In his TED Talk, Dave Meslin wondered: What would happen if Nike advertised sneakers in the same way local governments announced important information — with long, bland, black-and-white newspaper ads filled with jargon?
“Apathy as we think we know it doesn’t actually exist,” said Meslin, a local organizer in Toronto. “People do care, but we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in the way.”
Across Canada, Natasha Letchford — a Deputy Municipal Clerk in North Vancouver — stumbled on Meslin’s talk on Facebook. She found herself highly inspired, in part because she wanted to prove it wrong.
“One of reasons I went into local government was because I truly believe that I make a difference. So when Dave Meslin said that government is in some ways trying to deny people an opportunity to involved, I disagreed with him on that,” she says. “I took it as a bit of a challenge.”
“We in local government get so focused on making sure that the water’s turned on and making sure that the garbage gets taken away that when it comes to something like statutory notices … it becomes ‘that’s just the way we’ve always done it.’”
As she puts it, “We’re not going out of our way to deny people the opportunity to understand what’s going on. We just weren’t making the time to re-think our standard statutory notices.”
Just before Letchford watched this talk, the senior executive team in North Vancouver’s city hall had asked employees to think about year-long projects. So Letchford decided to update North Vancouver’s notices and signage.
In an email to the team, she wrote: “I wanted to share something I’ve been struggling with: how do we meet our legislative requirements for notice, yet not put people to sleep with overly legal black-and-white newspaper ads, or, simply have them ignored? This TED talk does a great job of explaining what local governments do wrong in regards to notice and how we might fix it.”
It wasn’t hard to get the go-ahead to redesign North Vancouver’s newspaper notices and “posted property” signs, Letchford says. In general, she aimed for far fewer words, going back to legislation in order to figure out the minimum that were required. She combed out “legalese” and redundant information, and upped point sizes, so that signs would actually be readable from a car. And she began including images of what the proposed property would look like.
North Vancouver has gotten great feedback on the redesigned notices and signs so far — including one very sincere form of flattery: Letchford has noticed that greater Vancouver has started rethinking its public notices too.