How to evaluate a typeface

How to evaluate a typeface

Everybody loves getting something for free. Even on a high-budget project, there’s still the invisible lure of a free font. I’ve known designers who have spent weeks searching the web for that special typeface, the one that will make the rebrand, the new visual identity or that one-off job really sing.

There was a time when free fonts were almost universally awful. They were designed by hobbyists who had no notion of balanced sets, didn’t complete all the glyphs, and didn’t even think about kerning.

This is no longer the case. These days, many up and coming designers are choosing to release free weights or entire sets as marketing for their other work. In an increasingly crowded market, many are also self-publishing their fonts, bypassing the main type houses, and pitching them at just a few dollars. With some of the first digital typefaces coming out of industrial copyright next year, expect to see a slew of fonts appearing on the web, some of them very high quality. Additionally, subscription services such as TypeKit now make fonts available at no additional charge—providing you keep up with your subscription.

The big risk

The problem is, once you (or your designer) have chosen a font because it looks nice and appropriate, how do you know if it’s any good? The samples on the web-page won’t tell you that. Even printing out a page of text may not identify all the issues. Then there’s the question of legality. The website you found it on might say it’s free, but is it really? There are essentially eight areas that you need to check.

  1. Copyright ownership
  2. Rights
  3. Glyph set
  4. Weights
  5. Kerning
  6. Compatibility
  7. Embedding
  8. Price Structure

Copyright ownership

Who owns the font that you have just downloaded? There are two kinds of checks to make.

First, embedded in the font there should be a copyright notice. Any application you use (like FontExplorer) to preview fonts should be able to display this. Is this copyright the same as the one in the license file? Does it match the website where you got it from. If at all possible, find the copyright owner’s website, rather than relying on a free font site. If you can’t find the font owner’s site, Google the font name and check that no one is claiming copyright on that font.

Second, run a check through WhatTheFont to see if this typeface is too like a commercially available typeface.

The bottom line on copyright ownership is that everything which is created has a copyright, even if it’s not declared. If you can’t find the copyright owner, then, essentially, you can’t use the font. Even if someone is claiming that they own the copyright and are distributing the font for free, if it is too similar to a commercial font, you are taking a risk, unless you’re able to check that the copyright has expired—as is the case with classic fonts such as Garamond, Bodoni and so on.


Many ‘free’ fonts are released as free only for non-commercial purposes. A free font website may not bother to inform you of that. There should be a license file attached with the font download, or a statement placed within the copyright notice. My view on this is that if a font is only available free for private use, just delete it from your system after you’ve downloaded it and discovered this. Many designers who impose such restrictions are later impossible to track down, meaning that you cannot legally use the font in a commercial project. Having any font on your system that you don’t have complete rights to use is a risk—you may intend to only use it for a wedding invitation, but, later on, when doing a commercial project, how likely is it that you will remember that it was ‘private use only’? There are a lot of fonts out there, better to just discard the ones to which full rights aren’t offered.

The other thing about ‘private use only’ fonts is that many designers (erroneously) believe that if they have used copyrighted material in creating their font, it’s legal to release it for free for private use only. It isn’t. A rule of thumb in the design world is ‘if you change three things, it’s no longer copyright’. A lot of designers work to this, but, unfortunately, this is not a proper reflection of copyright. The situation with fonts is complex, and it’s different from the UK to the USA and elsewhere. However, if you’ve used someone’s digital code at all in your font, you are breaching their copyright, unless the license specifies ‘free to modify’. Bizarrely, it’s legal to print off their font, scan it back in, and make your font from that, though you must not use their trademark in naming it.

Basically, ‘private use only’ should set alarm bells ringing. Best to leave alone.

More usefully, some fonts are released ‘free to distribute, free to modify’. These fonts are gold if you are doing brand work. We once did a major rebrand where 400 separate sites needed to be sent the fonts. At typically $99 for a set of four weights, that would have been $39,600—with no guarantee they would ever have installed them. The designer had found a superb font which was not only free to distribute, but also free to modify. This allowed us to embed some special glyphs for that brand.

Some of the higher end free fonts, such as Museo, are free to use, but not to distribute. The owner quite reasonably wants people to download them from his website. Make sure you respect that.

Glyph Set

Glyphs are the individual characters. You don’t get this much with the new crop of designer-created fonts, but in the early days of free fonts on the web, many of the glyphs would be missing.

The easiest thing to do when looking at a font is to paste the following into the preview pane on the website where the font is:


This is all the standard glyphs which you would expect for English language typesetting. If you have particular needs, such as the Old English Eth, Yog, Thorn and Wyn, paste those in as well. Check that nothing is missing. If it is, and the license says ‘free to modify’, you could potentially insert the correct glyph in a font-editor like FontLab, but that is going to be a lot of work, even if you have the skills to do it. If the font is only ‘free to distribute’ then you are stuck. Abandon it and go on to the next font.

Be careful with Capitals only fonts. Some of them, such as commercial font Trajan, are magnificent. However, unless you can pair them with something that also has an uncial or lower-case form, they will be useless.

Some fonts, especially ‘authentic’ typewriter fonts, won’t have glyphs that never existed when the machines were in use. Again, this may be fine for an invitation, but the moment you want to describe a price in Euros, put on a copyright symbol or use square brackets, you are stuck.

Check carefully that the punctuation works. I was typesetting a novel in Baskerville — I think the Baskerville that Microsoft distributes — when I discovered that the ’em’ dash (‘—’) was too thin. I was able to reset the whole thing in ITC Baskerville (not a free font) which had better punctuation. However, ITC Baskerville has a higher x-height, and so needed more leading, which meant redoing the layout. If I’d bothered to check before I started, I could have avoided that. It just goes to show that even commercial fonts contain blunders.


Helvetica NeueWhat weights are available? For some fonts, such as Helvetica Neue (which is in no sense a free font), there are as many as 51 weights available, ranging from Helvetica Neue 23 Ultra Light Extended to Helvetica Neue 107 Extra Black Condensed, all with their italic or oblique versions.

It’s very unlikely that you will ever need anything like that number of weights (though, obviously, at some point, someone did), but you would normally expect to be able to get a Book, Regular or Roman weight, a Bold or Demi weight, and either an italic or an oblique for each of those. An oblique font is the regular font slanted by a particular angle, usually about 12º. An italic font is a specially drawn italic version, often with close ‘a’s and open ‘g’s.

A font that I like a lot is Candida—again, not in any sense a free font, though free versions are available (but see above). Candida was designed in 1936 by J Erbar, and released by Bauer, which still owns the trademark (which makes me question whether the ‘free’ downloads are legitimate). Candida was issued by Adobe in 1989 and 2002, and, as I recall, came bundled with one of the many versions of Illustrator or Photoshop. Unfortunately, it only has Regular, Italic, and Bold. There is no Bold Italic. I am contemplating creating my own bold italic to go with it (though, naturally, I won’t be able to use the trademark name Candida). In the mean time, if I use Candida, I need to recognise that there will be no bold italic.

This is all fine, but many free fonts exist only in regular and bold. This is almost certainly too little to be useful.

Be careful also of free fonts which are released as free in just one or two or a few weights. The super-family Museo (see above) is one of these. You see Museo everywhere these days. Part of the reason for that is that the designer has chosen to release a very useful set of weights. I actually went ahead and bought the entire set, but most people will do fine with just what is there for free. Other designers are not quite so generous, and you may discover that the font which looks great in the Roman version costs about $250 to buy the other weights you need. At that point, recognise it is not a free font.

Kerning and flow

Kern Test using Museo 300

Kern Test using Museo 300

Hardest to evaluate but absolutely critical is kerning. Kerning (of course you know this) is the adjusted space of difficult pairs of letters, such as ‘AY’ and ‘wa’. In the font definition, every glyph (i.e., a letter) has side-bearings, which set the standard space between it and the next letter. For AY, this would leave a disturbing gap, because of the shapes of the letters. The kerning tables, which are part of the font definition, specify exactly how much the spacing should be changed for it to look right. Kerning was traditionally the hardest part of font design, though there are now commercial services which will kern a font for the designer. There are 516 common kerning pairs, excluding the number pairs from 11 to 100. If you’ve ever wondered why commercial fonts are so expensive, the setting of each of those pairs, individually, may explain it a bit.

In preparing this article, I was astonished to discover that there is no test sheet of kerned text available to download on the web. There are some good sites which allow you to check individual pairs, but if you want to check everything, you’re stuck. Until now. Late last night I downloaded all the words in a large English lexicon (about 354,986 words, since you ask), the 516 common kerning pairs, and constructed a text which uses all of the pairs, which you can paste into a document and use to preview the font. You’re welcome. Note that if you do this in Word, you need to turn kerning ‘on’ in the font menu, otherwise you’re not actually doing anything. Much better to do it in QuarkXPress or InDesign.

Here it is:

Wd. PEASANT FEW, wiggle DOTE LOOK tipping Aorta CRISP Tomato Major DROP; bouquet Ayatollah Jade DOOR Identical BIFF. yelping Looking AQUATIC hurting hyphen foot fishpond muddy or, COOL parking OBVERSE working PAIN YOUTH Meat Bloke BACK, KIDNAP Vane rough STOP. armchair badge Aubade Xanthaline FLAW. grounded anno Acid COIN HAJ. axon Fund aquatic jaffa Kurdish aged CARELESS Tipper Upper always RUM BRIEFCASE Ionic SUPER DRY; dental WOLF: maccaw Iterate Avail whoosh COY: WAIL homes annoying flip, HARDMOUTH vb. Yds helium if, Nave bookcase lawgiver BARGE striving beet hoof cover cliff. common elbow BAY avg. MYALGIC BREZHNEV; OYSTER Pair QUACK mohar Rd Tchad circumvascular L’ABRE convex hoplite blvd. event savvy None Wimp free, Uakari Helium unsung flitting QUEEN flaw human crowd falls, definite selfish cargo Evaluate aeon hydro DARE dapper OFFGOING CLAW; supper hvy ZONE Create Nil haj, ACIDPROOF BOAT AORIST implausible dreamt Fright BARBWIRE Pool epistle happiness ODD. played glib, DOFF; CARVE clipping rave TOO. GLIB, BALTIC Yea shake disable DRAW: SLURRY helium PHONE wx. Oh! McCoy FAULT kerning Very dump mutter ANODE HOB. Spoof BRITISH SLAVS BELT, Hyacinth devchar dvaita PORT Koala Fair EELCAKE Sudden yard MUGGING Xenon HEADRUSH raj. sleight music Tsar CHOOSY Numinous Room Icy asking, stuff Bye THUMBPRINT angling project BELT Aegean OFF. Obscure ACTION final zany mopped BLU. Iqis FOOT Jeans Uganda Aqua MU, hollow Rt. flute stomp randomness mashed ADDING RAJ, Vulcan farrier hwan BLING CAN. BUTTERY Europe lumbered Wriggle File go. to, feline Triple hutch Again curling LAWGIVER BIDING Job fully Tundra KONONI maiden mat. TORC COOK yawl GRUFF accept Using SO, dare Dare HOT. MAGE Xurel WAYS glade burring hob. GEOLOGY Ypres tidy Umber my, PLOSIVE NOVCIC apothgm wood WORMGEAR IMPORTENT stool IF, SHOE mango adverse blade. spun Lycanthrope Add variable SMALL digging Twill weapon wig. LUMBER AGGRANDISE TARE VOW Vow Form burrow DEAL WOOL MILLWORK Pear stone PUN stuck Newt dishcloth actual BARTRAM daft gem chugger HOOF backdate Yvain hoofed Bbl. DROOL mulch Ft. trebled humdrum BIN, DOOM Tart middle staying brunch Vroom IGNOBLE DROP far. A’ HANDWORKED filling kangeroo wanted Bilateral AGORA flat. CLAP,  HAPPEN COHOLDER OBVIOUS glad. inch mean BIOMASS souwester juvenile marque CHIPPY Wm. Yield wolves crate slight Lumpy ion xenon mice GUTTER Mold Care cray hammy AWESOME THAT: Bk. MY. Wye Gull flaw. algae Recipe Jumping magnet Key jumper draw, reckon MUDDY ewe tuck Union heavy WOLF, boudoir BUS, outdrops asks, JAFFA GOOD artery sad, Feed flow AVUNCULAR DROSS. OXEN buyer MOUND DUMPLING OVER FUSS what, alphabet mooring Md enumerate cycle bedcap Tyre Awesome Number maple BANJO bored MICE clamping VANE INERRANCY BOQ AVG Keep BY, qqv. WALKING quote Oleander quelquechose bower vowel HOC. fried FAIR Rushing BADLANDS youth Fyrd TOOL BAD, Wunderkind OVERWHELMS moot Ok ADVENTURE backgame oilwell Butter YCLEPT Teller Yuan CHEKHOV: five jeans Huddle OUTCOME woodwork FLUORINE CLIP: fastest COWCATCHER DV, VALVE HOBBY DOING boxes Viper abnormal Xy cold affluent Xosa manganese try. jovial DALLY HILT; M vegan axal whip. neural STUCK YAWN worry BV. trance arrow goblet BECKONS SCARY Ado birthday Attain Apricot ATTRACTING VAST Break unworkable MISSING crabby Simply downed MOOD unplugged Hoop Oat Wt. width Chekhov, filmgoers

As with font designers, please refer people back to this article, or at least credit this text to or rather than simply distributing it to all your mates.

If you are setting type for print, then print out the page—don’t rely on the screen. Once you’ve checked this the right way up, it can help to turn the page upside down. You are looking for unexpected gaps or clumped characters.1

As well as allowing you to spot unsightly gaps between letters, this is also a good test of general font consistency. We always tell people not to include words in capitals, because of legibility, but sometimes with abbreviations such as NATO or SMART, you have to. This text will help you to spot problems of fonts which are just too heavy in long text, require more leading (inter-line spacing), or just don’t flow right.2

If the kerning is wrong, abandon the font. If you are desperate to use it and it is free to modify, and you intend to distribute it to 400 dealers, you could consider getting it professionally kerned by a kerning service. Otherwise, just don’t.

The same goes for fonts which just don’t look right. If they don’t look right with this text, they probably won’t look right with your text either.

Some fonts do require more leading. Fonts with a high x-height, such as most ITC fonts (never free), are more legible at smaller point sizes, but they do need more leading in extended body text. You should be able to spot this using the test text above. Likewise, some fonts simply occupy more space on the page. ITC Bookman does. Bookman was one of the original 35 fonts supplied with Postscript printers. It comes across as friendly and honest, but it does take up more space. Again, that’s a factor you need to be aware of, though it shouldn’t mean abandoning an otherwise good font.


Is the font Mac and PC compatible, is there a web font, is there a version for mobile devices? You can convert any font for web use, though you can only do this legally if the license is ‘free to modify’. PC compatibility is a bit more tricky. If you are using Open Type fonts (which is the current ‘good’ standard), the PC compatible .ttf versions have to have a signature embedded for the Open Type features to work on Windows. This is an enormously annoying process, and it’s quite possible that a Mac based designer (and most of them are) won’t even know this, let alone get round to doing it. The font will still work, but special Open Type features such as swashes, discretionary ligatures and alternate forms won’t. If you’re on a PC, or specifying a font which will be deployed to Windows PCs, and the Open Type features are going to be important to you, check this!


Can the font be embedded in a PDF file? You’d think ‘of course’. You’d often be wrong. Font files contain a tag to allow or prevent embedding. Designers releasing ‘for private use only’ often disallow embedding to ‘enforce’ their copyright decision. If it’s ‘free to modify’, and you know how to do it, then you can switch this off in a font editing application. However, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone who switched this on is going to make it ‘free to modify’. A few years ago, a well-known political party standardised on a font for its leaflets which, for some bizarre reason, had embedding turned off. This was fine in the days that artwork was printed off on a laser printer and then scanned for Risograph, but as soon as people wanted to send things to commercial printers, it all went haywire. The font was later abandoned.

Embedding is something you only discover when you do send it to someone else, as your system will simply substitute in the font when viewing a PDF if it’s one of your installed fonts. It’s vital to check if you can embed and then view on a computer without the font (easiest way is to make the PDF and then turn the font off) before going any further. If you can’t embed, abandon the font.

Price Structure

Most high quality free fonts which pass the tests above are free for a reason. From time to time there will be a font which was designed for commercial sales and never taken up by a foundry, and the designer has just got fed up and decides to make it free altruistically. There are also fonts developed and distributed for altruistic purposes, such as SIL licensed fonts and the Linux fonts. In many cases, though, the designer is expecting to get a return in some other way. This could be by making some weights free and others paid-for, it could be by requiring you to credit the designer (you may do this, but when people start using them in Word documents, they almost certainly won’t), or by requiring you to promote their site in some way, for example by tweeting it out.

Whatever the price structure is, this is the ‘real’ cost of using the font. With Museo, mentioned above, when we did theBarn‘s brand, we made the main fonts available to everyone, but I purchased the complete set of weights, which gave more flexibility in design. This is fine, as long as you factor the cost in. If it’s just a question of tweeting, then tweet gracefully: someone has made a lot of hard work available.

If the font is available as part of a subscription, for example TypeKit, you need to consider whether other people who will be using it will have the same subscription, and what you will do if it is arbitrarily withdrawn from the subscription service, or if you decide not to continue.

Final considerations


Not all fonts that pass these tests should be used. There are fonts which appear wonderful after you’ve spent half a day searching for fonts but which, on sober reconsideration, should never be allowed anywhere near a piece of typography.

Equally, there are fonts that don’t go with anything else that you have, or can source as a free font. TypeDNA offers a marvellous application for working out what goes with what, but even TypeDNA is only offering suggestions based on the best of what you have installed. If the amazing font you want to use for headlines only goes with a font which is $300 and you need to deploy to 82 sites, then your amazing headline font is, in reality, not free to you at all.

Fonts come from every kind of source. I am constantly battling with applications which install their own fonts, even on the demo versions. As well as cluttering up my typeface lists, they also sneak in unevaluated, like the Baskerville typeface I mentioned earlier. If you are serious about the fonts you want to use, it’s worth keeping a checklist, like the one pictured, for every font you have properly evaluated. It can help you keep the pirate fonts out (both the ones that you found on bad sites, and the ones that applications installed without your knowledge), and will also remind you why, in the end, you didn’t use that font last time you considered it. That, on it’s own, can save you an awful lot of time and bother.

Free stuff

For those using QuarkXPress 2015, I attach a font evaluation file. Font Evaluator.qxp. To use this, change the Normal character style sheet (not the paragraph style sheet) to the font you want to evaluate, and then change the name of the font on the front page. Everything else will change automatically. The Evaluator will output glyphs, a variety of sizes, kern check, kern check inverted page and kern check blurred.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. If you are using QuarkXPress, you can also view the page as blurred text, by applying a dropped shadow, switching off ‘inherit opacity’ in the measurements palette, and turning the opacity of the text to 0%. Looking at fonts or logos in blurred form is similar to the ‘corner of the eye’ out of which we perceive many things. It can help spot problems that would otherwise be missed.
  2. Thomas Phinney has an excellent article on Know if a Font Sucks. Phinney knows a thing or two about fonts. However, this will be too technical for most people. Essentially, if it looks right in the sample text, it is right. If it looks wrong, it’s wrong, and just abandon it. If you’re trying to design a font and can’t work out why it looks wrong, Phinney’s article (and his own website) is a good place to start.
How to design an effective newsletter

How to design an effective newsletter

A one page newsletter

A one page newsletter

Designing a newsletter is a task which is generally either given to a graphic designer, or to a junior member of the Communications or PR team. Failing that, admin staff are often handed the job as part of the ubiquitous ‘any other duties’.

The result is generally quite predictable. Graphic designers are not sub-editors, new comms staff are neither editors nor designers, and willingness and diligence on the part of admin staff does not bridge a skills gap created by a shortfall in the training budget.

Nonetheless, with a modest investment of time and knowledge, it is possible to produce powerful and effective newsletters which people actually want to read even on the kinds of deadlines and timescales that usually accompany them.

If interested, read on. This article is suitable for all the hard-working and long-suffering groups of people I noted above. It’s not really aimed at people who’ve ‘always wanted to do a newsletter’ and have a slack couple of weeks before Christmas (you know who you are). Those kind of newsletters, which usually last about two issues before being abandoned, are not something I want to encourage. See the final section if you have doubts.

In this article, I want to start from the back and work forwards, which is to say, I want to start with the nuts and bolts of newsletter design, and come to the purpose and reason for doing (or not doing) a newsletter at the end. I think that will be more interesting for now. However, please do read to the end!

The basics of making words look nice on a page

Any designer can make words look nice on a page. Anyone who isn’t a designer can easily download a template and do the same. So why do newsletters generally look so awful? Essentially because the newsletter task is a bit more complicated than that. In a multi-page newsletter, each page needs to look like it goes with the others. In a regular, single page newsletter, each edition needs to look similar. The problem is, you don’t know what the content of the other editions is going to be before you start. With most staff newsletters, you have to do the design long before most of the articles (which always come in late, and are a different length from promised) arrive.

A newsletter layout, therefore, needs to be neutral and understated, but still attractive. Above all, it must be easy not only to read, but also to start reading.

Rule 1: White space

The most common problem with badly designed newsletters is that the reader faces a wall of text, covering all of the page except for the margins. A nice page has white space at the top, at the margins, between paragraphs, between columns, between titles and text, between pictures and titles.

I know this goes against the grain in most organisations: you are paying for the space, and possibly paying for the postage on top of the space: why not fill it with text?

I was once working on a layout for a 16 page magazine in Flemish (in Belgium). I’d managed to wrestle all of the extensive text into something that felt legible. Then the editor came back into the room and said ‘I see you’ve got some white space there. I’ve got another little article which could just about fill that…’

If you really did have to extend a magazine by four pages in order to give it enough space to breathe, the increased cost would still be less than 2p a copy if it was being commercially printed, perhaps as much as 4p if laser printing. Additional postage would most likely be zero. In any case, that isn’t the way you get white space in. See Rule 2: Copy editing.

  • To get white space in, design your page as a thumbnail with pen and paper before you start. Draw in the title, where the pictures go, the columns and the margins. When you create the document on a computer, use this as your guide. Resist all temptations to ‘rob’ a millimetre here or there.
  • Use columns. Three or four work well on an A4 page. They immediately give the eye more space to find its way.
  • Uncrowd the titles. It’s better to have the title in a smaller font size with more space, than looking cramped.
  • Increasing the space between the lines (known as ‘leading’, as in the metal, lead) will improve legibility more than increasing the point size for body text. Resist all temptation to decrease the space in order to get more in.
  • Adding a quarter or half a line space between each paragraph improves white space.

Rule 2: Copy editing

The other most common problem with newsletters is editing. Usually, there isn’t any. It’s best to set the terms before you agree to accept an article. If you are responsible for pulling the newsletter together and getting it sent out, then you are the editor. The editor has an absolute right to edit. You can with impunity cut out sentences that don’t add anything, remove whole paragraphs, and generally chop the article down to fit the layout. Specify a word-count beforehand, but don’t be afraid to cut out text that doesn’t do anything.

For user generated content, you probably shouldn’t change what they are saying. If you find facts that aren’t correct, it’s best to point these out and ask for a rewrite, though you can correct figures, dates and contact details if these have been miscopied. Never allow anything into the final version of the newsletter which is, in your opinion, inaccurate or flabby.

Flab is the great crime of 21st century writing. Gone are the days when every sentence had to be wrung out of a manual typewriter or painstakingly penned by hand. Not only is it now easy to write, it is all too easy to copy. Most people know (but you may have to remind them) that they can’t copy text from things they find online, in magazines or books. However, many people, especially when under time pressure, will happily copy from reports they’ve written for other things. The thing is, if people didn’t want to read their text when it was in a Board paper, they aren’t going to want to read it any more in a newsletter.

If you’re a relatively junior member of an organisation, persuading the Chief Executive to rewrite their introduction might seem a daunting task. Actually, it’s generally fairly easy to get a Chief Executive to cooperate. A simple email saying ‘thank you for your article. Is it ok if I do some work on it to make it fit the space and the general tone?’ will be welcomed by most CEOs. Get it right a couple of times, and they may well ask you to write their articles in future.

Good copy editing produces these results:

  • No repeats. Most writers tend to say the same thing three times in three consecutive sentences. Delete two of these and keep the best one.
  • Short sentences. In the layout, don’t allow a sentence to go beyond three lines, which, in narrow columns, means very short sentences.
  • Short words. No word should ever go over three lines.
  • Tight constructions. In long form journalism and novels, it can be delightful to read sentences such as “It was never my intention to trespass on your patience through a failure of perspicacity”. One of Umberto Eco’s novels (I forget which) begins with a single sentence covering almost the whole of the first page. However, this doesn’t work in newsletters. Get to the point, make the point, and move on to the next point. If tempted by such a sentence just replace it with “I want to be clear:”.
  • Clarity of thought. Word processors have led us to a world where text can be immaculate, and yet also meaningless. This is not just about auto-correct messing things up. Once finished copy-editing, read the article through again. Did it make its point?

Rule 3: Original Pictures

Never use stock photography. Just don’t. Stock photography is the clip-art of the second decade of the 21st century. Back in the ’90s, everyone with a copy of Word or PowerPoint would embellish documents with all kinds of marginally appropriate and all-too-often seen illustrations. Mercifully, that has begun to go out of fashion, though the four-part jigsaw remains a stock item in unimaginative strategy documents. Stock photography suffers from the same problem: there is an enormous tendency to use an image because it is nice, and is available.

The main problem with stock is that it shot to be as general as possible. Stock photographers have no idea who might buy the image, or when that would be. They try to leave out anything which localises it or puts it in a particular year. Even so, the models they have to work with reflect their own background. Have you noticed how most people in stock images has impossibly nice teeth, great hair, immaculate clothes and perfect skin? Stock libraries generally avoid accepting images that don’t have these. How many real people have you ever seen that actually look like that? When you’re selecting an image, the temptation is to go for something which looks appropriate. However, when you’re viewing an image, your response is not ‘is this appropriate?’ but ‘is this real?’ If the picture looks fake, they will assume the article is as well.

It’s much better to walk out and take a picture, even if it’s only with your smartphone, than to use one from a stock website. That way you guarantee it’s genuine.

Equally, don’t re-use a picture you’ve used in an earlier edition. It makes everything seem tired. Shoot another picture.

You may be thinking: ‘my pictures never look as good as the stock ones’. The following may help:

Uncropped version

  1. Crop! The original picture, used in the layout above, is the one shown here. The uncropped version is nice enough, but doesn’t have anything like the impact needed for a newsletter image. Cropping down to 1/8 of the original gives it punch and immediacy.
  2. Contrast! Whether in colour or black and white (and anything being produced on a laser printer will generally be better off in black and white), photographs rely on contrast. You don’t need to be a Photoshop genius, and you should definitely avoid any editing of the images such as cloning out things you don’t want (crop instead), but simply increasing the contrast on most pictures will lift them from being dull (and therefore seeming irrelevant) to jumping off the page.
  3. Caption! Most people read the captions to the images before they read the articles. A good caption fills in the story that the image begins. It should cover Who, What, When, Where and Why. A good caption makes an otherwise ordinary image resonate, and it also demonstrates authenticity.

Rule 4: Assist the eye

Good newsletter design contains all kinds of little features that help the reader to start reading and keep reading. The most obvious one is good, bold titles. A title should either be informative or provocative. If it’s informative, it can benefit from a provocative subtitle, often in the form of a question. If it’s provocative, it probably deserves an informative subtitle. As with all things newsletter, it is the combination of text and design which works. Putting ‘A Word From Our Chief Executive’ in large, bold letters does not do a great deal. On the other hand ‘Wolf or Husky?’ as the title, subtitled, ‘Matt Smith, Chief Executive, unpacks the new regulations’, is at least going to stimulate people to start reading.

  • A first paragraph which is bolder and larger than the rest—spanning two columns in a multi-column layout—also helps the reader to start the article. They don’t have to commit as much time if just looking at the large print. Provided it is well written, and relevant, you should be able to hook them.
  • Slugs, which are two or three words which are bold, or in a different, bolder font, at the start of a paragraph, help the reader to keep their place. They also break up the text, making it seem less imposing.
  • Call-outs, which are sections lifted from the text and put in boxes or between rules, in a larger font, interest the reader, and often get them looking through the article to find where they occur. Make sure the call-out is also in the article, though.
  • Dropped capitals, when used sparingly, can introduce new sections of longer articles, and are easier on the eye than subtitles.
  • An end of article marker, even if it’s just a black square, helps the reader to know that they can stop reading. If, instead, the article goes on to the next page, make sure this is clear with ‘continued on next page’.

Rule 5: Be credible and start a discussion

Putting a by-line, being the author’s name and job title, at the end of the article gives it an enormous lift in credibility. It also goes to explain why the writing style may be different from article to article. You can put it at the beginning if you prefer.

Never miss the opportunity to start a discussion via Twitter or Facebook, though usually not both. Twitter is best for open discussions, Facebook is best if you want people to join a group. Remember that many people are unwilling to give up their Facebook credentials to their employer, so Twitter is probably safest for staff magazines.

An article should not contain too many statistics or surprising facts, and it needs to give credible references to those that it does introduce. Gone are the days when you could simply write ‘97% of dumplings contain GM additives, according to experts’. Today, people want to know which experts, how the information was gathered, and so on. If you want to include an unsupported statement, either quote someone who is saying it (in which case, the ‘fact’ is they said it), or put ‘in my opinion’ if it’s a statement by the author of the article. People are much more savvy now than they used to be. ‘According to Wikipedia’ or ‘According to the Daily Telegraph’ do not count as sources any more. There’s no point putting a web-link into a newsletter article. It’s generally better to state the name of the person or organisation which issued the information and the date. If someone wants to check, they will be able to find the source on Google with that information.

Rule 6: Be consistent

A newsletter needs to remain consistent from page to page, and from edition to edition. There are three fundamentals here: consistent layout, consistent typography, and consistent tone.

The one page newsletter with margins, boxes and grids. Note that this newsletter is set to 'vertically justify', which means that the line grids are not in use.

The one page newsletter with margins, boxes and grids. Note that this newsletter is set to ‘vertically justify’, which means that the line grids are not in use.

Consistent layout comes from using the same grid or template. Your basic grid is a set of columns and margins which you always work within. Depending on what software you’re using, set this up as a template or master page, and never change it. You can have text and titles spanning all the columns, or two columns, or even spanning two pages on a double page spread. What you must not do is change the columns or margins because you’ve got a layout problem on a particular page. If you have a problem, copy edit text or crop photographs.

A traditional grid system has rules for every line of text. This has gone out of fashion a bit with Desk Top Publishing, especially when using ‘Vertical justification’, which ensures that the grid is entirely filled.

In the example grid, we have four columns, a centred masthead at the top, a title spanning all columns, a photograph spanning three, and a first paragraph spanning two. Using the same grid, we could have had all the text in columns, perhaps with subtitles, which is useful for an ‘In Brief’ news section, or we could have had the photograph covering three columns of most of the page, with just a column of text.1

It can be useful to break up the monotony of a double page spread by having a light grey (or colour) background box for a separate article. Be careful, though, this can look great on screen, but if the page is being photocopied from a laserprint original, the grey, which is made up of black dots, may overwhelm the text.

Consistent typography comes from using the same fonts all the time, and never including others. A contrasting pair, such as Franklin Gothic with Adobe Garamond, is enough to cover almost any situation. All of the body text should be the same optical size, though if you are doing some articles in Franklin Gothic, you will need to set it slightly smaller than Adobe Garamond because is ‘seems’ larger.

People get very het up about font sizes, largely as a result of a series of confusions over many years. Standard text used to be Twelve Pitch typewriter text, which was clear and efficient. Twelve Pitch, though, is not the same as Twelve Point. Twelve Pitch means that there are 12 letters per inch. Twelve Point means that the distance between the bottom of the descender (ie, the tail of ‘g’, ‘j’ or ‘y’) and the top of the ascender (eg, ‘l’) is 12 72nds of an inch, or about 4.2 mm. This isn’t a measure of legibility, but of how high the lines need to be. Usually, you would give another 20% space in addition to that for the text to have the right leading. A font with long descenders and high ascenders will be smaller at 12 point than one with short descenders and high ascenders. Put another way, if the height of the ‘x’ (known as the x-height) is proportionately greater, the text will ‘seem’ larger at the same point size.

There’s a long argument which is never really settled about whether sans-serif or serif fonts are easier to read. Garamond is a serif, Franklin Gothic is a sans-serif. Serifs look classier, sans-serifs look more modern. This is why a contrasting pair is usually a good choice.

The ideal text size for most readers in most fonts is 11-point. Some people will swear that it is 12-point, but all the scientific research indicates 11. For people with a visual impairment without any kind of aid, neither 12-point nor 11-point is any good. 14-point is often used as ‘accessible’, but this actually makes reading more difficult for normally sighted people, and is still insufficient. Best practice is to make a separate version available in 18-point, and stick to a legible size for most readers.

Never reduce the point size to get the text in—copy edit instead. Also, never put two fonts near each other unless there is a strong contrast. If your text is Garamond 11 point, set your subtitles in Franklin  Gothic Bold 11 or 12 point. Putting them just slightly larger in the same font, for example Garamond 12 point, will just look wrong.

Keep the same typography from edition to edition. Don’t try to plump up ‘special features’ with their own special typeface. Use better photography instead if you want to make more of an article.2

Consistent tone is not just writing style, though writing style is important. It also affects photographs, cartoons and illustrations. If the tone is serious and professional, even the cartoons need to match. Generally speaking, I would avoid cartoons unless you have a talented cartoonist who can work to a brief. There are lots of people who can draw cartoons, but they generally draw in their style. It’s relatively unlikely that their style just happens to be the same style as your newsletter. It’s a lot easier to keep to a consistent style with photographs if you just observe the three rules of Crop, Contrast and Caption. Anything you can’t crop to the point that it’s punchy should be discarded. A low contrast image might look lovely in a glossy magazine, but it almost certainly won’t in a mass copied or printed newsletter. If you can’t caption it, you shouldn’t be using it (it’s either stock or of doubtful provenance).

Tone of writing has a lot to do with who you’re writing for. If you can fix the audience in your mind, you will be able to edit most of the writing so that it neither bores them nor offends them nor confuses them.

Rule 7: Create with a purpose for a public

What’s the purpose of your newsletter? You don’t need to have a vision statement, but you do need to know what the outcome of people reading it is. Is it to keep staff informed of developments in the organisation? Is it to give members something interesting and enjoyable as part of their membership? Is it to motivate grass roots supporters to take action? The most common reason for dullness in newsletters is neither the layout nor the writing, it’s simply a lack of purpose.

Who’s it for? Your purpose should help to define your audience. What do you know about them? What should you know about them? If you’re a designer, junior comms officer or administrator in a large organisation, there’s a good chance that you don’t really know quite what the front-line staff do. Asking to form an editorial board is likely to produce groans from senior management, but making an appointment to talk through what you’re doing with one of the target recipients could open your eyes to all kinds of things. Remember that no amount of ‘what they should want’ can possibly overcome ‘what they do want’. Things really start to work when you’re able to produce something which fulfils your purpose with something people actually want to read.

Deep down, what are you saying? There is a message underneath every magazine, newspaper or newsletter. It doesn’t have to be spelled out edition by edition in the headlines, but it’s there all the same. One national newspaper could reasonably be described as saying ‘all change is threatening’. Another could be ‘if only we all got together and were more sensible, things would be so much better’. Your newsletter is unlikely to play such a role in public life, but understanding your core message will help you keep consistent tone, and will also enable you to fulfil your purpose. One magazine I edited was ‘for staff, by staff’ (proudly declared on its masthead). It was there to improve communication across the organisation, and help people to value each other’s work.

If you can’t get anyone to tell you what the real purpose is, and therefore the real message (they may just say ‘your job is to produce a newsletter—so produce a newsletter’), looking at your organisation’s values, mission or vision statement should be able to sort you out. If no one can tell you, and you don’t have any organisational values, mission, or vision, then it may be time to look for another organisation…

Show 2 footnotes

  1. You may be interested to know that all the text in this layout is done as a single group of text in QuarkXpress using paragraph styles and conditional styles. There is just one text box, and one image box. The fewer boxes you have to create to run your layout, the easier it will be to keep it consistent
  2. If your software supports it, consider using Paragraph Styles rather than simply formatting the text directly. It is much easier to keep things consistent, and much less prone to errors due to late editing

Embedding brand values through policies

All brands have values. Many brands don’t bother to declare these publicly, because the brand owners know that customers and suppliers will make their own observations about what an organisation’s, product’s or service’s values really are.

Brand values come down to do things: organisational culture and ‘what we will die in a ditch over’. They reflect 95% behaviour—the things we do almost all of the time, and work hard to rectify the one time in twenty that we don’t do them. For strong brands, they are 99% behaviour.

In a one-person start-up, as long as the individual is fairly strong-willed, it’s relatively easy to stick with the same values. Most often, these are the values the person lives by on a daily basis. It’s worth noting that these may not be values that are necessarily right for the business they are in. Someone who lives by the motto ‘never let an opportunity go by’ (the value being ‘opportunism’) may not be in the right business if they aim to offer long-term strategic advice. Sooner or later, customers will observe that they are an opportunist, not a strategist.

Many corporations have a set of declared values that bear absolutely no relationship to the way the business functions. I joined one organisation (I will not say which) that had recently undergone a strategic ‘refresh’ (in the jargon) and had come up with a set of official values. Being new and relatively naive, I tested these on staff. Not only could none of them recognise them, suggesting they had never permeated beyond senior management, but most of my sample group could point out occasions when the organisation’s behaviour went clean counter to them. Some could also point out situations in which it would be counter-productive or even dangerous to follow them.

The values list, not surprisingly, did not last long before it was buried in a draw and forgotten.

When organisations do get their values right, they create a set of internal commitments which add value to the product or service they provide, and make it easier for suppliers to work with them. Their values are actually valuable to the customer.

However, the inevitable tendency over time is for those values to settle back into whatever is ordinary for the business the organisation is in. Staff leave and new staff arrive, bringing their expectations from elsewhere. In crises (which all organisations go through), rules or practices are sometimes relaxed in order to address the needs of the moment. There are even moments when senior staff lose their way, and act contrary to the values. Even if customers don’t spot this, staff almost always do.

Soft and hard tools for embedding values

Embedding brand values in an organisation, and keeping them at the heart of what it does, requires ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ tools.

The ‘soft’ tool is how management behaves. Ambitious staff quickly learn what kind of behaviour managers favour, while steady-state staff are often expert in observing the ‘real’ rules by which an organisation runs, as opposed to the formally published rules. A consistent senior team can inculcate a new set of values in a matter of months, even in an organisation with thousands of professional staff.

The ‘hard’ tools are the things which are defined and spelled out. Over the years, when I’ve discussed these tools with communications staff, Human Resources and senior management, they tend to think of value statements, newsletters, presentations, special events, staff recognition programmes and intranets. These are all good things. However, for most organisations, their formal policies and procedures play a much more direct role, and do so much more quickly.

Formal policies do three things, if they are written well. First, they spell out what staff colleagues have the authority to do. Second, they spell out the limits of this authority. Third, they set the tone for how people view their jobs.

Well-conceived and well-written policies are enormously liberating. What most troubles staff is when there are things they know they need to do, but don’t know they are allowed to do. In an ideal world, authority to act is spelled out in job descriptions. In the real world, job descriptions change all the time, and the fastest way to be seen as a troublesome employee is to plead ‘it wasn’t in my job description’. Organisations favour staff who take initiative—just up to the point that they take the ‘wrong’ initiative, which is when they end up in front of disciplinary panels.

What is a good policy?

A policy is a short, directive statement that sets out clearly what the organisation expects of itself and its staff in a particular area of work. Let’s unpack that for a moment

  • Short. Two pages of short paragraphs which are easy to navigate is about as much as most people will read. If staff don’t read them, then your organisation does not actually have a policy, even though your policy manual has one. Any policy area which is so difficult that it needs to go beyond two pages is better off being broken down into separate policies. Most often, when policies do get out of hand, it is because they are being confused with procedures. A procedure document—steps 1 to 27 for accomplishing a particular task—can be as long as it needs to be. This because a procedure is worked through sequentially. A policy document needs to be easy to check in an unexpected situation, which means potentially jumping to the middle of the second page. Again, if someone can’t find what they are looking for, they will either do what they did elsewhere, or assume that the organisation isn’t really bothered what they do.
  • Directive. Policies don’t need footnotes, discursive introductions, extended examples or anything else which clogs them up. The policy needs to set out the ‘must dos’ and the ‘must nots’, and then stop. If, for training or audit purposes, more materials are needed, they can go in an appendix, or an annex, or a policy training manual, or as part of the presentation during induction. A rather harsh test which I often pitch to managers is ‘could you run a disciplinary on this policy?’ Clearly, the aim of policy is to enable staff to never get involved in a disciplinary, because they always know what to do. However, if someone did deliberately circumvent the organisation’s policy, would the disciplinary panel have enough to go on? Any sentence in the policy which could not be used in this way is redundant at best. At worst, it may confuse or mislead staff.
  • Clear. Policies tend to be written by specialists in their field, and then applied to non-specialists. Is the policy actually clear? Many organisations provide training in their policies as part of induction, mandatory annual training, or staff development. It may be that there are specialist terms, for example in a finance policy, that need explaining. However, by whatever means it is achieved, a policy which does not give the person trying to apply it a clear picture of what they are authorised to do and what they must not do is a failed policy. Clarity needs to be considered alongside length. Things are usually best clarified by distilling them, not by extending them.
  • Expectation. Good policies bind the organisation, not just the individual. A Press and Media policy, for example, should always include a commitment to never knowingly mislead journalists. An Information Technology policy should bind the organisation to treating confidential data confidentially. Policies should give customers, junior members of staff, managers from other departments, journalists and ombudsmen the power to challenge bad practice. This is why policies should be published, and why anyone asking for one should be sent it immediately.
  • Area of work. As alluded to under ‘short’, no single policy should attempt to describe all of the rules and regulations for the entire organisation. Twenty years ago, an IT policy could be two pages long and cover pretty much everything. Today, separate policies will generally be needed for Information Governance, Social Media, Email and Web use, and care of equipment. This is fine—provided that someone who needs to know the answer fast can logically find the right place in the right policy.

Seven policies that every organisation must have

What policies do you need to have? It depends a lot on what business you are in, and how your declared values differ from what is considered normal in that area of business. However, as a bare minimum, virtually every organisation needs to have the following:

  1. Finance policy
    Who decides what is spent, how that is documented, how it is communicated and audited, how the books are kept, what happens when things go wrong.
  2. Information governance
    How you keep confidential data safe, what kinds of data you handle, what the safeguards are, what happens when things go wrong.
  3. Information technology
    What people have to do when using IT equipment and systems, what happens when things go wrong
  4. Health and safety policy
    In relation to your specific business, how risks are managed, how the Health and Safety at Work act is complied with, what happens when things go wrong.
  5. Equality policy
    How your organisation satisfies the Equalities Act (2010), what happens when things go wrong.
  6. Human Resources policy
    How people join the organisation, leave it, progress through it, are assessed, and what happens when things go wrong.
  7. Communications (including social media)
    How the organisation speaks to the wider world and to itself, who gets to say what to whom and when, including through Twitter and Facebook, what happens when things go wrong.

If you are working in or with the public sector, or bidding for public money, you will almost certainly also need:

  1. Environmental policy
    How the organisation cares for the environment
  2. Freedom of Information policy
    The method (possibly including a Schedule of Publications) by which you comply with Freedom of Information requests that cover your organisation’s work
  3. Consultation policy
    The situations in which decisions trigger a public consultation, and its parameters

Finally, for the business you are in, you need a policy which sets out how you assure the quality of your end products.

Where shall all these policies come from?

It’s tempting to trawl the internet, download policies in these areas, do a quick search and replace, and then issue them. Starting with policies from organisations you admire is no bad thing, but there are two fundamental issues here. First, anybody else’s policy is their copyright. I have actually seen in the document properties of an organisation’s policy which covered copyright the copyright statement of an entirely different organisation. If probity is in any sense part of your values, then this must be observed at all times. Second, anybody else’s policy reflects their values, not yours. Every policy which fails to inculcate what makes your organisation special is a wasted opportunity. Clearly there are sections in each one of the policies named above which will have to be more or less standard, simply because they reflect the requirements of the law. Equally, no organisation has time for extended introspection on every policy document. However, if you take the best examples you can find, and then write out your own distinctive policies with your set of values clearly in your mind, the result will vastly repay the time it took to generate them.


Do great employers hire the most motivated staff? Not necessarily

It’s a common trope of business motivational writing that GREAT companies do GREAT things such as [produce your own list of what sounds GREAT]. When you then look for the evidence of these things, it turns out that not only is the evidence unavailable, but no one is actually gathering it.

One of the versions of this trope is ‘Great companies hire motivated staff’, which is also a version of ‘Four star people hire three star people. Five star people hire five star people’.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people for jobs, and sifted through more than a thousand closely written application forms. For one admin job, we received 158 applications. For a graphic design job, 97. I think it would be rather crass to suggest that the people we hired were five star, and the others some lesser category.

But what about motivation? Is this the key employee quality? Should we hire on that, and does it define us as an organisation whether we do or not?

I have to say I disagree.

Good companies may hire motivated people. Great companies motivate people whether they were motivated to begin with or not. There are lots of people out there who, for whatever reason, are currently lacking motivation. They may have been through depression, have been damaged by a previous re-organisation elsewhere, be going through bad personal circumstances, or for whatever other reason.

I had the privilege in two organisations within the NHS of being part of a team which lifted one organisation from bottom 5% for staff motivation to being the top #1, all within two years, and, in another organisation, for helping to lift staff motivation from bottom 10% to top 10% within 18 months.
Most people go through cycles of motivation during their careers, but a great organisation can make work meaningful and inspiring even when a person is at a low ebb. Great organisations are empowering communities, not merely successful cherry-pickers of motivated recruits.

The NHS is perhaps a little unusual. There really aren’t enough nurses to go around, which is why it recruits heavily among overseas staff (and would collapse if it couldn’t have them). There are perennial dire warnings about the demographics of GPs. What’s more, the relatively frequent reorganisations mean that staff and employers are often put together by TUPE who did not choose each other. Whether the staff you get are motivated or not may depend much more on the predecessor organisation than on your hiring skills.

Let me say here that, by comparison with averages for the private sector, the NHS scores very highly for staff motivation in its annual staff surveys (though, like most of the public sector, it also tends to have more staff sickness, which is often a corollary of low motivation). As my old boss used to point out, no one in the NHS comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. As an organisation dedicated to caring for people based on their need rather than their profitability, it should not really be a surprise that most people who work there do it because they think what they are doing is important.

Nonetheless, there are some quite significant variations from organisation to organisation, and also from type of organisation to type of organisation. Some kinds of work are intrinsically more draining than others. While most jobs involve periods of greater stress, the job of a paramedic, for example, is always about stress. In most instances, they are either attending a call in order to save a life, or attending a call which turns out to have been a waste of time — such as the occasion when a resident rang up to say she had a broken leg. When the paramedics arrived, the lightbulb on her staircase had gone and she wanted it changed. She argued that if it wasn’t, she could fall and would break her leg. It would be hard to imagine a more demotivating situation for the staff who attended.

The NHS is quite a good testing ground for theories about staff motivation. With 1.8 million employees in England, even quite small organisations (by NHS standards) can be employing thousands of staff. One of my observations is that very few management mantras (like the one about the five star people) can be applied in a blanket fashion. Another is that there is very rarely a single factor to point at (which is what management mantras generally attempt to do).

However, given that two of the organisations I had the privilege of serving with did manage to ‘move the needle’, I should perhaps offer a couple of thoughts about how some do manage to motivate previously demotivated staff.

Here are my observations:

  1. It is worth investing in how you treat your staff.
    I was myself at quite a low ebb when a new chief executive bobbed up in the organisation I was in. One of the first things he said to the senior team was that his previous organisation was in the top 10% for how it treated its staff, and he was going to do the same for us. At the time we were in the bottom 5%. I have to say I didn’t entirely believe it was going to be possible. Nonetheless, a year later we moved from being a borderline pass on the Improving Working Lives (IWL) standard to being just 1½ % off the theoretical maximum score in the enhanced standard, and (as we understood) the top organisation in the NHS. It was a year after that our staff satisfaction scores put us the number one in our comparator group.
    What’s really interesting is that he didn’t say ‘top 10% for staff motivation’ (which would have made it up to the staff) but ‘top 10% for how we treat our staff’, which made it our responsibility.  That was what the IWL standard measured as well.
  2. Build in many places…
    The IWL standard was interesting because it examined a range of things. If memory serves me right, there were 14 different areas, and each of these were broken down into sub-categories. A mammoth effort in one area would not have shifted the dial. As a title for a book “198 different aspects of how to create a better working life for your staff” is probably never going to be as big a seller as “The One Thing You Need for a Motivated Workforce”, but my experience in the NHS, in charities and in the private sector is that doing 198 things quite well creates a bigger change than doing one thing absurdly well and leaving the rest look after themselves.
  3. …and they will come, in time
    Staff motivation, as measured by staff surveys, in my experience, tends to lag, for better or for worse, about a year behind the things you do to influence it. Acknowledging the contribution of the Communications team that helped to facilitate it tends to lag two years behind. Staff engagement is never going to be a quick fix. After all, these are the people who know more about your organisation than anyone else, who have watched leaders come and go, who have seen many promises made and perhaps fewer fulfilled. If previously demotivated, they are the most cynical observers, if highly motivated, they are the most persistent champions.
  4. Ask them
    Our journey into comparative bliss began with a focus group day entitled ‘There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch’ which, as it happened, included lunch. What was important about it was that, based on our 14 areas, we asked a lot of questions, listened to a lot of discussion, and went away and implemented what we learned. This might seem obvious, but it shouldn’t be: many learning exercises in many organisations are conducted without any real impact on what is done. They are used to confirm plans already in motion, not to direct them. One of my actions was to go off and create an intranet based around how the organisation perceived itself. We called it The Street, because someone had said that the organisation was like a commercial High Street, where people were all working away in their own buildings, but had no idea what people were doing in the other buildings.
  5. Trust them
    The aforementioned intranet, The Street, had three components. One was a searchable shared drive (it was the 2000s) which contained all of our policies and other corporate documents, so people could get them whenever they wanted. It took the time to find something down from ten minutes to just a few seconds. One was micro-sites for each department, so they could tell each other what they were doing (each one was a ‘building’). The other was open forums.
    Subsequently, after everyone started to want to know about how we were making the progress we were making, we did conferences about intranets. It was always open forums that scared senior managers in other organisations. The underlying fear was ‘if we allow people to say anything they want, won’t they just complain?’ Given that we were coming from a very low level of staff motivation (compared with the rest of the NHS), that could particularly have been a problem for us. But it never was. There were three elements to this. First, a very simple policy. We told our colleagues that they could put anything they liked, as long as it wasn’t illegal, unprofessional or offensive. Nobody had to trawl through pages of policy documents to find out what they could do. Second, we guaranteed anonymity. Rather than linking their intranet user names to their Outlook logins, we let people sign up with whatever name they wanted, as long as it wasn’t impersonating another member of staff (which would be unprofessional) or was an offensive word. They could even have more than one login, if, for example, they wanted to say some things anonymously. You might imagine that this would be a greater incentive to complain, but it wasn’t. The third element was that the forums were humanised. The Chief Executive had a ‘café’ with his name on it, and he got involved in conversations that took place there, rather like a café owner might with his regulars. When people did have something they wanted to raise, they did it in much the same way that they would have done if he was in the room. Over the years that followed we explored all kinds of issues on the forums, as well as buying and selling lots of second hand goods (the Swap Shop was always the most popular) and telling many jokes (the Comedy Club was the second most popular). We were also able to do a car park consultation, which, for those who have never done one, is the most contentious staff issue in most NHS organisations. One of the responses literally brought a tear to my eye. Someone said ‘In the past I wouldn’t have thought anyone was listening, but now I know you are…’ and, later, in regard to an unresolved car parking issue from years before ‘I know that would never happen now’. In the four years The Street ran before I moved to a different organisation, we never had to go down a disciplinary route for things posted there. In just three or four cases we had to warn someone.
  6. Reward them
    Reward and recognition programmes may seem twee, but when an unsung hero goes to the front of a room with 300 people in it to receive an award from the Chair, and everyone applauds, it’s worth any amount of internal newsletters and motivational emails. It’s not about the value of the award, it’s about the fact that the organisation, without any cynicism or qualification, acknowledges people for what they put into it, irrespective of status or time served.
  7. Keep talking
    While communicating more is not itself the answer, open channels of communication are essential if an organisation is to be self-motivating. Many organisations are quite good at downwards communication, from management to staff, reasonably good at upwards communication, going the other way, and terrible at sideways communication, where staff who don’t work with each other share their thoughts with each other. Up-down, whether you have a traditional pyramid structure or a management-trendy inverted pyramid, is fundamentally hierarchical. There is a necessity to that, organisationally, but the ground swell of ‘we are all in this together’ comes when everyone feels they can talk to everyone. In another organisation the directors invited everyone to coffee on Tuesday mornings, and spent most of their time pouring the coffee. The point was not for staff to meet directors, nor even for directors to demonstrate servant leadership (itself essential to any genuine change in how an organisation sees itself) by pouring the coffee, but so that people could mingle, chat, joke and get to know each other.
    Hard-pressed communications teams should remember that everything should be ‘as human as possible’. When cross-organisational communication is discussed, many departments will immediately decide they want a newsletter, facilitated by the comms team. Most of these newsletters will only last a few issues, and more time will be spent creating them than is ever spent reading them. That’s not what I mean by sideways communication. Simply organising space so that people eat their lunch together, and creating opportunities for them to mingle will do far more than any number of newsletters might.

Well, those are seven observations. You might ask, is this just opinion, or is it evidence based? Actually, both. We evaluated projects rigorously over the years and got some very accurate numerical pictures of what was going on, and were able to correlate with changes in perception internally and externally. On the other hand, what you take a way from those kinds of evaluations is all a matter of opinion. These are my view. I welcome others.

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