Design Sense is a new feature discussing the best (and worse) examples of communication design –way-finding, information graphics, print/electronic communication — in Atlanta’s public spaces.
Everyone has MARTA war stories. My worst was witnessing a panhandler in a wheelchair, being pushed by a dwarf, urinating into a milk jug he tucked beneath a thin blanket draped across his lap. Experiences like mine have harmed MARTA’s reputation and discouraged ridership, rendering MARTA was something to endure, not enjoy.
That may be changing, thanks in part to MARTA’s new “Ride with Respect” initiative, a marketing campaign launched in November. It is an important element in CEO Keith Parker’s efforts to reverse declining ridership by providing a sustained, improved MARTA experience through not only better maintenance of trains and stations but also better rider behavior.
The campaign plays a role in reminding riders of the code of conduct — no fare skipping, no eating and drinking, no loud or disruptive behavior — and it puts those who break the rules on notice that MARTA is serious about enforcement. And it has empowered other riders to help via “See & Say,” a mobile tool funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security, that lets riders report problems to police. Thus far, more than 6,000 riders have downloaded the app and 900 people have been suspended from riding MARTA. (Click here to learn about downloading the “See & Say” app to your smartphone.)
The first rule of good communications design is to inform; the second is to delight. “Ride With Respect” informs. Its ads are clear and ubiquitous, appearing on buses and bus shelters, on trains and in stations, in print brochures and print ads, in celebrity videos and outdoor billboards.
Creatively, however, the campaign, designed in-house on a limited budget, is uneven. Some pieces lack vivid imagination: a generic image of a MARTA train against a backdrop of Atlanta’s skyline is not an advertising concept. Typography and layouts, though legible, are workmanlike. The tagline — “Atlanta has many wonderful places to visit and everybody deserves to enjoy the ride” — is cumbersome. We know Atlanta has wonderful places to visit; the problem is MARTA doesn’t go to most of them. Suggestion: “Everybody deserves to enjoy the ride.”
On the other hand, the outdoor campaign by creative director Rudy Fernandez of Creative Outhouse is fresh and simple, featuring an ad series addressing three concerns: solicitation, loud music and unruly behavior. One ad shows a giraffe beneath a headline that reads, “Go to the zoo to see some animals, because you won’t see any on MARTA.”
But beneath the cute giraffe, MARTA pulls its punches: “You deserve to enjoy the ride,” the copy reads, “that’s why other than service animals, you will only see humans riding MARTA. Anyone bringing any other kind of animal will be suspended from MARTA, along with their pet.” Please. They had me at the giraffe. I’ve seen humans on MARTA acting worse than giraffes.
Celebrity endorsements in video spots appeal to MARTA’s diverse demographics. Jeff Foxworthy and Ludacris pitching the same message? Now that’s SMARTA.
As for delight, I found it in what I didn’t see. A leak at Arts Center Station has been repaired. A trashcan at North Avenue Station had been emptied and freshly lined with a bag. In recent experience, I’ve seen no fare-jumpers, panhandlers, drunken behavior or loud teens. (In a few months, MARTA will publish statistics on the campaign’s performance with respect to ridership, crime and maintenance.)
It’s a given that Atlanta’s long-term transportation problems and economic health will improve if we expand mass transit. Rarely have I encountered a campaign that has the potential to do more good for our fair city than Keith Parker’s “Ride with Respect.” I believe that effective creative communication can change our world: a MARTA campaign that connects with riders and gets them involved with making MARTA safer and more pleasing can improve ridership experience, grow ridership revenues and — who knows? — lead to expansion of rapid rail that can change and reshape public opinion about mass transit.
To Parker, formerly of San Antonio, I have a Texas-size suggestion: whatever MARTA has allocated marketing and communications next year, triple it. Give your fine team the resources they need to go out and hire the best creatives possible. Let them collaborate to make “Ride with Respect” expand its reach and appeal.
The current campaign is good; it could be great. Its next iteration can capitalize on the progress made, spurring MARTA ridership and perhaps convincing taxpayers to open their wallets to pay for expansion beyond the city limits.
Meanwhile, keep up the code enforcement and maintenance. Real change encourages riders to become a part of the solution, and hopefully many more will jump on board.
About the Author: Matt Porter, who brings 30 years of experience as a creative director and writer, is a regular contributor to Communication Arts Magazine. He is managing editor of Against the Grain and cofounder and president of Good Thinking Atlanta, a philanthropic creative service organization.