Well-intentioned Art Director Learns The Limits Of Awareness

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A big-hearted Chicago art director couldn’t do anything about his city’s homeless people’s mental illness, addiction and substance abuse. But he could address another of their problems – amateur typography. So he’s been working, one-on-one, to redesign their signage, according to a March 26 Adweek report.

“Since moving to Chicago in July of 2014,” the art director posts on his blog,

I’ve noticed the abundance of less-fortunate people asking for help on the streets. I’ve also seen how infrequently people tend to interact with them.

As an art director it’s my job to grab people’s attention with great design everyday [sic]. So I set out to see if great design could have an impact on people in the most ignored platform.

Each week I head out and meet someone new. I then spend the week hand lettering a new sign for them. Once I give them the sign I wait another week and then ask them if they noticed any difference in awareness.

As you’ll see from the before-and-after photos in the slide show, his redesigns have been great improvements in esthetics. They’ve also produced big increases in awareness, which in turn produced compliments and led to conversations.

  • “Despite only using the sign for roughly 2 hours the day before and four hours that day, Roger said that he had gotten 12 compliments on the sign. He said he has never had a sign that received compliments like that…He told me he saves it for special occasions because he doesn’t want to dingy it up. However, he said he brought it out on Wednesday and people loved it. He told me that people were calling him over to their cars to talk to him and people who wouldn’t normally stop were stopping to compliment him.”
  • “Mike told me that people really like the sign and that they keep saying how awesome it is. He said the sign is catching their eyes and more people are stopping by now that it’s starting to warm up.”
  • “Fred said that because it was so crazy downtown over St. Patrick’s Day, he wasn’t out. He said that he had managed to use [the new sign] a couple times and hadn’t noticed too much of a difference but that it had been slow lately.”

But while compliments and conversations are nice, they aren’t contributions.

Yes, the art-directed signs are overcoming homeless people’s invisibility. But no, they aren’t doing much beyond that. Which leads to an important conclusion about advertising effectiveness: Awareness is important, because before people can’t respond to ads they don’t see or hear. But, like the best of humanitarian intentions, awareness itself will take you only so far. Once you’ve captured people’s attention, you need to persuade them to do something specific.

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