“A professional design studio within a council is quite a rarity”: a look at Manchester Council’s creative team, M-Four

From witty anti-littering ads to campaigns teaching teens about safe sex, Manchester City Council’s in-house creative team, M-Four, has been producing some great work of late. We spoke to designer Chris Jennings about some of the studio’s recent projects and the challenges of designing for local authorities

M-Four was set up in 2008 and now employs 14 people. “Most of us come from an advertising and design background,” says Jennings, speaking on behalf of the studio. The team works on everything from public awareness campaigns to annual reports and seasonal ads promoting the city’s shopping areas at Christmas.

One of its most recent projects is the Hobby Journal, a pocket-sized guide to social activities in Manchester complete with a calendar, notes and address pages. The book aims to encourage older people who might be lonely or isolated to go out and socialise in their area.

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The Hobby Journal, by M-Four. Ilyas Inayat is the studio’s creative director and Paul Williams, head of department

“The brief was to create a booklet but we thought a diary or notebook would be better and may be kept because it’s useful,” explains Jennings. “The idea that this would be handed to lonely people made us realise that this had to be special and it had to work. Considering the content is a directory, it made sense to build on that by adding a calendar, note pages and address lists, making it feel personal to the recipient,” he explains.

The studio occasionally works with external clients such as the NHS, and recently launched a campaign to discourage people from making non-essential visits to A&E. Ads listed the names of common illnesses such as influenza and hayfever with the letters ‘A’ and ‘E’ removed, reminding the public that minor illnesses don’t require a trip to hospital. They also directed viewers towards a website offering advice on how to treat minor conditions.

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A similarly playful approach was adopted for a series of ads aiming to discourage people from littering, with copy referencing famous song lyrics and film quotes, coupled with bold messages warning residents of fines – and urging them to keep their city clean. Since the campaign was launched, Jennings says litter complaints have halved.

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M-Four’s campaign discouraging people from littering in Manchester. Litter complaints have halved in the city since it was launched

“Littering is a boring subject, and telling people not to do it is like telling your grandmother how to suck eggs. Everyone knows not to litter but a majority do it, and do it without feeling guilt, or they think it provides someone with a job. We tackled this brief with a copy-driven approach, no visuals, no illustrations – just the message. But for people to engage with it the message has to be hard-hitting or comical. So we did just that,” he adds.

A sense of humour was also key to the success of a campaign aimed at promoting safe sex to teens. Instead of using shock tactics or warning of the dangers of STIs, M-Four created a series of illustrated posters making cheeky innuendoes to gently remind teens about using protection. Posters were displayed around the city and postcards given out at youth radio events and sexual health clinics. Online, the council used Spotify and social media to target young people and push them towards anyplanstonight.co.uk, a guide to sexual health and contraception services in Manchester.

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“It pushed traffic to the website up by 460%,” says Jennings. “Obviously that campaign is only one piece of the work done on combatting STIs and teenage pregnancy, but in the following year there was a 15% drop in teenage pregnancies in Manchester,” he explains.

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As Jennings points out, M-Four was keen to avoid making teens feel as if they were being told off: “The Any Plans Tonight? brief was to promote a healthy sex life to young people. That includes using contraception and knowing what to do if you need help. A healthy sex life should be fun, [and] that’s what the campaign should be.

 Nobody wants the council’s advice on their sex life! …. We don’t even put our logo on campaigns like this, [because] it only gets in the way,” he adds.

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Alongside creating awareness campaigns and promotional material for Manchester’s venues and events (including ads for the National Football Museum, a commemorative coin for Manchester Market and some great photography promoting it as a host city for major sporting events, shown below), M-Four also redesigned the City Council’s website, which has since led to a 23% increase in people using the council’s digital services.

The redesign was carried out in 2013. “The old site looked tired. We needed to get our visitors interested, so those people who came to check out their bin collection dates might find out about current events or schemes being run at the time,” says Jennings.

As Jennings points out, however, redesigning a council site is a challenging task, given both the amount of content it needs to host and the varying reasons people will visit it. M-Four’s solution was to create a layout based on data analysing how people actually used the site, rather than prioritising a responsive design or particular aesthetic.

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“Our audiences vary from residents looking for which bin to put out and when, to tourists looking for what events are on. Over time they become bloated with each new strategy, scheme or service added. Our challenge was simply to get people the information they need as quickly and simply as possible,” he says.

“We worked with Nicola Anderson to create an icon set that adds character to what can be quite dry content. We needed a site that was responsive, but the main drive was to make it ‘task oriented’. We used the web stats to work out which pages were hit most and order the home page accordingly – each content page should have the as few actions as possible.”

While the studio works closely with account managers, digital teams and planners in the council’s comms team, Jennings says it treats each project like an external agency when it comes to briefing and pitches. “It is important for each job to be treated with care and attention…we are not simply another department that can be called in casually on a whim,” he says. It is, however, under more pressure than most to deliver cost-effective communications.

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A commemorative shilling to mark the 15th year of the Manchester Christmas Markets. It can be used as currency in the market or kept as a souvenir

“We all know that public funds are tight. All work is assessed before it comes to us to check that it meets council priorities, and will be useful and valuable. It’s all scrutinised so it’s value for money and its impact and results are measured.” This can be restrictive – but Jennings also says the focus on delivering measurable results also provides the team with some valuable insights and ideas on how to work more efficiently with each new project. “Often, we find it confirms what we think was the right approach. Other times, it helps you work smarter next time,” he adds.

It’s a rare thing to see in-house communications from local authorities produced to such a high standard – and even rarer for councils to invest in their own studios. It’s not a model that would suit every city council but for Manchester, it’s an investment that is paying off.

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Sports photography by Rob Evans, commissioned by M-Four to promote the city as a host for international sporting events

“It is true that a professional design studio outfit within a council is quite a rarity. There could be a number of reasons [for this]: Manchester has a massive demand for comms – not every council does. After all, it’s not a council’s core business to craft great design – and there are plenty of commercial agencies to save them the cost and resources needed to set up their own team.

[But] our management team have always been firm believers that a well-run in-house service can be both award-winning and cheaper to manage than a traditional agency roster.

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Working Well, a report outlining Greater Manchester’s approach to getting vulnerable people back into work. “We created the brand for Greater Manchester Combined Authority, who led our historic devolution deal, and this is the first official document from that family,” says Jennings. “The brand is based on the area’s industrial heritage.”

“There is a real paradox between the creative process and the bureaucracy of a council,” he adds. “This can sometimes jar, especially in decision making on creative direction, [but] this is where our campaign successes and our performance dashboards help us convince colleagues – we can demonstrate our results. We’ve also been lucky to have very supportive senior governance arrangements. …This senior team are willing to take a risk to gain a reward and they believe in what we’re trying to create for the city.”

Lead image: Worker Bee bins designed by M-Four. The bee symbolises the city’s industrial heritage and the efforts of workers during the industrial revolution. The mosaic pattern also draws on tiles in Manchester’s Town Hall

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