The Context of the Story

Whenever I'm in non-English-speaking countries, I love to look at signage, pamphlets, fliers, and other promotional materials geared towards selling me, the visiting English-speaking traveler, on various dining, lodging, or activity options. The example below is a brochure I saw hanging in a window of a tiny souvenir shop inside the Axum airport in northern Ethiopia.

The journalism-degree wielding me simply cringes at the mass of grammatical errors and typos. Yikes! Where is my red pen? But the mono-linguistic me applauds the translation effort made by someone who is clearly not a native English speaker. I wouldn't know the first thing about translating my ABC's into the semitic characters of Amharic, Ethiopian's national language. Then I am horrified again as the graphic designer me sees the hand-written edits. Why were these edits not incorporated before the print run? But the culturally-sensitive me finds the raw state of this brochure very endearing. The Remehai Hotel people sure are trying hard to be understandable to someone like me, and I appreciate that.

There is so much story here in this little brochure: I can assume the Remehai has been around at least long enough to have a brochure hung where indirect sunlight has faded its full-color print to a washed-out blue. In one of the world's fastest growing countries, that kind of longevity says a lot. I can just hear someone named Tesfa telling someone named Michael "No, our snacks are not uncivilized. They are merely served informally." I feel pity for the poor fly that got trapped between the paper and the window. He never left the Remehai.

Of course none of this may be actual fact, I am left to educated assumptions and my wild imagination. The point for us all to remember is that communication design is not just about the words and images on the page or screen. It includes the surrounding environment in which the message is being received. And often aspects of the surrounding environment are out of our control; we can't help squashed bugs marring our beautiful designs, torn edges or faded print. Nevertheless we can be thoughtful about the mindset of our recipient, we can be intentional with the kind of story we want to tell and we can consider the context in which our communication will occur.

The story I took away from Remehai's brochure is that this is a business who is proud of their hotel, is so earnest to relate to English-speaking travelers that they'll risk a professional printing with hand-written corrections, and is clearly unafraid of making mistakes so I can imagine these are honest people who will take care of me.

What kind of story does your organization's brochure or one-sheet tell?

Lisa Mullis