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Staying simple and direct with emergency messages

September 10, 2018

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Digital Team

It’s better to be prepared, and that’s never more true than in an emergency. The Digital Team is here to help.

We can’t stop bad things from happening in our lives, or in our City, but we can work to be ready to respond if something bad does happen. The last thing we need to be doing in a critical time is sorting out how to communicate. We need to be able to quickly get you information that is clear, actionable, and informative.

Last winter, our team created a bunch of graphics for winter safety tips. The graphics stuck with our brand guidelines and matched the look and feel of other recent City campaigns. We shared these graphics with other departments to help push out the City’s message during winter storms. The result? We found a jump in website pageviews, social media sharing, and — most importantly — people getting the information they needed. Instead of staff from different City departments spending their time trying to figure out what to say and how to say it, we were all sharing the same message.

The truth is, though, the City knows how to handle a snowstorm. We’ve been through so many winter storms at this point that it was easy to build out the type of messages people would want to see. But, this work got us thinking. What other emergencies can we prepare for ahead of time? Are there other ways we can set ourselves up so that messaging from the City can be sent out quickly and efficiently?


Joining forces with Emergency Management

This past summer, in a moment of peacetime, we worked with the Office of Emergency Management to tackle these questions. We put together a list of events that often take place, or could take place, in the City. This list included everything from seasonal events to the things that hopefully will never happen, but aren’t outside the realm of possibility.

For some peace of mind, please know the Emergency Management team is focused on strictly ensuring the City is ready to respond in a crisis. In the heat of the moment, though, communication is everything, and it’s contextual. We can’t just make blanket messages and insert them onto social media. But, we can take some of the in-the-moment legwork out, and that’s where our incredible team of designers came in.

With ready-to-go illustrated graphics, necessary text can be added in seconds and the information is ready to be sent. The last thing we want you to do is question the author, origin, or intent of a message. Thanks to our new brand, we can create simple and easily repurposed graphics that look like they come from the City. Our distinctive colors can also help you tell the difference between helpful tips and vital information.


Logic behind our designs

When it comes to our graphics, dark blue, red, and light blue all have meaning and purpose in how they are used. We rarely use red on Boston.gov or on social media because we reserve that color to get your attention when we absolutely need to. We don’t want to cry wolf. It’s like desperately feeling the need to google “tornado warning” versus “tornado watch” when you see that pop up on your phone — which one is which! But if you saw a graphic and were able to distinguish the colors, that would help right away. (P.S., “warning” is the one to watch for... )

Emergency tips using blue and red

Ideally, everyone should be able to understand the immediate context of our illustrations without text. We want to emphasize the importance of a message to all those people in our community who may need the most time to react and get help. These include residents whose first language isn’t English, those with lower reading levels, and the elderly.

To “road test” our designs, we flashed some on the screen during a team meeting. While many were straightforward, we had a few that turned into a game of “Pictionary.” We felt compelled to share the following to show just how tricky it can be to get graphics right. What do you think these icons mean?

A mix of emergency icons

We can’t control what happens, but we can affect our ability to respond, react, and quickly bounce back. This is a responsibility that falls on all of us. The more prepared we are, the more we can immediately help those who need it the most.


Other ways to stay prepared

With September being National Preparedness Month, we thought we’d leave you with a few resources you can use to stay safe:

  • Sign up for emergency alerts from the City of Boston.
  • Follow the City of Boston on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. After our emergency alert system, that’s our first suite of channels to let you know something is up.
  • Make a plan for yourself and others in your household, including pets. If you had to stay in your house or on the road for a time, how will you get out? How will you get them out, and what would you need to be safe with food, water, and supplies? These are all things to consider.