Behind The Work is an in-depth exploration of the thought process and reasoning - good and bad - that goes into some of our favorite projects.
During the summer of 2022, I was contacted by Urban3 to design a report examining inequities in property valuations and tax codes. Funded by the Dogwood Health Trust, Urban3 partnered with the University of North Carolina Asheville, Strong Towns, and the Racial Justice Coalition to produce a report that, in its final form, would include the 18 counties in Western North Carolina. In contradiction to my brief and oversimplified description, the information was highly robust, and I was extremely excited to be part of it. Housing policies and the historical importance of housing in America are topics I've studied in my own time and are things I'm knowledgeable about, so getting my hands on a job like this was a significant milestone for me.
The Creative Direction
Urban3 wanted a minimalist, sophisticated, but approachable editorial aesthetic for the design of this report. Think The Atlantic meets your local publication. Because many of my designs are done with print in mind, they have the quality of not only feeling like they could be displayed as a poster in your room but also like they could be a book cover or be found as part of a magazine piece.
Knowing that the information would be released in segments, giving each portion of the report its own identity was necessary while ensuring they fit together in the final report's iteration. There was also the need to make the information legible and digestible. This report was bountiful. It was the size of some short books, and the subject matter was not the most entertaining. We had to not only keep government officials engaged but also make sure that we captured the general public. We were concerned about younger and older audiences alike. Folks who lived in more urban and liberal populations and people who resided in rural and conservative areas.
Because of these concerns of working with such a vast and diverse group of people, language, color, and spacing became the most vital points in creating the design. The type needed to be large enough for your grandparents to read it while allowing all of the information to fit in a pleasing manner. The colors needed to capture the public while not seeming jarring. We needed to emphasize critical information and charts within the report and have callbacks to previous sections clearly without being confusing or loud. The design needed to be dynamic and hold attention without being too audacious.
We decided upon a design that would feature a neutral color palette, using some softer hues of brighter colors for charts, graphs, and other tables. Red is the loudest color, mainly used to indicate important information. The body text is a serif typeface with headers and subheaders being a bold sans-serif type.
The Design Process and Overview
Digital mockups of the Just Accounting executive summary. You can download a PDF of the executive summary below.
Over the following year, I worked closely with Urban3 as we first developed the aesthetic of the report, bringing on Rhiannon Merchant to help with some of the design, specifically creating illustrations for chapter headers, iconography, and charts and graphs. We then built it out in segments as the report information received final approval, starting with bi-fold brochures for each of the 18 counties we dub "county cut sheets." These "cut sheets" were meant to give a quick and easily digestible breakdown of all the most important and eye-catching information. They were to be mailed to each county's residents and council members and act as a call to action to correct the conditions that created these inequities in the tax code and valuation system by providing specific governmental policy prescriptions and regulations.
After finishing the "cut sheets," I created the Executive Summary. This contained the background of the Just Accounting report, a policy summary, the research approach, a breakdown of findings, and a small glossary. Physical copies would be produced that would go out to policy-makers and the general public and be given to press outlets covering the report.
Next was building the entirety of the final Just Accounting report. The executive summary and county "cut sheets" would be part of the final report, so a large portion had already been done. The difficult exercise of this final stage was creating a template based on a draft of the report that had yet to receive final approval from Dogwood Trust. We knew things would be changed, but since we were on a timeline for completion, we decided to build what we could and then go back to make the necessary changes. This could have meant the rearrangement or elimination of entire sections, which could have been tricky depending on the scope of those changes. More importantly, we knew specific wording would change, and with such an extensive report, we needed to be extra diligent in proofreading everything. This meant ensuring that Urban3 had multiple eyes on it several times throughout this final process.
As we neared the final approval process of the report, having about 95% of it done, it was shelved by Dogwood Trust. I must state that this was not Urban3's fault whatsoever, and they were nothing short of incredible to work with. Because the report studies and design were funded through a grant, the benefactor, Dogwood Trust, had the final say in approval on everything and decided that it shouldn't be released as it was. While I have guesses but no concrete insight as to why this decision was made, I am sure that Dogwood Trust has good reasons for ultimately arriving at that decision. They have their own reputation and employees who are at the forefront of the choices they make, and that must be respected. Since the executive summary was the only thing to be publicly released, that is the only thing Show And Tale Creative can publicly share.
In its final form, the report focused on the 18 Western North Carolina counties and ended up being over 140 pages. This was the second collaboration with Rhiannon Merchant, and I am incredibly proud of the job we did. We created great work that I wish we could share fully, not because I want another portfolio piece—though that'd be nice—but because the work itself was so important for people to get their hands on. None of Rhiannon's work is allowed to be shown. Being part of this project felt personal because it aligned with so much of what I believe in, and not seeing it finished is almost painful. Working closely with Urban3 was a great experience. I learned a lot more about the political machinations of this type of work, not only from the standpoint of the government directly but also from the non-profit sector. The experience was eye-opening. Ultimately, I think the people suffer most because this was a significant weapon in the fight for fair housing policies.
Download the Executive Summary
Understanding how property tax valuations are assessed is extremely important, even if you do not own a home. The effects property taxes have on the allocation of assets throughout a municipality are vast, as they pay for public services such as public schooling, infrastructure, health services, public spaces, and safety initiatives. Although this report focused on Western North Carolina, the information found in this executive summary will most likely apply to your region.