right?

What’s love got to do with it?

Swimming against this rushing romantic river is the American Heart Association who, along with the U.S. government, has designated February as American Heart Month.  When the AHA shows a heart in February they’re being a bit more literal. Carving out visual space for the actual organ this month is a Herculean task.

Maybe the thinking is, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Or, maybe the heart lobby is being ironic. More likely, American Heart Month has been swallowed up by the marketing frenzy that now surrounds every modern holiday. American Heart Month was first proclaimed 1963. A lot has changed in public relations, marketing and advertising in those 57 years, not the least being a proliferation of heart-related images afforded by ubiquitous media.

The efforts of the American Heart Association are laudable and illustrative. They point to a challenging aspect of communication—the use of images in shifting contexts.

Social Backdrop

There is no universal visual literacy. Unlike written language and mathematics, we don’t learn strict grammatical formulations about images. Romance =♥. The heart shape almost universally stands for love in our culture. The shape of that love, the emotion involved, is not so clear. Hearts can be puzzled, incomplete, committed or caged.

There doesn’t need to be a romantic connotation at all. Do the hearts below express affection, whimsy or health? Or, do they point to reading, nature and cooking?

Designer and architect George Nelson identified “social context” as a necessary ingredient to understanding an image or design:

“In visual reading, like verbal reading, the completeness of the reading relates directly to the quality of the reader’s stored information…it uses a code or language which has to be intelligible to the receiver.”

How to See p. 17

Images rarely communicate on there own. Without formal grammar, images depend on context to inform their meaning. Context is derived from a myriad of sources. Accompanying words, common uses, cultural symbology, literary references, technology, fashion and more all inform how we “read” an image.


Timing is another element that affects context. An image of a pumpkin signals something different around Halloween than it does around Thanksgiving. Just as the image of the heart means romance in the weeks leading up to St. Valentine’s Day.

Choosing the right image infuses our communication with near instantaneous emotion, identification, interest and other connections that are increasingly difficult to achieve with words. If we want maximum impact, we must keep an eye on the ever-shifting social contexts that inform the images we use.

May your heart find love and health this Valentines Day!

Feature photo by Karolina Grabowska

More Ideas