Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mad Men Planning

Don Draper
Hello Everyone:

Urban planning is about problem solving, proposing changes to the status quo.  Making lasting changes is more complicated because it requires an entire community to go along with whatever it is you, the planner/urban designer is proposing, like or not.  Getting an entire community to go along with a controversial proposal, well, that requires all the charm and skill of Don Draper.  In the ongoing mission to satisfy legal requirements, planners often turn their attention to presenting codes, statues, and statistics.  The problem with this is that said planners often spend more time writing something tantamount to legal briefs then crafting the "big picture."  They often fall back of jargon like "sustainable growth" or "walkable urbanism."  This is not boring to listen to but it also obscures the real ideas and does little to inform or engage the public. Ideas are the currency of planners and how their sold to a skeptical audience is crucial.  In a recent blog post for Planetizen, Georgia Sheridan and Amber Hawkes share what planners can learn from the fictitious Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Price.  So let's have a look at how planners can Draperize their next presentation.

Dove™ Real Beauty Sketch 

Make it Personal: Be Relatable-"You are the product. You feel something.  That's what sells." (Don Draper, Mad Men): Planning is about people, the way they live, the way they aspire to live-all simple but basic questions for planners to consider.  Put yourself and your life in the picture.  What do you want?  What are your choices.  Things like affordable housing, gentrification, traffic all affect you as well.  Find a way to relate your next planning project to your life.

One example is the spring advertising campaign from Dove-"Dove Real Beauty Sketches."  This thought-provoking documentary revealed women's own conceptions of their beauty and body image insecurities through interviews and a unique drawing exercises.  The video, available on YouTube (, creates a relationship between the subjects, the consumers, and Dove the company.  Dove understands what it means to be a woman and in doing so, women will trust the company with their skin.  The power of these video clips comes from the women's honesty and willingness to be that raw. (Full disclosure: Yours truly uses Dove facial soap)

Google Chrome™logo

Tell a Story: "Being noticed isn't enough anymore.  You also have to reach hearts and minds." Oglivy Washington, Creative Studio ( Everyone loves a good story.  They are the most natural way we process information.  Who are the actors?  What makes them run?  What challenges to the face and how they react to conflict?  When preparing a planning, or for that matter any subject presentation, consider the results of your actions.  What's at stake for your audience.  What do they stand to gain or lose?  Who are the main characters and how do they interact?  Instead of writing a legal brief, humanize your proposal by tapping into feelings.  Tell stories, use humor and suspense to grab your listeners' attention.

Google used this method to market their browser Chrome (Full disclosure: I use Chrome) through a series of short videos that tell simple stories about a father and daughter ("Dear Sophie to the virtual connection between Lady Gaga and her fans.  The videos tap our emotions while cleverly weaving the product as a way to tell the stories, instead of presenting a how-to commercial.  Google breaks the corporate barrier by inviting users to share intimate moments with the world as if sharing these moments with a close friend or relative.

Header image from
Logo and rendering by Melendrez
Brand it: "Their value builds for years, and over time, a good tagline can be your best and least expensive form of advertising." Wild East Group, Brand Management and Business Development Agency ( Give your title a catchy tagline, a brand, a graphic "look" that's simple, memorable, and connected to a core value of your message.  Think Nike's "Just Do It" campaign which was responsible for the rise of the Oregon-based athletic apparel company's market share from eighteen percent to forty-three percent; annual sales shot up from $800 million in 1988 to $9.2 billion in 1998 (  The tagline was more than just athletic ware, it is about a compelling mindset.  Related to the phrase is the widely recognized "swoosh."  Simple yet effective.  A persuasive tagline and logo can do more to push your project forward than just talk.

One urban planning example, when the city of Los Angeles wanted to transform the Figueroa corridor in Downtown Los Angeles, the project team made an effort to shorten the dull and verbose project title "Figueroa Boulevard Corridor Streetscape Plan" to the catchier "MyFig."  This implies public ownership of the street.  The attendant project materials and website engage and informs visitors while the equally catchy "GoFig" provides transit information.  Consistency is the key in branding and can help raise awareness, attract media attention, and encourage more public participation in the planning process.

Los Angeles Metro bus
Simplify: "Most campaigns are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives and try to reconcile the divergent view of too many executives.  By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing." David Oglivy, Oglivy on Advertising (Confessions of an Advertising Man, Oglivy): Reduce your message to three or four main ideas.  A long list of project goals will not only dilute the message but it bore your audience to tears.  Establish a hierarchy of information you want to present then get to the point quickly, don't mince words. The human mind is programed to remember information in blocks of four or less.  "The more people are asked to recall, the less accurate their recollection is." (100 Things Every Designer Needs to Known About People, Susan Weinschenk).  Assist your readers in following the flow of information with headers and visual cue to reinforce the informational hierarchy.  Bullet point when possible, use precision not jargon, use acronyms and repetitive adjectives.  Can you tweet it?

Take a lesson from the advertising industry and don't leave your audience guessing the main point of your message, in urban planning, this is crucial.  In 2009, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles rebranded their marketing information, creating simple, funny print adverts with the goal of increasing ridership.  The "opposites" campaign coupled opposing words (i.e. naughty versus nice; a problem versus a solution) in order to market Metro.  The simplicity of the campaign was stunning.  By shortening the content, they got right to the essence of their argument.  The moral of the story, when crafting plans and policies, it is vitally important that you craft a relevant message that can be delivered
quickly and effectively.  "Brevity is the sole of wit."

Samsung Galaxy™
Confront the Controversy: "Truth is the key to great marketing.  In this day and age, with social media and gotcha journalism and Wikileaks, there is absolutely nowhere to hide.  We believe in telling the truth to each other and we believe in telling the truth to the people we are trying to sell things to.  Now, our job is make it a beautiful truth, and to shine a great light on things that are true...we are great at telling stories that are truthful, and that's why they resonate with people" Matt Jarvis ( forget that line in A Few Good Men, "You want the truth?  You can't handle the truth."  Don't avoid the issues.  When advertising agency 72andSunny took on Samsung™as their client in 2011, they chose not to create advertising campaigns centered on the new look or features of the Galaxy.  Rather, they focused on the real issue, opting to go head-to-head with their competitor, Apple. Creating the tagline "The Next Big Thing is Already Here" campaign, Samsung poked at the Apple cult, while making themselves look like the poor relation.  Not quite as fanatical as Apple customers (Full disclosure: I use Apple products), Samsung customers are happy with their new phones, flaunting them to the glass-eyed Apple faithful.

This was a bold decision on Samsung's part, addressing the proverbial 800-pound Apple gorilla in the room.  Thanks to "The Next Big Thing is Already Here" campaign, Samsung surpassed the Cupertino, California-based company in global smartphone sales.  The lesson here also applies to urban planners.  When dealing with tough issues such as removing travel lanes in favor of more bus lanes or increasing parking fees to encourage more efficient land use, deal with the controversy head on.  Be transparent, list the pros and cons.  Don't skirt the issue, otherwise,  you create public distrust and lose your audience.

Street Vendor Guide
photograph courtesy of Prudence Katze and the Center for Urban Pedagogy
Tailor Your Message: Don't tell me how good you make it; tell how good it makes me when I use it. Leo Burnett, creative communication company ( Advertisers are very aware that people are different.  Really.  Given this, they must tailor their message to every demographic group.  Products are promoted at different times and places, using different mediums corresponding to the daily habits of the consumers..  Within the budget  and time line constraints, planners often fall back onto the one-size-fits-all modus operandi.  This m.o. may work some of the time, but not all of the time.  Thus, tailoring the message and the medium to when and where it can be delivered to the target group is critical for placing planning ideas in the public square.

One example of this method is public artist, Candy Chang.  With help from non-profit group Tenants & neighbors, Ms. Chang redesigned the New York State's official Tenants' Rights Guide into a pack of easy to use "flash cards" for renters.  The flash cards cover every conceivable topic from pets to paint to security deposits.  In conjunction with her work with Street Vendor Project, Ms. Chang used a similar approach with New York City's street vendor, condescending codes and regulations into a cartoon pamphlets with limited text, translated into different languages.  The design was repetitive and engaging, taking care to tailoring the message to the target audience.

"Diamond Were A Girl's Best Friend"
Edward Tufte Chart Junk.  Figure by Nigel Homes

Make It Visual: "We remember 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we read, and 80% of what we see and do." Syntactic Theory on Visual Communication (Lestor, 1994-1996; People are visual creatures.  Graphics, maps, charts, and photographs help strengthen the message.  A picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, but it must be the right picture.  Good visuals can illustrate data and clarify points, and guide your audience through your thought process.  A bad or the wrong picture is worth absolutely nothing and can bore or misdirect your audience.  Make sure your graphics are clean and at the scale you wish to present and pass the ten-second test  (do you understand the point in ten seconds).  Are the images clear or pixelated, are the charts readable, are annotation necessary?  Simply your graphics and eliminate extraneous information.  Check the font size, can you read it without squint.  Use colors carefully to highlight your message.  Avoid what Edward Tufte refers to as "chart junk" (i.e experimenting with graphic features in Powerpoint), which can create clutter and distract your audience from the information.  Infographics are becoming more common and not all inforgraphics are created equal.

The moral of our story is that clear, understandable, eye-catching communication is vital to urban planning and design.  The proposals put forth regarding the way we live and work have merit but without understandable, eye-catching, legible communications that demonstrate empathy and sentiment, they're worthless.

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