Design, Convenience and Three Lessons NLC Learned in 2016

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As we close out 2016, one of the most visible legacies of the year for the National League of Cities is the change in how people see and experience us. And I mean “see” very literally.

In the same week we went from this:  old-logo    to this:     new-logo

And from this:


to this:


I was involved heavily in both transformations, so I’d like to share a few reflections about these changes and what I have learned from them.

1. My first lesson: Good design has the power to accelerate change.

As I wrote in June about the new logo, it was time for us to reflect the forward-looking attitude that is prevalent at NLC. We also were ready to give a visual identity to the letters “NLC” because this is how so many people refer to us. The rebranding of NLC also brought a new approach to our graphic design that we will continue to build.

Today, when I look at our annual report video or the recently published Future of Work report, I’m proud of how the experience reflects who we are as an organization. And as we introduce ourselves to a new Congress and Administration this year, I’m confident that the changes we have made will help us convey the value of this organization.

2. My second lesson: In spite of all of the advances in technology, proximity—the people you are physically close to–still affects who you build relationships with.

And the new look of NLC fits perfectly with our new home. NLC moved from three floors of a 1980s-era building to less than one and a half floors in a brand new, all glass office on Capitol Hill. There were many reasons for the move as, Meri St. Jean explained in an earlier post on CitiesSpeak. What I remember most clearly about the planning stage is that Clarence Anthony, our executive director, had one imperative: this space needed to inspire collaboration.

Today, most NLC staff work in an open environment, in workspaces flooded with natural light. Meeting rooms and interior offices have glass walls. Technology enables us to conduct video conferences through our computers and share our work on large screens wirelessly.

In our previous building, I could go for weeks without seeing a single person from the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF). They were in a rabbit warren two floors down. Today I often enjoy coffee-break conversations with Cliff, Audrey and others, not only from YEF, but also from program areas across NLC.

While I expected more interaction among NLC staff, I’ve been surprised by the increase in connections I and others have made with the National Association of Counties staff as well, who are now in the same building. I’ve also found more opportunities to get together with staff of related organization in the neighborhood, such as ICMA.

Our new office and the proximity of people with shared interests, both inside and outside of NLC, is certain to benefit our members.

3. Which brings us to my final lesson: Whether an office or a city, there is a trade-off between making things convenient and encouraging interaction. Don’t make the mistake of always choosing convenience.

In working with our architects, I learned that convenience is sometimes bad design. We all would like the coffee machine to be as close to our desk as possible. It’s convenient. But our priority was to inspire collaboration. If everything was convenient, how would we create opportunities for unplanned conversations—for those ideas that are sparked by a casual interaction with someone whose work or perspective is very different from one’s own? The answer was pretty simple.

The best two out of three coffee makers at NLC are in a beautiful lunchroom a space off the lobby, a stairway away from nearly everyone’s workspace.

Guess what: I take the stairs every day—several times—to get coffee. It makes me walk more, and I talk with people who I otherwise probably would not speak with on a given day.

So as we close this year, I won’t say that everything about our new brand and office is perfect, but I am very confident that NLC’s new face and home have given us the boldness to convey our message, the proximity to build relationships that will help our members and just enough planned inconvenience to spark ideas and make our work even better.

And now I think I’ll go downstairs for some coffee…

brian_derr_125wAbout the Author: Brian Derr is the Director of Marketing, Digital Engagement and Communications at the National League of Cities.