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  • Make Metro Cool: LA’s Public Transit Revolution is also an In-house Success Story

    It was a remarkable creative brief, delivered during my interview for the newly minted position of creative director of Metro, ten years ago.

    “Make Metro cool.”

    “That’s it?” I asked my two future colleagues, Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond and DEO of Creative Services Maya Emsden.

    “That’s it,” answered Raymond. 

    It turns out there was a great deal more to be done than that, but looking back now, those three words really encapsulated the essence of our challenge. And—once accomplished—they became the essence of our success as the in-house design group serving Metro.

    But first things first. What is Metro?

    Metro is the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is unique among the nation’s transportation agencies, in that it serves as transportation planner, coordinator, designer, builder and operator for one of the country’s largest, most populous counties. Nearly 10 million people—one-third of California’s residents—live, work and play within its 1,433-square-mile service area in Los Angeles County.

    Metro’s bus and rail operators handle nearly 1.3 million boardings each weekday, making Metro the third largest transit system in the United States. In addition to operating its own service, Metro funds more than a dozen municipal bus operators and a wide array of transportation projects, including the nation’s largest vanpool network, bikeways and pedestrian facilities, local road and highway improvements, goods movement strategies, Metrolink commuter rail, the Freeway Service Patrol and 511 motorist aid programs. The agency has nearly 10,000 employees and an annual budget of approximately $4.5 billion.

    The story of how Metro’s in-house design program played a key role in fostering LA’s transportation revolution starts with timing. Just over ten years ago, a new CEO was recruited to head the agency (which at the time was commonly known as the MTA). In turn, he hired Matt Raymond, a native Angeleno, as chief communications officer. With support from the top and a clear vision, Raymond set about structuring a full-service agency-within-an-agency. He pooled all of the communications functions and the budgets that fueled them, and he centralized the work. He convinced Emsden, who had been directing the MTA’s public art program, to oversee a new creative services group. She, in turn, shopped for new creative leadership in order to elevate the organization’s graphic design program.

    And change was needed. The MTA’s approval rating was mired in the low 40s, and press coverage was overwhelmingly negative. Construction of the nascent Metro Rail system had generated cost overruns, delays and even a very public methane gas-related explosion. Labor relations were tense, and strikes were a regular occurrence. On top of a general sense of distrust among the public, a well-organized campaign by the Bus Riders Union had effectively painted the growth of Metro Rail as “transit racism” that ignored the needs of lower-income groups who were heavily dependent on public transportation.

    In the midst of these challenges, Art Director Neil Sadler and I, along with a small existing team of dedicated designers, embarked on a rebranding program that, in short, reimagined anything and everything visual for the MTA. At first, the scope of what we hoped to tackle seemed daunting. There were already so many “jobs” coming into or flowing through the studio, it sometimes seemed like a river full of fish all swimming so fast we could hardly grab them. But grab we did.

    We decided to start with a bang, transforming a formerly drab bus fleet with new paint colors, badging and service names. The transformation didn’t happen overnight, but it was nearly cost-neutral, as our buses regularly required repainting. Soon, California poppy-colored Metro Local buses, along with candy apple red Metro Rapid buses and buttoned-down blue Metro Express buses were crisscrossing Los Angeles County. And as the agency purchased new buses, they arrived in the shiny paint colors we had selected as well. Today, the eye-popping Metro buses are part of the fabric of urban LA, moving millions of passengers each month and serving as bright brand ambassadors.

    Next, we implemented another significant change: the agency’s common name, MTA, was changed to Metro, to align our brand with the service name already familiar to our bus and rail passengers. We crafted a new logo, and a county-wide ad campaign reintroduced Metro to customers and potential riders.

    Raymond’s team now included a design studio, a thriving public art program, a press agency, a team of marketing account executives, a business-to-business sales force, customer service reps, a print shop, special events planners, a research group, community relations officers and a governmental relations team. All these functions were handled in-house, essentially giving Raymond a drawer full of tools with which to raise public awareness and introduce new fare products and pass programs.

    An early project sheds light on the challenges our nascent design crew faced in winning work. I was asked to “give advice” to a woman from our planning group on a document she was preparing. After introductions (we had not yet met), she showed me Metro’s “Long Range Transportation Plan.” As she thumbed through it, she noted that she already had an outside design firm in place to update the plan. “So I wanted to know what you think,” she said. “Last time, we did three columns of type. But do you think we ought to do two columns of type this time?”

    I took a deep breath and started asking questions, none of them about type. Who is the audience? What story are we telling here? How do people experience this “plan”? Print only? Online? How will the update differ from this version in terms of information? An hour’s worth of conversation later, I understood that this long range plan was one of the most important stories Metro would tell, but I also didn’t feel as though that narrative was coming through.

    So I asked my new colleague if we could take a crack at it. “Give us three weeks,” I said. “We’ll show you a couple of ideas for how we can visualize this story. If you like them, let us design the update from scratch.”

    She agreed and we went to work. We conceived three design directions. We invited her team to meet in our own conference room, crafting a formal presentation as any consulting design firm would, and insisting that we present on our own creative turf. Two more presentations followed—to her boss, and then her boss’s boss. And we won the business.

    The resulting “Long Range Transportation Plan” was a success, both in terms of readership and in helping us to establish our chops within the agency. I learned the importance of asking for work, even within an organization where the flow of projects seems guaranteed, because our in-house team, like any other, thrives and survives best by serving as a valued communications partner for our company’s key efforts. The challenge is to find those projects and make them your own.

    In the ten years since, Metro’s design studio, interactive design team and customer environments group have fueled a creative transformation that includes fleet design, ad campaigns, a complete signage program, branded merchandise, fare media, maps, timetables and Metro’s website and mobile apps. Every aspect of the agency’s internal and external communications has been redesigned or visually aligned to reinforce the Metro brand.

    We still have to work to win work. Trust is essential, and we can only establish trust by first understanding our clients’ work, their needs and the big picture of the agency. We have become small “e” experts on a surprisingly wide range of issues, and this hard-earned knowledge gives us the ability to make the case for why surprising, creative work is the smartest way to go. We continue to push creative solutions just outside the comfort zone of our clients.

    The results have been consistently successful. Through a combination of annual public surveys, onboard rider questionnaires and polling assessments, we have tracked a clear reversal of negative perceptions about the agency as well as steadily increasing support among our customers and constituents. Here are a few key markers from surveys conducted two years into the brand transformation:

    • Metro’s “strongly favorable” rating climbed 17 percent
    • Our “unfavorable” rating dropped from 27 percent to 12 percent
    • 45 percent of those asked had noticed Metro advertising
    • Among those who had seen our design, favorable ratings increased from 43 percent to 61 percent
    • 84 percent said that Metro’s image was improving, and 82 percent said our service was improving
    • When people see our ads, they are 24 percent more likely to try our service

    The last decade has seen steady growth in Metro ridership, including gains in discretionary riders (those who have a car but choose public transportation instead). Metro has also garnered significant increases in federal funding for new construction and for pilot projects such as Metro ExpressLanes. For every new initiative, program or service improvement, Metro’s design presence has been central to communication and persuasion.

    Yet even amid these markers of success, political uncertainty and a dwindling pool of state and federal funding threatened to stall Metro’s progress. And so, in 2008, the agency decided to test the brand in a very big way. A pair of carefully orchestrated campaigns asked Angelenos to imagine a better transportation future and also positioned Metro as the solution to congestion woes in Southern California.

    At the same time, the Metro Board gathered its collective will and placed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase, on the November 2008 ballet. A “yes” vote from two-thirds of those who cast ballots in Los Angeles County would be needed to pass the measure. On November 5, 2008, America had elected a new president, Barack Obama, and Measure R squeaked by with 67.93 percent approval. The county had secured a steady stream of unassailable funding for two-dozen transit and highway projects, some $40 billion projected over 30 years.

    Metro’s design program has, ten years on, reached every audience touchpoint, and public awareness of Metro now stands at 95 percent. From emergency phone signs to TAP (the five-county regional fare card), from bus and rail seat fabrics to road warrior coffee mugs, from Metro’s new employee orientation experience to retirement tributes, all of these brand moments—large and small—are possible because we keep our design in-house. Over the past decade, we’ve completed some 25,000 projects. Even when the amount of work verges on overwhelming, our first in-house instinct is always, “Let’s do that ourselves!”

    We do ask consultants to tackle certain design projects, but we are a strong and decisive client, one who has a clear sense of what will advance our customer’s experience. And we always work closely with outside creative teams to achieve that vision.

    Successful brand transformations are about creating and reinforcing an essence, a “voice” and a promise that is experienced again and again. With Metro, that essence comes down to simplicity, clarity and reliability. There is information in everything we do in-house, and much of our work must first and foremost answer a question. But “just the facts” is not enough to break through the intense visual clutter that is LA. So we add color to mirror the bright lifestyle of Southern California. Whenever appropriate, we infuse Metro’s work with a wit that respects the audience even as it educates or motivates them.

    I think back to our first days, and the goal that Neil Sadler set for us all: “Nothing boring.”

    And I think back to that first interview, and Matt Raymond’s directive: “Make Metro cool.”

    The takeaway, for those who have persevered to the end of this story? Cool is more than just cool. Cool means business.

    About the Author: 

    Michael Lejeune is Creative Director for Metro (the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority). He acts as the agency's chief creative strategist and copywriter, leading Metro’s Design Studio as it creates core communications elements for the nation’s third-largest transit agency, including advertising, wayfinding and environmental graphics, timetables, maps, fare media and customer information, bus and rail fleet design, web and mobile presence, and merchandising. Prior to joining Metro, Michael was Project Director at KBDA, the much-honored Los Angeles-baased design consultancy. He managed projects for Acura, Nike, 3Com, UCLA and Hilton Hotels, as well as writing for the City of Monterey, La Opinion and MicroTherapeutics. He also served as Creative Director for the 32-member in-house marketing agency of City of Hope Cancer Center.

    Michael graduated from UCLA in 1986 with a degree in Communication Studies. He has presented nearly two dozen talks on strategic communications, design and design management, including visits to Austin, Boston, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington DC. He is a graduate of the AIGA/Harvard Business School “Business Perspectives for Design Leaders” program and a past president of AIGA’s Los Angeles chapter. He is currently serving as a co-chair of AIGA's Centennial Year celebration.



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