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.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Skeptico

    I’m trying to decide if the grammatical error on the graphic is a deliberate ironic comment on bad graphic design.

  • Guest

    A better design might suggest atheist/humanist groups are professional and have the resources to achieve their goals. That could attract people who are put off by organizations that appear to be new or amateur (and possibly short-lived and/or ineffective).

  • C Peterson

    I am reading the whole sign as a visual joke: the incorrect word, the quotes, the font, the non-standard capitalization, the rainbow background…

    Brilliant if planned, pathetic if not!

  • midnight rambler

    Maybe the point is that the “13 signs” are contained within the graphic itself? My untrained eye only counts about 6, but maybe an actual graphic designer would recognize the more subtle things that make it repulsive.

  • TCC

    I wouldn’t say this is a case against better graphic design; at best, it’s a case for not whining about poor design. Even that is somewhat misguided, though, because design does seem to contribute to the effectiveness of a billboard. Will it make people change their minds? No, but billboards aren’t generally meant to do that, anyway.

    On the other hand, design elements that make people react viscerally in a way counter to the billboard’s message – I’m thinking especially here of the PA Year of the Bible graphic – are not productive and should definitely be avoided.

  • TrinainUS

    I get your point, Hemant, but an ugly billboard will indeed keep some people away. I don’t think we’re wise to disregard the usefulness of at least reasonably good design.

  • midnight rambler

    To those people, all of these billboards look just fine.

    At least in the case of the Minnesota Atheists billboard above, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, and I’m not referring to the message. Also, I don’t think it helps build support for these kind of campaigns when their membership (i.e. the people actually paying for them) thinks they’re a bunch a f*ing morons for putting up billboards that look hideous.

  • dhjdhj

    I think I have disagree with this strongly, based on an analogy with live music performance. Audience members listening to different cover bands playing the same songs will often tell you they like one band better than the other even if they can’t tell you why. The underlying reasons may be due to tighter performance, less mistakes and wrong chords (and to those of us with strong music skills, it’s amazing how often listeners doesn’t consciously notice such things). I think the same is true of billboards. It doesn’t matter what your message says if people don’t actually notice/remember it and I suspect that for exactly the same reasons as for music, a better “look” will cause more people to read the message.

  • MichaelBrice

    I need help too, I can only find one (grammar), two if ‘fugly’ counts.

  • The Good Atheist

    Yeah, design actually does matter. People are superficial. You know the saying “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”? We say that because we all do, and we need to remind ourselves not to be so shallow.

    Look, if people are complaining about how they look, it’s not hard to imagine that the message might be lost to fence sitters who consider us no better than Jesus Junk.

    The real reason these billboards often look cheap is that many of these orgs are too cheap to pay real graphic designers, or they have no idea where to find one. I don’t want the atheism scene to look cheap, unconsidered, and hockey. We need to appreciate the power of advertising and stop pretending that the message carries any more weight than the medium it’s presented in. Let’s stop pretending we aren’t a shallow species, please.

  • Jan Kafka

    Because everyone knows atheists don’t need no stinkin’ designer.

  • The Good Atheist

    I almost felt like writing “Math teacher says design isn’t important”, to highlight how Hemant is talking way out of his field of expertise on this one. I’m married to an entertainer. I know the importance of design in terms of creating legitimacy and even inspiring a feeling of confidence. Sure, the message is getting through, but the underlying one is that we are cheap, poorly funded, and perhaps even not totally serious. It would be like saying that modern advertising has no influence on people.

    It’s a pretty silly article my friend.

  • midnight rambler

    your instead of you’re
    beginning and end quotes are different styles
    Comic Sans-like font
    rainbow is in the wrong order (starts in the middle)
    weird fluorescent colors in the rainbow (esp. the purple)
    using a rainbow for something like this in the first place

  • midnight rambler

    Found the article it came from; it is a joke (the article itself is called “15 Signs You’re A Bad Graphic Designer :)

  • anniewhoo

    I think instead of worrying so much about design, we should spend more time thinking of how the message will get jumbled by those who are so bothered by it in the first place. That’s why I loved the “kittens are cute” ad. You can’t claim that the ad itself is offensive in any way, so if people oppose it, it becomes quite obvious that they are bothered by the mere existence of atheists.

  • Randomfactor

    Unrelated, but WHY does Comic Sans have a lowercase? Is there a comic somewhere that uses C&lc?

  • midnight rambler

    It just occurred to me that this article sounds a lot like George Lucas saying that it doesn’t matter that the Star Wars prequels consist mostly
    of bluescreen shots of people talking about a nonsensical plot while walking down corridors, because people will like all the lightsaber fights.

  • rg57

    (You implied that font is Comic Sans, and it is not.)

    It would be wise to keep in mind that we’re not just looking for attention, like perhaps a highway pile-up. We’re looking for people to be receptive to our message. If we look like we just came up with our ideas over lunch before posting them on a billboard, we’ll be seen, but we’ll also be dismissed. And that goes for TV as well, because that billboard will be part of the presentation.

    Of course, without actual data on people’s responses, we can’t really know the impact of poor design on our message. Where is the data?

  • Johann

    To those people, all of these billboards look just fine.

    As dhjdhj pointed out, I don’t have the musical education to know the correct terms for what I like or dislike about a particular piece of music, but I most certainly know whether I like it or not. Likewise, you don’t have to be a chef to have a food preference, an architect to determine whether you like a particular building, or a writer to know if you like the book you’re reading. To be sure, there are people who are indifferent to the little things that make all the difference for me, and probably care about something else entirely – but that is a difference in their preferences, not their skills.

    You don’t hire a designer so that other designers will nod approvingly and comment on the beautiful kerning when they see your billboard. You hire a designer to make you a billboard that will look good, or at least acceptable, to most people – because without that, your medium gets in the way of your message. When people are talking about the ugly design of your board, they’re not talking about what it says – and you become “those people with the piss yellow billboard” instead of “those people with an interesting idea”. Sure, your message still has a chance, but you’re making it that much harder for it to succeed.

    A lot of these billboards are aimed at other atheists rather than the general public – and while I can’t speak for other people’s preferences, to me an ugly billboard with a random baby looking like it wants to implant a soul in me just so it can eat it says “We are well-meaning, utterly clueless, and this is how we spend your money. Stay the hell away from us.”

  • Silo Mowbray

    I’ll have to chime in with the contrary crowd, Hemant. Speaking as a communications and marketing pro, I argue that good design DOES matter. Even if your goal is to simply create a controversy to be picked up and amplified by the talking heads, paying for good design 1) makes the humanist/atheist/secular group appear competent, and 2) can increase the impact of the message by an order or two of magnitude.

    Ultimately it’s up to the group paying for the billboard/banner to decide on how to spend their media budget, but pretty much any communications/marketing expert will tell you that skimping on design isn’t advisable.

  • anniewhoo

    I think you are overestimating the average American’s sense of design.

  • Michelle Huey

    I disagree with this. Besides making atheist/humanist groups look professional, the goal of a designer is to make signs easier to read, and sometimes the signs are almost illegible from a distance. That Solstice banner that FFRF keeps putting up? It’s so difficult to read because there’s not enough contrast between “at this season of the Winter Solstice” and the background. That’s design 101. A designer would definitely make that sign more noticeable and easier to read. It gets your message across faster

  • The Good Atheist

    It’s less about their sense and more about the impact that design has on people. Advertisers are fully aware of this phenomenon, and despite people’s general lack of “sense of design”, you don’t see them trying to sell perfume with Comic Sans and a yellow background, do you?

    Besides, if it’s a billboard, people have a certain expectation of quality, set by other professional designers.

  • The marmot™

    I have to disagree as a designer (and as an atheist since the ads are terrible). It does matter. And a lot. Why? Well first because a good design with a good and intelligent message is more effective. Most of the times the message is so long or so complicated that the point is lost somewhere. In billboards you have to make your point clear in less than 4 seconds (the average time someone spends reading a billboard). If not the billboard loses its function, and it ends being an expense rather than a investment.

    And don’t forget that it is also about perception. Not a single atheist billboard I’ve seen so far this year is thought provoking or inspiring, and if people can’t connect with the image and message it’s again wasted money. Graphic design is not about making things “look pretty”, it’s about effective communication.

    Some churches in the last 5 years have been hiring designers for their websites, stationary, flyers and ads… Why not learn this from them?

  • John Small Berries

    My argument against it is simple: None of that matters.
    I’d love to examine the empirical evidence you have to support that claim. Unfortunately, you appear to have forgotten to include it in your post; all I see are assumptions and assertions, with not a single statistic to back any of them up.

  • jose

    I think the “Join the club” ones are pretty good!

    I’d be happy to have any atheist billboard in my country, full stop, no matter what they look like…

  • WallofSleep

    The only hard and fast rule concerning billboards that I am aware of is to keep the written message to seven words or less.

  • Marco Conti

    I disagree. Good graphic design makes us all look more professional, more serious and carries our message better.

    In fact, many of us are designers and being represented by bad design is something we do not cherish. Even in my own work, I have found that sloppy design prevents the public from taking a message seriously. Even when the audience cannot quite express why they do not want to buy a certain product or join a certain group, if you scratch is because the sloppy design used to “sell” the product gave them the subliminal message that there is a lack of professionalism in a badly designed ad, website or shopping cart. If the store or the website or the ad agency were incapable of wrapping their product in a professional veneer, it may very well be that the product itself is flawed. When it comes the time to pay their money or invest their time or even just identify with the message, many people will bail even if when asked they won;t be able to rationalize why.

    Sure, we are not trying to “convert”. But even if we just want to preach to the converted, showing pride in our work is the best way to show that we are professional and we do take pride in what we do.

  • Pseudonym

    Yes, and this feeds into the whole “where are atheists at national moments” discussion. Nobody will invite you if you don’t present yourself as a group which will take it seriously.

  • Pseudonym

    Of course. If you don’t get the message immediately, you’re irrational.

  • TCC

    I see what you did there.

  • Wordsmith

    When you say “you KNOW its a myth” you have made a postive claim.

    So much for trying to define atheism as simply “lack of belief’.

    FFRF is now telling us “there is no God”. Dan Barker is going to have trouble using the “lack of belief” dodge in debates now.

  • John

    Sounds to me like a bunch of Marketing people being pissy because they are not being hired to design our billboards. It does not take a college degree to put a few words on a billboard. As I said before, I just look at commercial billboards and television commercials and I know that they have no clue! Quit bitching and donate money or STFU!

  • RevBrian O’Saurus

    True story. I would say that the question might need to be: are the funds worth spending for a billboard campaign, or is there a philanthropic professional designer who will do the design work pro bono?

  • dorothy30

    how about a simple spell-checker? the rainbow arrow at the top should read ’13 signs YOU’RE a bad graphic designer’. OUCH!

  • Philbert

    There’s no point in David Silverman wearing a tie on Fox News.

    It’s not like random people are going to say, “Wow, that guy is making a sound argument! I guess God doesn’t exist!”

    It’s not like the media coverage has ever depended on what Silverman looks like. The message is all that matters. And when atheists appear on TV to talk about how there are good atheists in the area or that God is a myth, that’s a story worth covering for any reporter, no matter how the guest looks.

    And hence Silverman should appear on TV wearing an FSM t-shirt in the future. Do it for the lulz.

  • Pseudonym

    It doesn’t take a college degree to put a few things in a test tube, either, but it helps to know what you’re doing.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Is that “your” supposed to be deliberately misspelled?

  • chicago dyke

    look at all of us making hemant butthurt! lol.

    but seriously, i have to agree with the vast majority here (love the ‘math teacher’ comment, heh). design does matter. a lot. why else would huge corporations spend billions on very carefully crafted and specifically targeted ads?

    it’s especially important in an age where our best hope, the young, are increasingly fed sophisticated media with all the spinning wheels, flashing lights and other stuff as the competition for their eyeballs gets more and more intense.

    nothing says ‘old and out of touch’ like a poorly designed billboard. i mean, how do folks here react to say, anti-choice billboards? mostly, “yuck” and “oh, give me a break.” why? because they mostly expect viewers to respond on the lowest intellectual level (mommy don’t kill me i’m sooooo cuuuute!) which insults us as people who understand abortion is a difficult, complicated issue that involves so much more than the possibility of a (blonde, blue eyed) baby’s birth.

    similarly, atheist billboards with poor design communicate the message that we’re disorganized, not populated by affluent and thoughtful members, poorly funded, short sighted, and unable to compete in the ‘market of ideas.’ that’s a real flaw and atheist orgs need to get a lot more serious about how they present themselves and their ideas.

    my sister works in design and can be had for not very much money at all, and she’s really good. what does a billboard cost to erect? 10K? 20K? i’m pretty sure in this economy atheist orgs could get professional designers to do great work for 500-1000$. it’s truly worth it to spend that extra pittance.

    love your show, Hemant. but you’re just wrong on this one.

  • Pseudonym

    Comic Sans was designed for MS Bob, so it needed lower case.

    Having said that, plenty of graphic novels use lower case. The Tintin books by Herge are probably the most obvious example, but also Raymond Briggs used it extensively (When the Wind Blows, Gentleman Jim, Fungus the Bogeyman, Father Christmas and many others).

    The modern trend was probably started by Todd Klein in the Sandman books.

  • Revyloution



    - – - -

    Listen up. I know the shit you’ve been saying behind my back. You think I’m stupid. You think I’m immature. You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.

    You don’t like that your coworker used me on that note about stealing her yogurt from the break room fridge? You don’t like that I’m all over your sister-in-law’s blog? You don’t like that I’m on the sign for that new Thai place? You think I’m pedestrian and tacky? Guess the fuck what, Picasso. We don’t all have seventy-three weights of stick-up-my-ass Helvetica sitting on our seventeen-inch MacBook Pros. Sorry the entire world can’t all be done in stark Eurotrash Swiss type. Sorry some people like to have fun. Sorry I’m standing in the way of your minimalist Bauhaus-esque fascist snoozefest. Maybe sometime you should take off your black turtleneck, stop compulsively adjusting your Tumblr theme, and lighten the fuck up for once.

    People love me. Why? Because I’m fun. I’m the life of the party. I bring levity to any situation. Need to soften the blow of a harsh message about restroom etiquette? SLAM. There I am. Need to spice up the directions to your graduation party? WHAM. There again. Need to convey your fun-loving, approachable nature on your business’ website? SMACK. Like daffodils in motherfucking spring.

    When people need to kick back, have fun, and party, I will be there, unlike your pathetic fonts. While Gotham is at the science fair, I’m banging the prom queen behind the woodshop. While Avenir is practicing the clarinet, I’m shredding “Reign In Blood” on my double-necked Stratocaster. While Univers is refilling his allergy prescriptions, I’m racing my tricked-out, nitrous-laden Honda Civic against Tokyo gangsters who’ll kill me if I don’t cross the finish line first. I am a sans serif Superman and my only kryptonite is pretentious buzzkills like you.

    It doesn’t even matter what you think. You know why, jagoff? Cause I’m famous. I am on every major operating system since Microsoft fucking Bob. I’m in your signs. I’m in your browsers. I’m in your instant messengers. I’m not just a font. I am a force of motherfucking nature and I will not rest until every uptight armchair typographer cock-hat like you is surrounded by my lovable, comic-book inspired, sans-serif badassery.

    Enough of this bullshit. I’m gonna go get hammered with Papyrus.

  • TCC

    …that’s part of the joke. It’s a joke. Lighten up.

  • TCC

    Atheism is still the lack of belief in a god or gods, even if some atheists are willing to go a step further and assert the position that there are no gods.

  • jjramsey

    I’d say that the response to that “Slaves, obey your masters” billboard is a perfect example of why we do need good graphic design. Here, we had a billboard that, at a glance, looked like it was expressing a racist sentiment and justifying it with a Bible quote. A graphic designer could have taken a look at the planned design and said, “Um, this is not going to convey what you think it will.”

  • Silo Mowbray

    I’ll educate you so you don’t sound so foolish in the future.

    “Marketing people” don’t design billboards. Designers are hired to design billboards, among a wide range of other visual collateral. Kindly STFU yourself before speaking about the expertise of others.

    Signed, an atheist who has donated dollars since 2009 to atheist/secularist causes.

  • wmdkitty

    There… there are people who like Comic Sans?

  • OregoniAn

    The average American’s sense of design is completely immaterial and unimportant to those of us professionals in the field. Properly targeted design, along with marketing and communication influences your opinions/buying decisions etc. (at the very least on a subconscious level) hundreds of times each and every day.

  • Guest

    Dave Silverman will always have trouble getting converts for one simple reason: he’s extremely annoying. The way he speaks, the way he looks, the expression on his face, and the whole energy he gives off. One can see it in his billboards, as well. Irritation may please the devout, but won’t win anyone ovr who is on the fence.

  • OregoniAn

    Apparently it doesn’t take a college degree to be a “know-it-all” dickhead too.

    Who knew?

  • jose

    “Evidence: If Comic Sans were a person, he’d be that internet tough guy
    who thinks saying ‘I banged the prom queen behind the woodshop’ makes
    him look awesome instead of a toolbag that no self-respecting woman
    would be friends with.”

    wise words by one Maria Caliban.

  • Isilzha

    What’s wrong with Papyrus??

  • Bob Daniel

    There is one thing I agree with here, that is that graphic design consulting or even services could probably be had for free by interested parties. And since I think we all agree that improving the designs would certainly not HARM the cause, there clearly is no case to be made for not doing so.

  • Bob Daniel

    Comic Sans is the Nickelback of fonts. It’s pop-culturally cool to hate on them. I’m sad for them both.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    What country? Maybe we can all chip in and pay for one….IF the laws and the billboard companies allow. This could be fun.

  • Strategic_Pork_Reserve

    Swing and a miss, Mr. Mehta. It’s a matter of looking professional versus amateurish. Leave the piss-poor design and wording to church newsletters.

    Bad design is a lot like porn for most people. They can’t describe it in detail (kerning, force indents, drop caps, Cinema 4D), they just know it when they see it.

    And it certainly helps the case for a person to dismiss an organization (whether they are religious, agnostic or full-blown atheist) if the product looks unprofessional.

    Additionally, there are easier (and cheaper) ways to draw media attention to one’s group than spending money on a billboard — if said media attention indeed is one’s goal to increase membership or awareness.

    In fact, you’re aiming for the lowest common denominator when you attempt to pander to local TV news coverage, which barely will skim the surface of any issue, and often just paints the atheist group in a poor light.

    If design didn’t matter, you’d have done your own regular and e-book covers, because, after all, it’s the content inside that matters, right?

  • PythagoreanCrank

    YES! Thanks chicago dyke.

    Ya know, this denigrating attitude towards design really peeves me. I cringe every time some org relegates design jobs to a freaking “contest”. Graphic design is an actual profession. The job of graphic designers is to communicate a message. That takes skill and talent just like any thing else! Often you won’t even notice the design, it doesn’t exist for its own sake. It’s meant to convey something, it gets outta the way. Saying design isn’t important is saying the message isn’t important so why is anybody wasting the resources in the first place then. If that’s the standard for atheist orgs I’ll keep my donation money thankyouverymuch.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    The fact of the matter is that the local outrage against the billboard was generated in advance by local politicians, due to a delay in the installation of the board. The local newspaper did a story about the board, which was due to be published to coincide with the unveiling of the board. But the billboard company made a spelling error which was discovered before installation and the replacement board took several extra days to arrive. So the story (along with the full graphic) appeared several days before the board actually went up. This gave the local (and not-so-local) politicians time to organize their outrage. The chosen image was designed to get the attention of the passersby, and that it did! People stopped, parked, went up to the board, and had unlimited time to read and understand it (before it was torn down by criminals later that night). Any reasonably informed viewer (the Year of the Bible controversy had been in the news for a few weeks) would have completely understood the message. In addition, African Americans do not OWN the images of slavery, just as Jews do not OWN the images of Nazi atrocities. Those who were offended by the image merely want the truth (of the slavery of blacks) to be swept under the rug. As for the location chosen, there were very few affordable locations to choose from, and the one in downtown we were considering (which we had used in the past for a FFRF board) had some serious line-of-sight problems due to a tree. There was no “ideal” location which was affordable and available on short notice.

    If we could have afforded multiple locations, we would have done it. This was a joint project between a local and a national organization, with the national organization taking the lead in design and site selection, but in the end the local organization approved it, and even in the days immediately following the “outrage”, the local organization had a meeting and no one expressed significant regrets about the billboard. You might enjoy reading comments on all sides of the issue, here:

    BTW, the Year of the Bible ends tomorrow!

  • KatieHartman

    Design doesn’t have to be terribly complicated. Dark text on white works remarkably well. My advice to someone with a decent eye who wanted to make a billboard would be this: Steal Pandora’s color scheme (or the color scheme of pretty much any other major web-based company), download a variety of attractive free fonts (ChunkFive, Bebas, Komika Axis, Open Sans, and Lora will get you off to a good start), and learn how to create and align text and alter letter-spacing in whatever program you’re using. That’s all. It might not be as eye-catching as what a designer could do, but it’ll be a lot better than most of the billboards floating around the movement today.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    Let the easily offended join CFI or AHA. The last thing we need is a bland corporate-type. We shouldn’t have to present an artificial image to win people over.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    Nice graphics are great, if you can afford them, like big churches can. But they aren’t essential in getting a basic message across. Billboard companies themselves will help you compose a design. Local groups should not hesitate to do a billboard simply because they don’t have the money to hire a graphic designer. Like Hemant said, outside of the atheist fishbowl, nobody has really complained about the design of a billboard, except for the orchestrated outrage against the (apparently offensive, but realistic) image selected for the slavery billboard.

  • Patterrssonn

    There’s also something to be said for not adding to the amount of sheer ugliness that people are subjected to every time they step outside their homes.

  • Ruth

    People are not going to complain about the design. Who would they complain to? We don’t complain about the design of anti-choice billboards. But the poor design still creates an impression.

  • ecolt

    Just what I was going to say. A well-put together billboard gives more of an impression of organization and legitimacy. I think it’s especially important given the resources that some churches and religious groups pour into their recruitment efforts. With mega-churches pouring thousands into sleek ad campaigns, having an atheist billboard that looks like someone just slapped it together in minutes just adds to the impression that atheists groups are just a very few poorly-organized people looking to complain about something.

  • wmdkitty

    Nickelback sucks. I’ve tried listening to them, and they just. plain. suck. (On the other paw, if you like that kind of shit, have at it… just wear headphones, plz.)

  • midnight rambler

    It’s not just pop-culturally cool to hate on them. It’s that they seem to be ubiquitous, yet you can never find any real person who actually likes them.

  • AshBowie

    I wish I could like this 100 times. Good design = good communication. Science tells us that people process images far faster than words…as such, a billboard with an effective visual presentation is going to have a stronger impact than one that is visually confusing, cluttered, or boring. Good design is needed for the exact same reason that a good copywriter is needed—a few misspelled words or grammatical errors wouldn’t necessarily prevent the literal communication of a message, but it certainly makes it less likely to be clearly interpreted or integrated.

  • roberthughmclean

    Look at the big bucks the godbots put into their boards, signs and general publications. It’s important to appear professional and trustworthy. The JW’s must spend half their ill gotten gains on their library of nonsense, but hey it looks good, appears at least to be believable and must to some extent, work. Our situation is different, but some time and money spent on presentation can’t be a bad thing.

  • Keulan

    I agree with you, Hemant. The message and the press publicity atheists get from these billboards is way more important than having them be perfectly designed. And I still don’t get why so many people hate Comic Sans.

  • WoodyTanaka

    Interesting reasoning. I’m not sure I agree, but then again, I thought that the ads were pretty good on the whole (although I’m sure many of the “I’m a professional graphic designer and you should be giving money to members of my guild” -type posters might tell me why my opinion is wrong…) But I find it amusing how many people complain about the graphics and fonts and crap, claiming that they want the organizations to be “effective,” given the number of people who also complain that the messages are too harsh and aggressive. So I guess we should stick to pretty, but lightweight fluff. You wouldn’t want the religious to be offended, after all.

  • Drew M.

    (It’s possible some designers would even volunteer to do it.)

    Don’t hold your breath.

    And yes, I’ve donated professional services several times. Unfortunately, atheist organizations don’t tend to need a mechanical engineer.

  • jose

    Oh we had some “Bus Ateo” ads back in the day (Spain), but that’s over. Honestly, we’re all too busy protesting spending cuts and draconian austerity measures to be worried about hell and Jesus right now… but the sentiment is appreciated :D

  • Timothy Broyles

    Good design lends credence to your message. Even if it’s only subconsciously, we look at badly designed things and give them less merit.

  • Patrick

    If only they had only ever written the Bible in comic sans,
    Maybe it wouldn’t have caught on.

  • Vicki Williams

    I completely disagree. As a leader of a community level atheist group, I care a lot about reaching apatheists. In our liberal city, there are plenty of people who don’t believe in gods, but who don’t see a reason to bother with groups or to even think about the matter that much. Looking appealing can make a difference. I want people to look at our ads and think “That group looks fun.”

  • The Other Weirdo

    The first sign you’re a bad graphic artist is when you don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re”.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    Many, if not most, of the atheists who don’t “bother” with groups are ones who are cheapskates, have believing spouses (i.e. are ATMs), are in-the-closet or have a holier-than-thou attitude by calling themselves “agnostics” (who don’t want to associate with atheists).

  • Pseudonym

    I was going to ask if you had some numbers to back that claim up, but it’s so full of weasel words I’m not going to bother.

    You know, if there was a local community group which potentially catered to my interests but came out and said that the fact that I hadn’t (yet) joined them just proves I’m not a nice person, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t join that group.

    Most people don’t bother with groups, and it doesn’t matter what the group is. Around half the population (not 25% as commonly quoted) are Meyers-Briggs introverts, which since it’s Meyers-Briggs should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, a significant proportion of your target audience prefers solitary activities to social activities.

    Not everyone has a middle class disposable income, especially in the current economy. Not everyone has time for their job, their family and clubs on top of that. Don’t forget that church attendance is down among Christians, too.

    Final thought: You’ve done everything but call these people apostates, blaming them for not joining your group. This is one of the many reasons why people use the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”: it’s classic fundamentalist behaviour.

  • wmdkitty

    Or we’re not comfortable with large gatherings, or some gathering places are inaccessible, or we don’t have transportation, or…

  • HughInAz

    “13 signs your a bad graphic designer”

    #1: You don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re”.

  • MichaelBrice

    Thanks rambler

  • Thin-ice

    Also as a graphic designer, I agree AND disagree on your point that most people don’t think about design. Most people are aware of good design only subconciously or subliminally. Like it or not, if a good message is presented or packaged badly, the message suffers. The message may not be completely ignored, but it will not be taken with the same of respect and/or seriously as one that is presented powerfully and gracefully and with a degree of sophistication.

    What if the atheist billboard has a punchy headline, but it gets lost because of bad positioning, poor font choice or size, or colors that lack contrast from the background color/image? And this is just one example among dozens of how a badly executed design can ruin a good message. Equally, a bad message can be enhanced by a good design, even though that’s a waste of design talent!

    When you go into a store to buy a particular product, all other things being equal, the one with the best design has the better chance of being purchased. Same principles apply to all aspects of visual design.

  • Thin-ice

    Another thing: Hemant is speaking at the Northwest Freethought Conference in Portland, OR in April, and I had to include info about that event in a local monthly skeptics newsletter that I design and lay out. I was shocked at how awful the website looked, and the “logo” for the Conference looked liked chicken scratchings. I would be embarrassed to refer anyone to their website, especially if I wanted to re-assure someone of the professional nature of the conference.

    I apologize if the person who “designed” those items is reading this. You’ll probably hate me now, but I had to say it.

  • Georgina

    Who cares – it got more attention than any other billboard.
    I should like to see exactly the same picture – with a Koran quote.
    “16.75: “Allah sets forth a parable: (consider) a slave, the property of another, (who) has no power over anything,

  • Patrick

    Unfortunately Hemant clearly knows nothing about basic graphic design or visual literacy. The main font in his header logo is unreadable.

  • walkamungus

    Gosh, I miss you when you’re not posting, Revy.

  • Hemant Mehta

    Flip it 180 degrees around.

  • Thegoodman

    This thread needs fewer graphic designers promoting their seemingly trivial profession (as far as promoting atheism is concerned at least).

    As Hemant has pointed out, the signs do not serve the purpose of communication OR promoting a product. Atheism does not sell anything. Atheist groups do not communicate some sort of higher message.

    A black sign with white comic sans text that says “WE TOTES EXIST!! -Local Atheist Chapter” would 100% serve its purpose. Have stupid triangles, well placed text, and a pretentious feel to it would not make it any more effective in this case.

    Graphic design has a well earned and significant place in this world, Atheism billboards is not one of them.

  • Thegoodman

    I am glad you are here to shame all the girls who have elected to have sex behind the wood shop.

    A woman can be promiscuous AND self-respecting at the same time. Maybe Mr. Sans is very funny and she likes funny guys.

  • Thegoodman

    1. “we are cheap” — Yes, see 2.

    2. “poorly funded” — Yes

    3. “and perhaps even not totally serious” — Serious about what exactly?

    Atheism has nothing to sell. It has nothing to convince. The signs are meant for publicity (indirectly) and self proclamation.

    “like saying that modern advertising has no influence” Perhaps the groups are not interested in influence. Maybe we are all influenced 24 hrs a day be forces we do not enjoy or care to be influenced by. In the current state of the US society, Atheism is a rejection of the norm.

    Making an atheist billboard that is just as cliche and normal as every other billboard on the high way might send the wrong message as well. The message of “We are corporate asshats selling you something! Come buy it, you know you want to!” isn’t something I am looking for.

  • Thegoodman

    “pretty much any communications/marketing expert will tell you that skimping on design isn’t advisable.” Haha, of course they wouldn’t.

  • Nick

    Eh, opinions like this are PARTIALLY responsible for the fact that I’ve dedicated over half my life to art, studied graphic design for four years and STILL can’t get a job that isn’t minimum wage servitude. Art and aesthetics simply aren’t appreciated.

    Anyway, yeah, fuck graphic designers, save two bucks on your project and feel smug about avoiding paying for the services of someone who only makes like 30 grand a year if they’re LUCKY, busting their ass every day with no time off.

  • Gam

    Graphic design is the difference between your billboard just being some clutter on the side of the road and people actually understanding your message. It isn’t just to make it look nice, graphic design is about grabbing your attention and efficiently and accurately communicating the message. You can have the best message in the world, but what is the point if no one looks at the billboard or no one understands what you are trying to say?

    To be honest, I think many atheistic billboards have lacked all three. They looked bland, so no one was even looking. The copy was too long an/or unclear, so no one understood the message when driving by. And the message wasn’t all that interesting or thought provoking.

  • Patrick

    Still unreadable. Only the word atheist partly works if you do that. It might have seemed a clever thing to do but it’s laboured and confusing. Maybe you should have a competition to design a decent logo for your blog..

  • Hemant Mehta

    Nah. I like it.

  • bbeth

    And if I remember correctly, you asked around about whether folks liked it since hired someone else to make it for you, did you not? ;)

  • bbeth

    Hemant, I am disappoint! This sounds somewhat akin to saying that *your* job doesn’t matter because most people don’t ever care about maths beyond basic arithmetic. And besides, some people LIKE counting on their fingers!

    Other folks have covered the “why it DOES matter” thing, so I’m just gonna call meaniepants.

  • Hemant Mehta

    I didn’t (mean to) say graphic design didn’t matter, only that the goal of getting publicity for the atheist groups is already being achieved with the current designs and I don’t think a “better looking” billboard would change that. All the press coverage always focuses on the message, not the design.

  • RIchard Evans

    and pretty much any bicycle mechanic will tell you that the best upgrade a serious cyclist can make to their bike is a new set of wheels. Just because someone stands to make money on it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    And I’m both a bicycle mechanic and a graphic designer.

  • Gus Snarp

    But isn’t part of the goal of at least many of these signs to create a more positive view of atheists, and doesn’t good design create a more positive impression than bad design?

  • Hemant Mehta

    Yes to both points, though I think most of the billboards would qualify as decent-looking to the vast majority of people who see them. If they don’t like it, it’s because of the message, not the way it looks.