The Case Against Better Graphic Design on Atheist Billboards December 30, 2012

The Case Against Better Graphic Design on Atheist Billboards

Over the past few years, nearly every time I’ve posted about a new atheist billboard going up, someone (usually more than just one person) comments on how ugly the design of the billboard is.

Why didn’t you hire a graphic designer?! they ask.

The case for it seems to make sense: Thousands of dollars are spent on these billboards; why not spend a fraction of that on a professional designer? (It’s possible some designers would even volunteer to do it.) The billboards would look *so* much better than they do now.

I don’t deny any of that.

My argument against it is simple: None of that matters.

To make sense of that, we have to ask: What’s the point of these billboards?

Some reach out to local atheists who may not know there are others like them out there. (“Don’t believe in God? Join the club!”)

Some make a pro-atheist statement (“You KNOW It’s a Myth“).

Some want you to think more rationally (“I’m getting a bit old for imaginary friends“).

Note that “quick de-conversion” isn’t on that list. Hardly anybody responsible for putting up the signs believes people will magically stop believing in God after they read them. People aren’t going to change their minds about God during a standstill at a red light, much less while driving past it at 55 mph. The organizations hope to plant a seed, more than anything else.

If you really want to plant that seed, though, there’s a better way to advertise: Go on the radio or local television so you can talk (at length) about your group, what you believe, and what you do.

But how do you get on radio or TV? Turns out paying for a billboard is a really good way to make it happen — and the atheist groups know it. By putting up a message — any message — that promotes atheism, you can count on getting even more publicity than you ever paid for.

Think about it: Have all the billboard campaigns gotten press? YES. They’ve gotten *tons* of it, collectively. Obviously, some billboards get more than others, but I can’t think of a single campaign that has not received press coverage. Hell, I’m pretty sure David Silverman of American Atheists (to just name one example) makes plans to be free for several days following an AA billboard going up because he knows he’s going to get calls from FOX News Channel or national radio shows.

In other words, the goal of these campaigns is to put atheists in front of a camera (or microphone) so we can talk about our groups and what we do. The billboards are only a means to that end. Nowhere in the equation does “design” appear. (And nowhere in the press reports, as far as I can recall, is the design of the billboards ever mentioned.)

Sure, it’s great if someone new comes to a group’s next meeting because s/he saw the group’s billboard, but I don’t think that happens all that often. More likely, people come after seeing the billboard discussed in local media.

So back to the question at hand: Why bother with graphic design? What’s going to happen if the billboards look better (or are phrased more eloquently)?


It’s not like random people are going to say, “Wow, that billboard looks great! I guess God doesn’t exist!”

It’s not like the media coverage has ever depended on what the billboards look like. The message is all that matters. And when atheists put up a big sign implying that there are good atheists in the area or that God is a myth, that’s a story worth covering for any local reporter, no matter how the sign looks.

If atheists were trying to sell a tangible product, no doubt good design would help. If you were creating a website you wanted people to visit, no doubt good design would help.

But when you’re going for media coverage, the design doesn’t make (and hasn’t made) a bit of difference for atheists.

That’s why you don’t need a professional designer to work on these ads. It’s not worth the cost since the attention will be there regardless.

(For what it’s worth, some of the ads featured in my nominees for 2012 Atheist Billboard of the year were created by professional designers. But, since peoples’ artistic tastes are different, the same complaints were still made. Those commenters didn’t just want a professional designer; they wanted a designer who complemented their own artistic sentiments.)

I ran some of these ideas by a graphic designer friend of mine and, while she agreed with much of what I wrote above, she added this worthwhile comment:

… if you’re taking the media attention as a given, you’re going to have a fairly large audience with plenty of time to mull over whatever you’ve produced. What do you want them to think? What do you want them to feel?

Fair point. You don’t want anyone looking at your billboard and coming to their own conclusions about what you’re like because you used a particularly ugly font on a billboard:

But keep in mind there’s a big difference between Internet-denizens who may be cognizant about things like font/kerning/design… and random people (the majority of people, I would assume) who don’t know the first thing about what constitutes “good design.” (Believe it or not, a lot of people actually like Comic Sans.)

To those people, all of these billboards look just fine. They judge them based entirely on the message, not the background color or the font or anything like that. As long as they’re readable — and most of them are — I would argue most people don’t think twice about the design.

(Quick note: It’s probably true that a more clever design could get even more widespread attention than just local news media, but that sort of savvy marketing is outside the scope of what I’m discussing here.)

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