Using Graphic Design to Win Hearts and Minds: Is it Possible for Government?

Man with mobile phone.According to the U.S. government’s own definition, graphic designers “create visual concepts, by hand or using computer software, to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, or captivate consumers.”

But how often do government communications actually inspire or captivate?

Our clients often say they want to “educate” or “inform” residents about their program. But in behavior change, we know that merely providing information does not guarantee action. We know we need to inspire and persuade — not just inform — and design plays a big role in meeting this challenge.

That said, we acknowledge there’s a time and place for just providing information, such as rate increases or service changes. In these cases, direct mail of a simple letter in an official envelope is the best way to cut through the clutter.

But when it comes to increasing participation in programs — from recycling and composting to planting trees — government should give creativity free rein. Here government agencies need to establish an emotional connection with the audience to overcome old habits, win over hearts and minds, and inspire change.

But wait, you say, “we need to look like we’re being responsible with taxpayer [or ratepayer] money, so we can’t do anything flashy or frivolous.” At Gigantic, we firmly believe there is a creative solution that is both engaging and appropriate, for every type of environmental campaign funded by public agencies. In fact, we’d argue that you could be wasting taxpayer money by not making it captivating. If no one notices your outreach, there’s no point in doing it.

And, we’d argue that a human-centered, thought provoking and positive concept — presented through a clutter-free design with professional imagery — has the best chance of attracting fans to your programs.

Here’s an example of one of our latest projects, for a government workplace recycling program. The project included both instructional and inspirational pieces, which were displayed separately to increase their impact. Here is one of the inspirational pieces.

food scrap recycling

Here’s another example, done for the Pentagon, which uses an emotional connection tailored specifically to the men and women charged with the security of the nation:


And this campaign, done by another advertising firm for StopWaste, a public agency, is a great example of using humor to engage viewers:


Wouldn’t you say these examples above have a better chance of increasing participation than a sign, like the one below, that merely tells us what to do without explaining why?


We know it’s not always easy to be captivating, but given the myriad messages that people are bombarded with every day, it’s more important than ever for government communications about environmental programs to offer more than just instruction. Government communications should include vibrant, contemporary images and catchy concepts to increase the receptivity of the message and therefore, the effectiveness of the outreach.

Recycling the Big Apple (Core): Food Scrap Collection Comes to New York City

The New York City mayor’s office last week announced the rollout of food scrap recycling to City residents after a successful pilot program in Staten Island. apple on a NYC park benchWhile this newest move toward Zero Waste by a big city is encouraging, we suspect that plenty of Zero Waste Outreach will be needed to make this new behavior palatable to blasé New Yorkers. The Big Apple will come up against many of the barriers to food scrap recycling that we struggle with on the West Coast, including countering perceptions of odor and vermin — aka the “yuck factor” — that make introducing food scrap recycling so challenging.

While several headlines focus on New York’s new “leadership” with this move, it should be noted that the City’s broad goal is to divert 30% of waste from landfills by 2017 (and 75% by 2030), as compared to San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020 and the State of California’s goal of a 75% diversion rate by 2020, with an ultimate target of zero waste. New York’s current residential recycling rate is a startlingly low 15 percent.

The City conducted a pilot program in Staten Island, and officials were heartened after reaching a 43% participation rate in the targeted area. However, Staten Island is atypical of New York in that it comprises largely single-family homes. We know from our outreach work that multi-family dwellings (MFDs) are one of the most challenging segments when it comes to organics recycling … and there are a lot of apartment buildings in New York. MFDs lag single family dwellings in recycling rates by a huge margin. In Seattle, for example, single family homes achieved a 70.3% recycling rate in 2010, versus 29.6% for MFDs. Barriers to food scrap recycling in multi-unit buildings include space concerns, the perceived inconvenience, high turnover among residents and building managers, and lack of accountability, as the anonymity afforded by a large apartment building can let people assume that no one will know who’s not using the correct bin.

Believe it or not, curbside food scrap composting has been tried previously in New York, with a pilot program in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. But perhaps the effort was ahead of its time. The pilot wasn’t extended due to concerns that diversion would be low, while the expense and environmental impact of adding another truck route to the waste collection system was high.

In the interim, composting has been championed by a local agency, NYC Compost Project, which supports and promotes community-based composting sites throughout the City. The 20 years that have passed since the Brooklyn pilot likely means a better return on investment

We salute New Yorkers for taking steps toward reducing waste; each diverted pail-full will make a difference. If food scrap recycling can make it there, it can make it anywhere!

Confessions of an Environmental Outreach Strategist

At Gigantic we have a favorite guerilla marketing example we like to show to our clients, and we refer to it often in our own campaign brainstorms as well: the running toilet video…

In the video, a toilet mascot running across the field at a football game gets tackled by a security guard, followed by the message “Denver Water asks you to stop running toilets.” It’s brilliant, it’s simple, it’s funny, it’s memorable. I’ve been touting it without hesitation and without any qualms about, um, the fact that I’ve had a running toilet at home for months.

Our leaky toilet shuts itself on and off as though it were haunted by some ghost with a bladder problem. It seemed like a relatively minor nuisance — until last Tuesday, when our water bill showed just how significant the leak really is. Comparing 2012 and 2013 over the same period, our water usage went up a whopping 50 percent!

rsz_toiletAs I said, I can’t claim that my husband and I weren’t aware the toilet was running. There’ve been many nights when the sound actually woke us up. We even tried to fix it once, but our repair job was only partially effective. (The ghost’s bladder issues seem to have subsided a bit, but the poor dear’s symptoms occasionally return with a vengeance.) And there are barriers to getting a new toilet: We forget, we have other things scheduled, we’re afraid to find out what other repairs might be needed in the bathroom if we looked too closely at our aging commode. And then there’s choosing the new toilet: we’d have to compare the water usage ratings, check Consumer Reports’ recommendations, make sure it’s just the right one — even though, truth be told, anything would be better than what we’ve got.

So I have lots of good reasons for not modeling the behavior I’ve been fervently, if indirectly, promoting. But there are some awfully good reasons why I need to be the first to change:

  1. Being credible. When I suggest that others “stop running toilets,” I’m implicitly saying this isn’t an issue that I have. No, I’m not lying, exactly. But I’m not being completely up-front, either. Modeling the behavior you wish to diffuse is key. Without this, you have no credibility. So what? No credibility means no buy-in from your target audience. Why should they do what you’re asking, if you’re not doing it yourself?
  2. Feeling the pain. You’ll understand how others perceive barriers and benefits if you go through all the steps of adopting the new behavior or innovation yourself. Then your next outreach campaign on the subject will be much more on-target and effective.
  3. Reaping the rewards. You yourself will save water, electricity, gas … whatever resource the new behavior or innovation addresses. Imagine that!

This is all a way of saying that behavior change outreach must begin at home. But I shouldn’t be telling you any of this yet, should I? I have a running toilet to tackle first.

Effective Outreach is Zero Waste Outreach

iStock_000001862125XSmallZero Waste is hot and the word is spreading, with zero waste goals and/or plans adopted in 13 jurisdictions in California and multiple communities in Italy, the Philippines, Canada and elsewhere. The recent Zero Waste Week activities in the Bay Area show that the principle of redesigning product life cycles in imitation of nature is taking hold more broadly than ever before.

While many in the environmental field understand the necessity of using natural resources wisely, all too often outreach resources are managed less prudently. In our years of working with agencies involved with bringing Zero Waste into the public’s daily life, we’ve evolved a few principles ourselves, which we call Zero Waste Outreach™.

Here are the elements that go into making an outreach campaign as efficient –  and therefore as close to Zero Waste – as any Cradle to Cradle® -designed product could ever be:

  • ALWAYS the first step: Make sure your organization is modeling the behavior(s) you’re trying to disseminate with your campaign. If needed, conduct an inreach campaign to make sure this is true before launching any outreach. This includes staff, your board, the hauler, … anyone the public may be looking to for leadership. Your credibility is one of your biggest sources of outreach capital.
  • Make research an integral part of your outreach, including pre- and post- campaign measurement;
  • Add communications-based targets to the more obvious operations-based objectives. Example: a measurable change in attitude, as well as tons diverted;
  • Agree on an overarching strategy (based on your research) before diving into tactics (See Glossary below);
  • Segment your audience by stage of behavior adoption below)to get the right message to the right people at the right time;
  • Come up with a brand (look and tone) for your campaign and stick to it;
  • Make events as effective as possible by making sure operations as well as communications are in place and continually checking in with one another. Example: Make sure organics recycling is available at the event where you’re exhibiting, if that’s the behavior that you’re promoting;
  • Integrate Social Media into your tactical mix from the start;
  • Pilot your campaign — or, even better, two or three versions, together with a control — to test your strategy, tactics and/or message before full roll-out;  and last but not least …    
  • Aim for a waste-free campaign, including estimating printing accurately (if printed materials are even needed) and selecting giveaways carefully.

Whether upstream or down, effective outreach is Zero Waste Outreach™. Because we don’t have a minute, or a dollar, to waste.



Inreach — Outreach internal to an organization, usually for employees.

Stages of Behavior Adoption — Per Diffusion of Innovations theory. The stages, in chronological order, are Awareness, Persuasion, Decision, Implementation and Confirmation.

Strategy — Guiding principle, logic, direction for your campaign. For example: Framing litter reduction in terms of improved real estate values. Emphasis on bottom-up, grassroots channels over top-down.

Tactic — A method or channel for communicating your message. Examples: bill insert, radio PSA, e-newsletter, Facebook page.


Overconcerning Yourself with the Unconcerned? Busting the Myth of “People Don’t Care”

Unconcerned womanMyth: So often we hear that getting people to change their behaviors is futile because people just “don’t care.”

This idea is unfortunate because it can cause you to become discouraged and to give up on outreach. The reality is quite different from this bleak perspective; the number of people walking around with the “don’t care” point of view is actually very small.

Don’t Let One Bad Apple Spoil the Party  

Say you have four relatives coming over for dinner: Grandma Sadie, Uncle Burt, Aunt Priscilla and Cousin Chester. Sadie adores pastry and is an avid cook; Burt and Priscilla both enjoy some form of dessert regularly; Chester hates anything sweet after meals. You could spend the whole day lamenting the fact that Chester won’t like your apple pie and eventually decide to skip dessert altogether. Or you could make the darned pie and delight as the other three gobble it down with glee!

What’s this got to do with environmental outreach, you ask?

“Unconcerneds” by the Numbers

In 2006 the Natural Marketing Institute segmented the U.S. population by degree of concern for environmental issues, and found that approximately 16% falls into the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) segment, the deep green consumers that are passionate about environment and socially responsible business.

Only 14 percent of the population fell into the Unconcerned category.

The Natural Marketing Institute defines “Unconcerneds” as “unconcerned about the environment and society” and “dealing with day-to-day challenges.” These are not the folks to be marketing much of anything to, much less the complex and long-horizon topic of environmental behavior change. If these people are the only ones who could accurately be described as “not caring,” that leaves 86% who do care! As it turns out, 41% care a lot (these are the so-called LOHAS and Naturalite segments). Now isn’t that a more inspiring view of the world?

The idea that people don’t care can become an excuse for not trying, for turning away from outreach to more punitive or technology-based solutions: for giving up on people’s better nature. The fact is, the vast majority of people do care to some degree or another, and with research, careful messaging and loads of patience, change is possible. So cheer up and pass the pie!

Igniting Your Early Adopters: What’s Wrong with Preaching to the Choir?

preaching to the choirWe hear it all the time from folks looking to promote an environmental program or behavior: “We don’t want to preach to the choir.” This old adage is quoted so often, it must be true, right? Wrong. When it comes to behavior change, it turns out that preaching to the choir is actually the answer to your outreach prayers!

Why focus on choir members and not the unconverted, you ask? After all, isn’t it the sinners who cause all the trouble in the first place? Maybe so, but the return on investment you’ll get from chasing after those sinners will be low. You only have so many hours in the day and so many outreach dollars to spend. A tried and true choir member — or Early Adopter in marketing parlance — will influence countless others, while your run-of-the mill sinner, or Laggard, isn’t likely to influence anyone at all. And this only if you achieve the near-impossible and successfully convert him to your cause at long last. The fact is, Early Adopters and Laggards are different by nature, so you can pretty much count on your choir member whistling a happy tune to all her friends while Laggard Larry hum-bugs away at home.

Keep ’em Singin’!
If you’re lucky enough to have found yourself with a good-sized choir coming to church every week — not to mention those tiresome rehearsals — don’t let them get away! For example, you’ve got a high curbside recycling participation rate in a certain neighborhood. That’s fantastic, but now’s not the time to rest on your laurels. Have a behavior confirmation campaign at the ready, or you risk hearing only crickets in the pews once again.

What’s a confirmation campaign? It can employ any number of tactics, but it always involves some sort of expression of gratitude. A simple “Thanks for recycling!” inserted into the next trash bill mailing would be a great start. This, plus a little concrete feedback (“You recycled 5,000 tons last year alone!”) serves to reinforce the desired behavior and help sustain it into the future. Without that, you can actually lose those valued members of your flock, who begin to think their efforts aren’t being noticed or making a difference after all.

Add a New Song to Their Repertoire
Another nifty thing about the so-called Confirmation stage of behavior adoption is that you can often successfully “piggy-back” a new habit onto the old. You say you’ve already got over 50% of your community recycling yard trimmings? Wonderful! Now get them to add food scraps or, for those already doing that, food-soiled paper. It’s like asking a choir to try some new material that’s a bit more challenging. And, while you’re at it, mobilize them to recruit new members. After all, you can’t do it all yourself, and your choir members are your biggest allies.

Recruit Soloists from the Ranks
Certain choir members are likely to stand out from the rest. If you work for a public agency, this is the guy who shows up at every board meeting, the lady who volunteers every year for your Earth Day clean-up event, or the high school kid who just won your poster contest. These are people who are already engaged and, best of all, they got that way of their own accord. Once again, it’s that ROI staring you in the face: “I’m going to give you a big return on a small investment!,” they’re saying through their stellar actions. Why not invite them to engage further by joining a steering committee, becoming a volunteer captain for next year’s event or doing a presentation at their school? This is how an outreach program gets rolling on its own.

The Coda
A final note: We hope by now it’s clear that good outreach takes more than faith (although a good dose of hope and optimism doesn’t hurt). Outreach that produces real and lasting behavior change requires a strategic approach. Sometimes that means doing precisely the opposite of what “common sense” tells you to do.

The 3 Cs of Plastic Bag Bans Around the World: Culture, Convenience & Cost



This month, Alameda County joins dozens of California cities and counties to ban plastic bags in most retail establishments. As part of outreach to prepare the public, events like reusable bag giveaways were conducted, right. Plastic bag bans have picked up steam around the world. Entire countries, from Rwanda to Ireland, have implemented bans to reduce the environmental scourge of those oh-so-convenient plastic bags.

Outreach (beyond enforcement of penalties) needs to play a key role in bag ban success. Is there an optimal scope for the ban, the best time frame for phasing in, the most effective messaging to gain acceptance? It looks as if bag bans, like so many other measures aimed at changing behavior, are affected by the 3 Cs: Culture, Convenience and Cost, as well as the big T: Time. As is so often the case, it takes way longer than might be expected for a simple behavior change to take root and become second nature … but it can be done.

Lessons from the Developing World?

Interestingly, the “developed world” was not a leader in banning plastic bags.  The first country to ban plastic bags was Bangladesh, back in 2002. The impetus for the ban was the dangers of increased flooding and sewage problems as plastic bags clogged the sewer infrastructure. Outreach seems to have consisted of threats:

“After the ban, the government, environmental groups and NGOs carried out awareness programmes on TV and in mass information campaigns, warning offenders that they could be fined up to the equivalent of US$71 and six months of imprisonment for using polythene bags.”

The ban encountered problems due to lax enforcement and a lack of affordable alternatives to plastic for all uses, though jute bags were encouraged. Ten years later, plastic bags are still surreptitiously handed out by some vendors, but plastic is much less of a problem today for the country’s drainage system,  a huge issue for the low-lying nation.

Culture’s Role
Enacting policy takes time: a nationwide ban on plastic bags in Rwanda was proposed in 2005, and passed in 2008 (some plastic bags have been made into soccer balls, right). The ban has been quite effective, as an accepted cultural event was incorporated from the beginning: gathering up plastic bags was incorporated into the nation’s monthly mandatory community clean-ups. Plastic-Free Times reports, “Once the ban passed, locals were encouraged to use the monthly obligatory communal work session, known locally as umuganda to collect all the plastic bags lying around or buried.”

The Burden of Cost

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and still recovering from the massive earthquake of three years ago this month, banned both plastic bags and foam containers last fall. As of October 1, the import, manufacture or marketing of the bags and containers is forbidden. Besides fighting the pollution issues, it is hoped that the ban will spur the local economy to create alternatives: “Importing, manufacturing bio-degradable items will benefit Haiti’s short, mid- and long-term environmental interest,” noted Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. Just as here in California, the ban will disproportionately affect the poorest sectors the hardest, as affordable alternatives to the lightweight and ubiquitous plastic bags are not yet widely available. Regressive effects are a factor in the U.S. as well: in an attempt to correct for this, the Alameda County ordinance on plastic bags exempts those paying with WIC (food stamps) from the ten cent charge for reusable bags.

Making the New Behavior Convenient

Far from the streets of Oakland, the citizens of Delhi, India are struggling with massive environmental challenges, including plastic bag pollution. The city government banned bags in 2009, but the ban did not take, particularly at smaller retail stores, and manufacture and use continued. Last November, a new ban on the manufacture, import, sale, storage and use of all plastic bags, sheets, films or tubs (except for those for biomedical waste) went into effect, with enforcement and penalties to be doled out under the Environmental Protection Act. The New York Times reports that outreach efforts are being incorporated from the beginning: “Government officials are also planning to start an awareness campaign about the separation and recycling of waste, using social networking sites, and will hand out a limited number of jute and cloth shopping bags to select Resident Welfare Associations.”

Different cultures around the world have to approach the issue of pollution differently, taking into account local customs, government structure, and available alternatives. Some days it seems like achieving Zero Waste is a losing battle, but each step toward raising awareness of pollution and its consequences is an advance that will pay off in planetary spades.

For more on bag bans around the world, see Drop the Plastic Bag.


The Business Case for Outreach – and Faith in Human Beings

at work in a MRFAre public agencies charged with waste diversion giving up on people too easily?

As an environmental outreach firm working in the solid waste realm, mostly for public agencies, Gigantic Idea Studio has a unique vantage point. We
have long observed a marked underinvestment in outreach by the majority of public agencies. Now these same agencies appear to be giving up on the public when it comes to full compliance and participation in curbside recycling and other resource recovery programs. “It just isn’t working,” or “This is just a community that is never going to cooperate,” are phrases we hear commonly these days. The presumed answer? Technology … such as dirty MRFs, for example.

Will Dirty MRFs Help Us Get to Zero Waste?

What’s a dirty MRF, you ask? Well, a MRF is a Materials Recovery Facility—traditionally an operation in which a combination of people and machines handle the sorting and other processing not taken care of prior to the recyclable materials being placed in curbside carts (or recycling dumpsters, in the case of businesses). At a dirty MRF, unsorted trash—containing all kinds of recyclable material is separated, mostly mechanically, at great expense. And now there are “wet MRFs,” that use water to separate and clean recyclables, and dissolve organic material. These systems require no sorting on the part of residents or businesses, who can throw anything and everything into their cart or dumpster. To many working tirelessly to increase diversion and even reach Zero Waste, this appears to be a wish come true. No more reliance on those pesky humans to do what you want them to, and no more mucking around in the messy business of communication. Or so it would seem.

Giving Up On People Too Soon?

But here’s the thing: wouldn’t it be more beneficial in the long run to change the public’s behavior around recycling? It seems to us that outreach hasn’t been given a proper chance, given the tactics, messaging, design and other communications components that have been used by agencies and haulers thus far. True public outreach is conducted strategically, methodically and unrelentingly—not just when a new program rolls out, but before, during and long after. Effective outreach, resulting in maximum participation by the majority of the public, takes an unceasing drum beat of consistent messaging, compelling professional design and tactics that meet people where they are: out in their communities, not just in their garbage bills. All of this takes resources: budgets of $20,000-60,000 a year in a community of 150,000 just isn’t going to cut it, especially when you remember that public agencies are competing with everyone else’s messaging for “mindshare,” including large corporations with multi-million dollar marketing budgets.

Weighing the Price of Investment: Technology Or Outreach

We can hear the cries of protest already: “If we spent $2.00 a person on outreach, we’d hear from our constituents, and it wouldn’t be pretty.” In a climate of economic downturn and diminishing support for government, we understand that spending on things like websites, recycling guides or exhibit booths can make an agency vulnerable to criticism, and we’re sensitive to that. But consider this: The price tag for building and running a typical dirty MRF runs into the many millions of dollars. If we were sitting in the walnut seats of the venerable City Council chambers around the State, we’d be more worried about the potential outcry about that! Beyond the financial bottom line is the ultimate goal of environmental outreach and a healthier planet And we believe that’s worth working and spending for.

Avoiding the Hero Trap in Environmental Public Outreach

Recycling Man Superhero
He’s super, but is he effective?

If you want to promote a behavior like recycling, appeal to your audience’s aspirations and call those who do the right thing “heroes.” Makes sense, right? We actually don’t think so. After some strategic musings, based on findings from a range of behavior experts, here’s why we think this common approach won’t work.

  1. According to the dictionary, a hero is “a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin …” In other words, a hero is someone who is special—by nature, outside the norm.
  2. Norming has been proven time and time again to be the most powerful strategy in changing behaviors. To norm a behavior, you want to give the impression that it is literally the normal thing to do. As sophisticated and independent as we like to think we are, the “everyone’s doing it” argument works best with us humans.
  3. So if heroes aren’t normal, and we all want to be normal, it follows that we don’t want to be heroes. Another way to put it is that heroes are anti-norming. (They wear tights in public, after all. Ack!)

But whom to put forth as a model of your target behavior, if not a hero? Why, Clark Kent, of course! Or, if you prefer, Joe Blow, the girl next door, Everyman. Clark will be your best influencer precisely because he is not special.

We recommend featuring a person who appears to be just like the average member of your priority group—in every way but one: the desired behavior. Clark lives in your neighborhood, dresses like you, has the same level of education and makes about the same amount of money as you do. The only difference is he recycles his food scraps, and you don’t. Better yet: Clark and all the rest of your neighbors recycle their food scraps. Sadly, you’re the last one on your block who doesn’t.

The message is two-fold: one, if you aren’t currently practicing a certain behavior (recycling food scraps, for example), you’re standing conspicuously outside your peer group; and two, if you do begin practicing the behavior, we promise you won’t stand out.

Contests Can’t Compete in the Race for Real Behavior Change

Contests are everywhere—particularly in our field of behavior change—so we know the argument we’re about to make will be unpopular with a lot of people. Here it is: while competition is exciting in Olympic events, we believe contests are not the hands-down outreach winner so many assume them to be.

The “spirit of competition” is often touted as an effective motivator, with vast resources being poured into contests that pit neighbor against neighbor, for example. We believe there are two problems with contests like these:

  1. The pleasure of winning is not a universal emotion, and
  2. Prizes place the motivation outside the individual and so only create temporary behavior change, at best.

Questionable Assumptions and Labeling Losers

It’s often assumed that winning a competition evokes happiness, pride in achievement and satisfaction in everyone. These are core human emotions identified by psychologists as being universal. However, we know from copious cross-cultural research that winning does not always bring happiness, pride and satisfaction. In many cultures, collaboration is valued more highly than competition. While winning a game might make one person feel proud, another might feel ashamed because of his/her particular background and values. So it is vitally important to put on cross-cultural “goggles” when we design outreach campaigns.

Another consequence of contests is all of the “losers,” who don’t win a prize and are therefore disappointed. This is typically the majority of participants, so why alienate most of your audience by dooming them to the label of loser?

Is Competition Now a Religion?

It is incorrect to assume that the desire to win will always motivate and change behavior. According to Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, “The race to be Number One has been described as America’s state religion. We have been trained … to believe in the value of beating people … Research and experience, however, demonstrate that competition is actually destructive … and counterproductive …” In another Kohn book entitled Punished by Rewards, he argues persuasively that holding out a potential reward (extrinsic motivation) is highly ineffective at changing behavior long-term.

A carefully designed contest can be an effective tactic for a target group that is more competitively oriented, if it is part of a larger, integrated campaign. In general we suggest using more constructive tactics that are more likely to result in long-term behavior change. We think that’s a winning idea.


Image by skynesher via iStockphoto