Call for Submissions • How would YOU design a public notice?

Submission from Iva Jericevic. Click for larger image.

~ DESIGNERS: Public call for submissions! ~

Deadline: October 7
(details below)

Last year I delivered a TED talk about civic engagement, where I attempted to redefine the word apathy as a “complex web of cultural barriers that perpetuates disengagement”, rather than some kind of incurable internal syndrome.

One message in my presentation was that our local governments could do a much much better job promoting civic engagement and public participation in the decision-making process.

I pointed out that Toronto’s public consultation notices look like this:

click for larger image

Then I suggested that Nike would look pretty silly if they used the same approach for their ads:

Lastly, I proposed a new design for the city’s notices:

I’m not a designer, so this isn’t a work of art.… but it’s better than what we’ve got right now.

So let’s take this to the next level.  I’d like to invite you to design your own notice! I’m looking for graphic designers,  marketing professionals and illustrators.  How would YOU design a public notice if the goal was to encourage participation?

Get creative!  There are no limits or guidelines to this assignment.  All submissions will be included in a new exhibit about political participation at the UrbanSpace Gallery, opening on October 25.

I invite you to re-imagine the print notice (as seen above), or the public signage version (below)  – or both!

We’re looking for:

  1. Friendly design.  Colourful, attractive, inviting.
  2. Plain language text, that is useful and simple to understand.
  3. A call to action!  “We want to hear from you”… “Your voice matters”…. “This is your chance to be heard”…. etc.

Extended Deadline: October 7. 
Please provide high-resolution, or vector-based, files.  If you (or your firm) has a logo, please send that along as well.

Have fun!  We can create a more participatory city.  Let’s lead the way.

Send submissions to:

23 responses to “Call for Submissions • How would YOU design a public notice?

  1. This is a great idea and we look forward to the results! We’d be happy to incorporate any ideas into future notices. We agree that the notices do not have the impact they could.

    However, the reality is that the content of the notices is prescribed by provincial legislation.

    For example, here is the notice regulation for zoning bylaw. There are similar provisions for other planning matters.

    In any event, we look forward to seeing the ideas!

    John Elvidge
    Director, City Clerk’s Office Secretariat

    • Thanks John!

      Great to have your voice in this conversation! I’m hoping to organise a panel discussion as part of the exhibit and we’d love to have you participate as a speaker so we can learn more about legislative limitations.

      Two quick thoughts:

      1) If the Planning Act is the problem, let’s fix it. This should be part of the discussion, so thanks again for bringing it to attention.

      2) If we can’t get the Act changed, then I’d like to think that we could find some creative ways around it. For example, couldn’t we install TWO signs at a development site? One could be the boring black & white design, and right beside it we could have a different sign that is more engaging and useful.

      Let’s keep this discussion happening! These are just the first steps…..

      ~ dave

      • Woo, now this is encouraging!

        I don’t see why notices can’t be designed to meet the requirements of the Planning Act and to meet the needs of the public. Several notices are already required–notices for the local newspaper, signs, etc. What seems to be required is a change in the City’s priorities and in standard procedures. If the priority is changed from meeting provincial legislative requirements to effectively informing and engaging the public, the way notices are created and disseminated would have to change.

        Additional notices that take the informational needs and communication particularities of the local community into consideration seems like a reasonable place to start.


  2. Great ideas here. City notices at present are nothing but lawyer talk that leave most people turned off. The Mayor should be happy with this – a turning to the private sector for better ways of presenting the City to its citizens.

  3. melissa goldstein

    I think this is the very thing that would benefit from public participation.

    “Friendly design. Colourful, attractive, inviting.
    Plain language text, that is useful and simple to understand.”
    All of these things are completely subjective.

    Rather than asking designers to design what THEY think would appeal to people, I’d like to see designers going out into neighbourhoods and communities and working with people to develop communication styles, tools and material that are designed to address and meet people’s actual needs.

    In a complex, diverse city such as ours, communication shouldn’t be based on assumptions and guesswork about “the people out there” and how they communicate; the actual needs/ways of the public should guide the development of designs and communication approaches. Involving them in the process is the only way to find out what those actual needs/ways are.

    Not that this exercise isn’t useful for starting a discussion. It is. I just wonder how the results would be different if the designers, marketers and illustrators were to team up community groups across the city…

  4. great idea!

  5. Great idea. I can’t count, unfortunately, how many times I’ve been disinterested to look at one of these signs. Even when I am interested, the wording and lack of information is defeating. With all the terrible and poorly planned developments going on in this city, it would be a great incentive for people to care and get involved. As both an architect and sign designer, I toootally support the idea. I think this would be a fantastic opportunity for design and/or architecture students. Now, having said that, graphic designers do consider this “spec work” and it’s generally frowned upon, so response from the GD community may be short on account of that. Luckily I’m not a graphic designer so I’ll try to not be lazy and put my two cents in.

  6. Definitely something that needs to be improved, although I don’t think it can be overstated just how big an improvement the current ones are over their predecessors.

    The one biggest improvement I would like to see extends beyond the signs. Each sign should have a QR code that provides a link to a digital copy of the planning application and drawings hosted by the City of Toronto. This should of course also provide opportunity to officially submit comments on the application.

    While I like the 3D rendering on your example, I wouldn’t support requiring that for all applications.
    If you want to renovate just about any house in the older part of the City, you will discover that you’ll need a minor variance because it doesn’t conform with the zoning bylaw as it is, never mind after your reno. There’s already enough expense in application and consultant fees, and forcing someone who just wants to enclose a back porch or rebuild their garage to pay for 3D renders of their property is just cruel.

  7. Official public notices are legal documents subject to legal challenges if they are worded incorrectly. The reason why they sound so legalese, is that municipalities (and developers) have been burned on appeals of improperly worded notices… so they are templates tightly worded by lawyers. While this is at the detriment of the general public’s comprehension, it provides a legally predictable playing field (which is also valuable). It would be great if they could be accompanied by a plain language version for the general public.

    I love John’s idea of using QR codes as well (for that portion of the population who knows how to use them).

    I would also love to see Toronto’s development tracking website improved greatly. Here it is:
    What’s the difference between a Development Project and a Planning Application? Doesn’t say. Then when you get to a listing of projects/applications, there isn’t option to download additional information about the project you’re interested in or even see what the project is to look like (where appropriate). There’s no way to search for an application by a Google Maps linked map (since the address isn’t always known or obvious).

    I don’t personally find public notices difficult to understand, and find they provide me a lot of information that the prettier looking new example doesn’t. Of course, I’ve been a planner for more than a decade. :-)

  8. Sean, the good news is that our colleagues in the the City Planning division are already working on improvements to the way this information is presented online. We are working with them to make sure the legislative information on is cross-referenced with the planning application information. Stay tuned.

    Sean is right about the legal implications of improperly worded notices. It is one of the factors we have to take into account when we place those overly technical newspaper ads.

    We’d like to see regulatory changes that allow us to place attractive, inviting, plain language notices that drive people to a website that contains project information, including the legalese if necessary.

    The bottom line is that the concepts of “public notice” need reinventing for the times, and I hope initiatives like this will help get the ball rolling.

    John Elvidge
    Director, City Clerk’s Office Secretariat

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  10. It must be stated that you’re asking designers, or at least amateur ones, to donate services to the City of Toronto for nothing. You’re asking designers to work on spec, an unethical practice.

  11. “We want to hear from you” “Your voice matters” “This is your chance to be heard” The design project is all well and good but it won’t change what ails the “public process” when it comes to planning matters in this city. Planners don’t want to “hear” from us. The city’s planning department is woefully under-staffed and under-budgeted. It’s a “planning department” in name only and in reality more like a “planning applications processing department”. The planners see it as their job to move developers’ applications through the system. Our voice doesn’t matter either. The Official Plan has already been weakened by the many holes driven through it by $1,000 an hour lawyers and “eminent planning experts”. To have your voice “heard” above that noise requires a major expenditure on similar “experts” that most residents can’t afford. There are numerous examples of chances to be heard that were trashed by intransigent and politically motivated councillors and city planners. The closing-in of open space at YE is just one. During that “process” city planners couldn’t come up with even one reason why open space should have been retained there! That planning decision then was made by a local councillor who was promised the support of enough fellow councillors so that the voices of thousands could be ignored. Toronto needs to be intensified but the quality of decision-making around that need is atrocious.

  12. One of the influences that turns people selfish, stupid and lazy is the 40 hour work week. After 40 hours of nonsense per week, plus many hours more recovering from it and girding oneself for more, there isn’t a lot of time or energy left to listen to what others have to say, to think things out and to do something truly productive. I’m pretty sure most wage slaves feel the same, some more consciously than others, but they can’t see a way out: it’s “just the way things are.”

  13. Melissa Charlesworth

    Meslin, thanks for your creativity, practicality, and tenacity.

    Re: Public Notice Discussion

    Is it reasonable to suggest that the city could legally sanction and standardize “public space” around development notices?
    For instance:
    *A simple online space (directly linked to or contained within the city site / individual notices) providing a more accessible version of development details + public discussion (comment board);
    *Put signage up in pairs – i.e. provide a more attractive and affecting counterpart to every legally required notice.

    And as a side note: I’d argue that effective communication with citizens is among the city’s chief responsibilities, in which case city officials should be seeking (and employing) local designers who have been trained in the art of capturing attention in an urban environment.

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