At the Philadelphia Water Department Public Affairs Division, our work often boils down to an overarching objective: transforming technical concepts into digestible language and visuals that help the people we serve get the most out of our services.

As our team experiments with ways to disseminate clear, accurate, and compelling information, we tap into a vital resource—the public—and our public-first communications and engagement practices are making impacts beyond Philadelphia communities.

Last month, Senior Graphic Designer Herbie Hickmott and Community Outreach Specialists Hailey Stern and Maura Jarvis presented at the virtual International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) North American Conference.

Herbie is photographed at an event wearing a navy blue suit with white patterned shirt and a snazzy red bow tie, with black rectangular glasses and a cheerful smile.

Senior Graphic Designer Herbie Hickmott

Hailey's headshot shows her standing smiling in front of a cream colored wall wearing a white button-down shirt, with her long brown hair draped in front of her shoulders.

Community Outreach Specialist Hailey Stern

Maura is shown wearing her Water Woman costume with a blue headband and cape, and fabulous eyeshadow to match.

Community Outreach Specialist Maura Jarvis

IAP2 fosters a worldwide network of professionals convening to “advance and extend the practice of public participation” — a topic we know pretty well.

“So much of our teams’ strategies are often to get what you could call ‘public participation’ or investing in feedback from stakeholders and getting their feedback along the way,” says Hickmott. “We’re not designing our communications content in a vacuum. We’re working with the people of Philadelphia. So, the conference closely aligns with what our Communications and Public Engagement teams do.”

The trio titled the comprehensive and captivating presentation, Re-inventing Communication Approaches through Art, Design, and Superheroes.”

From postcards to murals, the presentation explored our myriad of visual messaging—and all of the sketches from along the way.

colorful postcards encouraging Philadelphians to drink tap water lay on a light wood table

PWD-designed postcards distributed at Water Bar events.

The mural show a young girl with dark skin and braids drinking from a reusable water bottle, painted in shades of grey with colorful abstract designs on a light blue background that looks like water. The model and another young girl stand in front of the wall mimicing her pose

Penrose Rec Center's Drink More Tap mural.

“We have this element of telling people about how we’re using art and design to communicate scientific concepts,” Jarvis says. “We’re just trying to highlight how valuable it can be to have a staff of creative people and graphic designers who can give us materials to help people interpret what we’re saying to them.”

Opening with our recent customer survey research, the presentation demonstrated how we conveyed these findings through creativity, explaining experiences that led to our engaging projects, such as the Philly Water Bar, Drink Philly Tap, and Drink More Tap.

PWD's Creative Team designed branding for both the Philly Water Bar and Drink Philly Tap campaigns in 2019.

Ultimately, all of these communication endeavours were established to strengthen our partnerships with the public, particularly those communities who were least likely to consume top-quality Philly tap.

Interventions like the Water Bar and surveys all sprung out of what our customers have to say,” Stern says. “All of our work around tap water started because our customers said they want to learn more, or because the data shows some people still choose bottled water.”

The bulk of the presentation focused on Drink Philly Tap and the Water Bar, discussing its inspiration from the Water Bar & Public Studio in Minneapolis to its weekly takeover at City Hall during spring and summer of 2019.

While the Water Bar employed Drink Philly Tap Ambassadors and guest "bartenders" to educate the public about Philly tap as a safe, affordable, and sustainable option, our in-house Creative Team spent weeks perfecting Philly Water Bar’s colors and visuals. The challenge was crafting a brand that felt both enticing and trustworthy.

sketched ideas and various iterations of the Philly Water Bar logo pasted on a black board, with sticky-note comments next to some drafts

In early 2019, we spent weeks perfecting the Philly Water Bar logo.

The final designs not only impressed our Water Bar patrons, but also the IAP2 participants last month.

“To see someone latch onto a color palette underscores and confirms our suspicions about having an effect on people,” Hickmott says. “Our team will always root for each other. To receive a compliment from coworkers is great, but to receive positive feedback from peers across the county and throughout the world —that’s special.”

Along with the Water Bar, the presentation highlighted some of our other non-traditional approaches to communications, including the retro-inspired game wheel “Flush Your Luck,” the spectacular Drink More Tap murals, our partnership with Saint Benjamin Brewing Company, and of course, the marvelous Water Woman (plus her sidekick, Spokesdog!).

The presentation was extremely well-received by audiences with compliments flooding the chatbox. Here are a few samples!

“This is such a fun and visually attractive concept.”
“I appreciate using art and locals to engage the community. Congrats!”
“Thank you for the inspiring presentation!”
“Can we follow Water Woman on Instagram?”

“To me, the most rewarding thing was hearing the positive feedback about our session,” Jarvis says. “That felt really good. You want to hear other people’s ideas and see this exchange. I know what we’re doing is really cool, but it’s nice to hear other professionals say they admire the work that we’re doing and saying they never heard of anybody doing this stuff before.”

The PWD team kept the presentation engaging with trivia questions about Philly tap and breakout sessions at the end where participants shared their own stories. 

Our presenters were introduced to new customer research and communications operations from fellow IAP2 professionals, making the conference all the more rewarding. 

“Being able to have serious discussions with peers who you wouldn't otherwise get to meet really sparks new ideas and inspirations,” Stern says. “Sharing our experiences and hearing from peer cities from across North America was exciting, and we can’t wait to put what we learned to use.”