Design Skills: Posters and Outreach

Wooden bench in fall with leaves on the ground. Poster text reads "design skills for public historians"

One of the side projects I’m working on has had me thinking a lot about self-promotion and employment skills.  This thinking has been primarily around what emerging public history professionals should know when they go on the job market and how they can build the strongest resumes and cover letters possible.  Unsurprisingly this line of thought has also inspired me to consider what skills new professionals are bring to the workplace.  I’ve also been doing a lot of outreach events recent and thinking about marketing techniques.

So about those pretty graphics. Online promotion, creating physical flyers, and designing attractive graphics is a huge skill set.  Not every heritage organization is lucky enough to have their own design or communications person.  In smaller organizations with minimal staff one person is responsible for everything from event design, to promotion, to facilitation.  So how are your poster making skills? And how can you build basic design skills without breaking the bank?

Public Domain Images Are Your Friend

Don’t recreate the wheel or steal other people’s work. Seriously. There are a ton of places online where you can access public domain images to use in social media promo or other design projects.  One my favourite go to sites is Unsplash a website which hosts high resolution public domain images created by photographers. These images often work great as stock photos and are also available to remix and reuse as desired.  Check out “made with Unsplash” examples for ideas on how the images could work in promotional material.

I also love Old Book Illustrations, which is a collection of public domain illustrations that have been scanned from out of copyright publications.  The site specializes in Victorian and French Romantic images, they are available as raw scans to download or in a variety of resolutions.  I also particularly love that this site provides information on creators, where the images came from and the techniques used to create the image.  If you’re looking for historical images I would also suggest checking out library and museum collections to see what public domain scanning projects they have started.

Other sources I use for public domain images: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons and the aforementioned archives.

Yay For Templates!

Poster design takes practice.  Knowing where to place images, how large text should be, and how to make everything eye catching takes work.  There are some horrible posters out there and chances are we’ve all been guilty of creating at least one – too much text, an image that is a bit blurry, or just a bad colour combination.  Using templates can take some of the guess work out of this. Most word processing programs include poster template if you’re looking for something basic.

Canva is an online drag and drop design program that comes with a lot of templates for social media, presentations, flyers, and other formats.  You can signup as a free user to access a number of the templates, images, and fonts.  They also have a subscription option for folks interesting in using their resizing tool or accessing additional templates.  This program is really easy to use for beginners who aren’t looking to invest a lot of time into design.

PosterMyWall is similar to Canva in its use of templates. It is a simple drag and drop design setup with an emphasis on building attractive promotional images. I’ve found this site particularly helpful if you’re looking for a event flyer inspiration or templates. I haven’t used it for social media graphics but it looks as though that is an option as well.

Training Options

At minimum I’d suggest that folks should gain basic photo editing skills.  This can be using Photoshop, GIMP or another open source editor of your choice.  Being able to crop, alter file sizes and formats, and alter the colour of images can be easy first steps to building your skill set. Want other design skill ideas? Allana Mayer wrote a great series of posts about how heritage organizations can use public domain images to create print-on-demand products.

There are also more and more design workshops popping up locally.  Check your local employment centre, library, or entrepreneur group to see if they are offering any introduction to design or introduction to online promotion workshops.

Organization Social Media Accounts

MediaFor the past number of years I’ve been managing the Activehistory.ca social media accounts, namely Twitter and Facebook.  Since the fall I’ve also been managing Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts for my work.

The accounts are somewhat different in nature.  The Active History accounts are primarily used to promote new website content, so I don’t have to be overly creative in my posts other than writing captions, pulling quotes, or selecting accompanying images.  On the other hand the archives social media accounts are pretty wide open – they can cover ongoing projects, events, draw attention to digitized content, and basically anything else I can think of.

In both cases I’ve found a few different ways to make the process more manageable:

  • Schedule content.  In the case of Facebook and Tumblr you can pick the time and date of posts and schedule them in advance.  I find this a huge help, it lets me put together posts when I have the time and have them appear later on at appropriate intervals. For twitter I tend to use TweetDeck to manage content, and that platform also has a scheduling feature.
  • Hashtags are your friends.  Hashtags connect new audiences to your content. Andrea Eidinger recently wrote a great summary of hashtags for Canadian historians if you’re interested in learning more.
  • Theme days are also your friends. #MinitureMonday, #TinyTuesday, #WordlessWednesday, #InternationalBookDay, #Caturday etc are all easy ways to promote existing content on a regular basis while attaching your organization to a larger social media movement.
  • Take photographs of what you’re doing and share them.  Photographs of events, new donations, processing, and photographs of all that day-today work GLAM professionals do can be a way to provide a behind the scenes look at your organization and also explain to people what work actually goes on in an archive.
  • Start collecting content for future posts.  Most GLAM organizations have a lot of existing digitized content that is great for sharing on social media.  If you come across interesting photographs, letters, books etc make a reference of them or save a copy for future use on social media.  This is an easy way to build up a backlog of ideas that you can pull from for future posts.
  • Don’t be afraid to try different things.  Experiment with what days and times you post different types of content.  Try new hashtags or new approaches to presenting content.
  • Use some type of analytics.  Many social media platforms come with basic stats built in.  But it’s sometimes helpful to add Google Analytics or something similar to the content you’re creating so you can measure how your content is being accessed and used.

Volunteers and Heritage Events

It’s Gathering and and Conference planning season again.  For the third year in a row my work is planning a large Gathering and Conference for a summer long weekend.  This year’s Gathering is occurring on the long weekend in August and I am substantially more involved in the planning and implementation of the Gathering.  

Events and outreach activities are a fairly common occurrence for heritage organizations.  Events are one of the many ways in which heritage groups encourage first time visitors and promote themselves within a community.  It also fairly common that heritage groups rely heavily on volunteers and donations in-kind when planning an event.

The planning experience so far this year has inspired a lot of thoughts about the importance of having an involved volunteer based and community connections.  Even large heritage organizations utilize volunteers as in day to day activities and special events.  Many hands make for light work. 

Volunteers are wonderful.  They also require planning and coordination.   Every volunteer comes from a unique background and has individual interests and skills sets.  A good volunteer coordinator will establish tasks for a volunteer that are suitable to their interests and skill sets.  I’ve been lucky in my volunteer experiences.  While volunteering for the Dufferin Country Museum and Archives, the Red Cross, and the Canadian Museum of Nature I was given tasks that suited my interests and room to expand my skill set.  All of these organizations were also extremely flexible in working with my schedule and supporting me in my initial foray into public history.

Having organized volunteers for specific events has contributed to me having a huge respect for individuals who work full-time as volunteer coordinators or in an outreach role.  Scheduling volunteers, providing the right amount of guidance and training, and dealing with unexpected volunteer problems requires patience, flexibility, and a huge amount of planning.

What about volunteers for one off events?  A few things I’ve learned from the past events we have organized, include:

  • Having an orientation session prior to the event can be extremely helpful in avoiding day of chaos. 
  • One off volunteers tend to be a bit less reliable than regular volunteers. Having more volunteers than you think you’ll need usually helps mitigate this.
  • Assign someone to be in charge of the volunteers the day of the event.  Have a central place for the volunteers to meet and take breaks. 
  • Treat your volunteers well (free food always helps) and they will be more willing to help out again in the future.