Six effective print communications tips for union campaigns

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Unions have little hesitation in spending thousands of dollars, in some cases tens of thousands of dollars, on printed communications – leaflets, posters, newsletters, fact-sheets, stickers and so on.

At the start of a campaign, the first thing many union officials think is: “we need an A4 leaflet and a poster for this campaign”. Unfortunately, a great deal of this money is wasted, due to poor design of materials.

Printed communications should be consistent, have a professional standard of design, and be clearly written.

All communications should be “on message” – and this message should be determined at the start of the campaign. Print communication strategies, like media and public relations strategies, need to be integrated into the main campaign plan. Throughout the campaign, printed materials should keep a common visual style: fonts, colour palette and images.

A lot of union communication materials do not follow basic design principles. This undermines the union’s efforts, wastes time and resources, and can confuse members.

So, here are six tips on producing effective printed communications for union campaigns.

1. Know and write for your audience

Union campaign materials will likely be seen by a diverse number of people. A leaflet intended for members could be seen by the employer. A poster for the community will be seen by members. Despite this, each piece of printed communication should consider its audience.

Think about the concerns and needs of your audience. Communications aimed at members should be different from that aimed at non-members. Keep in mind that your material will be seen by someone other than your intended audience.

For example, in the university sector, some material must specifically address students, rather than staff. While staff are concerned about job security and workloads, this is unlikely to concern most students. Instead, the communications could focus on the effects of high workloads and lack of job security – class sizes, less one-on-one time with tutors and lecturers, quality of education and so on.

In the health sector, unions would need to produce material aimed at patients and their families. These could focus on positive health outcomes that would come from nurses, doctors and paramedics that are not over worked.

2. Have simple, clean design

All union printed communication should be of a professional standard. The materials that our members see day in and day out from other sources (government, employer, advertising) is generally of high quality. There is an expectation that their union appear professional in their printed communications.

Newsletters and leaflets should be visually simple, and should emphasise the content. Fonts and the text should be readable. Do not use a wide variety of fonts for each piece of material. The campaign should have an established style – and the union should also of course have a style guide.

A lot of union communications I see make three common mistakes, rendering the material almost useless.

  1. Small, crammed text: the text size is too small – size 9 or even smaller. Ideally, all text in a paragraph (body text) should be between size 10 and 11. This reads well in almost all formats
  2. Too much text: Many union publications are overly long and poorly edited. For leaflets and even newsletters, keep the amount of text to a minimum. Write your article, then re-write it and try to reduce the number of words by a quarter.
  3. Mismatched colours: Poor colour choices, such as red text on a blue background or similar design errors can render a leaflet or poster unreadable. Additionally, sometimes text goes over a photo or image and cannot be easily read due to contrast.

3. Ensure there is lots of white space

Many union publications like to cram as much information into a leaflet as possible. This reduces the readability of the material. Thick areas of empty space, as borders and between paragraphs increases readability. It may feel like it is wasting space, but research shows that crowded pages decreases readers’ ability to understand and retain information.

4. Large, descriptive headlines

Research shows that most union members only browse through union publications, rather than reading each article individually – eight out of ten people will read a headline, but only two out of ten actually read the text of the article. This means that the headlines or titles in an article, newsletter, leaflet or poster could be the only thing a member reads.

These headlines therefore should be as descriptive as possible, and should be emphasised in the design of the material. The reader should be able to get as much information  as possible, without the headline turning into a long sentence.

5. Use dot points and avoid large slabs of text

Everyone has different levels of education, reading ability and vocabulary. Union publications especially should ensure that they can be read by as many people as possible.

It is not just unions with high levels of non-English speaking backgrounds who should keep things simple; white collar unions in the public service or academia must recognise that the rules of Plain English apply.

Using dot points to convey information is a useful way of condensing complex information, and emphasising important points.

Dot points can also increase readers retention of information.

6. Highlight important information using text boxes and quotes

Newspapers and magazines do this all the time. They take out interesting or informative quotes from an article and emphasise them. This can also be done by putting important information in a text box that is highlighted and differentiated from the surrounding text.

Alongside the headline or title, this information may be the only thing that the reader actually takes in.

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