– Spellouts –
Messages with One Large Letter per Poster
The basic idea is to have a set of fairly large posters (22×28
inches), with one letter apiece. Given enough people, we can spell
out messages, as shown in figure 1. This is called the
spellout method. Some examples of typical messages can be
found in reference 1.
- One major advantage is that the messages will be large enough to
be readable at a distance, e.g. by people in cars driving past our
rallies, and by people watching media coverage. This stands in
contrast to having an entire message on only one poster, which can
only be appreciated when viewed up close.
- Another advantage is that new messages can be composed with
little or no notice. This is valuable for “flash” rallies, where it
may not be possible to prepare signs in advance.
- Since letters can be reused from message to message, we can
spell out an enormous variety of messages using only a relatively
modest number of posters.
Whereas the original Indivisible Guide emphasized sending messages to
members of congress, we can use spellouts to send messages directly to
voters. Politicians will get the message indirectly. We make sure of
that by sending them photos.
2 Instructions for Card-Holders
- Each poster has a capital letter on one side and a lower-case
letter on the reverse. So make sure the correct side of your poster
is facing the audience. Compare your poster to your neighbors.
Also make sure your poster is not upside-down. Some letters
(lHINOoSsZz) are almost symmetrical, but if you turn them
upside-down it throws the baseline off. Again: Compare your poster to
- In the interior of each word, the posters should overlap by a
couple of inches. This region of overlap is called a joint. A
single hand can hold the joint between two letters. The rule is:
Grab the joint. You can see this being done in figure 1
and even more clearly in figure 2. This is what makes it
possible for each person to be responsible for two letters (except
sometimes at the beginning or end of a word).
- Everybody should please hold their hands at the same height, at
least on a word-by-word basis; otherwise the letters will be
non-vertical, which is unnecessarily ugly.
- Minor point: If you have a wide letter (such as a “w” or
any capital letter) next to a narrow letter such as an “i”,
it looks better to arrange the joint so that the narrow letter
is behind the wide one.
- Anybody who is not holding a sign should ask the sign-holders if
anybody wants to be relieved. Holding signs is more work than you
might have imagined, so it helps if people take turns.
3 Recommendations for the Master of Ceremonies
Overall, spellouts require more preparation, cleverness, and teamwork
than it may appear. It helps to have a “Master of Ceremonies” (MC)
or “Director” who is in charge of choreographing the spellouts and
making sure there are no mistakes. It’s hard to do this while holding
letters. Here is a list of things the MC should consider:
- Expect to switch messages several times during a rally.
While people are holding one message, the MC can be composing
the next message.
- Arrange to get pictures. The photographers need to be on the
far side of the street, in order to get a good view of the scene.
Each time you switch messages, make sure the photographers know, so
that you get a complete set of photos. This is not entirely trivial,
because there will be communication issues. Cell phones may be
helful. A headset may be necessary to make the phone usable in
noisy/windy outdoor conditions.
Implore each and every photographer to send you the pictures. Hand
out flyers and/or business cards with instructions on how to send
- If at all possible, arrange for a photographer and/or some other
person on the far side of the street to help you compose the scene and
check for mistakes. Again: There will be communication issues.
- Holding letters is more work than you might have guessed.
People will need a break every so often. It helps to have extra
people standing by. Every so often, ask if anyone needs to be
relieved. Anybody who is relieved should be encouraged to go view the
spellout from a modest distance. Rationale: When you are part of the
spellout, you can’t really appreciate the overall effect.
Similarly, if you have more than the minimum required number of people
in the interior of a word, it means that some people will have one
hand free. This allows them to wave at folks who pass by. It also
allows them to switch hands, so they are much less likely to get
tired. Furthermore, if they use both hands, they can free up a
neighbor’s hand. They can take turns giving each other a free hand.
- Roughly speaking, each person can hold two letters. More
precisely, a N-letter word requires at least (N+1)/2 people
(rounded up, if necessary, to a whole number of people). Calculate
this on a word-by-word basis, not a message-by-message basis.
Mnemonic: You can think of the +1 in that formula as accounting for
the space between words.
| length|| ||number |
|of word|| ||of people |
| 1|| ||1 |
|2|| ||2 |
|3|| ||2 |
|4|| ||3 |
|5|| ||3 |
|6|| ||4 |
|7|| ||4 |
|8|| ||5 |
|N|| ||⌈ (N+1)/2 ⌉ |
- It is good to have more than the minimum number holding each
word. That way, some of them will have a free hand. This allows them
to switch hands, so they don’t get tired so quickly. Also, it allows
them to wave at passersby. Anyone who has a free hand should offer to
grab one of their neighbor’s joints, so the neighbor can get a break.
- Therefore, when passing out letters, to a first approximation
hand out two letters to each person. (At this point, they won’t quite
know what to do with them.) If at the end of a word, the last person
gets one letter, that’s fine. If the last person gets two letters,
call up an extra person.
Then, after the letters are passed out, go down the line from left to
right, showing people how to grab a joint.
- Beseech people to leave adequate space between words. For some
reason, people have a tendency to bunch together, even when they
- Check for misspellings.
- Check for bOgUs cApitalIzation. Beware that people are slow to
realize that the posters are two-sided. Except for initialisms (such
as “ACA”) it is usually better to typeset words using Tasteful
Initial Capitals, the way a newspaper would typeset a headline.
Rationale: lower-case letters are easier to read. They were invented
for this reason.
- Check for upside-down letters, because this throws the baseline
- Wind is an issue. A 5 mph wind is no problem; 10 mph is about
the limit. Gusts are annoying but tolerable if they are not too
frequent. You may need to have a supply of weights to put on the
piles of unused letters, to keep them from flying away.
- The posters are not waterproof. Protect them from rain,
irrigation sprinklers, et cetera.
- The letters that are not being used at the moment should be kept
semi-sorted, in six piles, namely:
| A|| – ||abcde|
|F|| – ||fghij|
|K|| – ||klmno|
|P|| – ||pqrst|
|U|| – ||uvwxyz|
|!|| – ||digits and symbols|
The rule is “A-F-K-P-U-bang” which refers to the earliest letter in
each pile, as specified in the foregoing table. Within each pile, it
is not necessary to keep the letters strictly sorted.
Keeping the letters semi-sorted is a good compromise: When putting
letters into piles, this is about six times easier than a full sort
... and when picking letters out of the piles, this is about six times
more convenient than having them completely unsorted.
Most of the sign-holders don’t need to know about semi-sorting, but if
you can train a couple of helpers it makes the work go quite a bit
If you see a letter in the wrong pile, move it as soon as you can.
Otherwise you’ll never be able to find it when you need it.
4 Constructing the Font
The entire stack of posters is called the font. There is a
certain amount of work that needs to be done once per font (not per
rally or per message).
- I have a perl program that calculates how many letters of each
kind are needed. This is calculated by considering a long list of
possible messages. Since letters can be reused from message to
message, only about 100 posters are needed to spell out almost any
message you can think of, including some rather long and complex ones,
as in figure 1.
- To construct the posters:
- Tape each blank poster to the wall.
- Using a VGA projector, shine the image of a letter onto the
poster. Trace the outline using a felt-tip marker.
- Trace the appropriate partner image (not the same image!) on the
back side of the poster.
- Take put the poster on a tabletop. Fill in the
outline using a paintbrush and acrylic paint. Set it aside.
- Come back in a couple of hours and fill in the reverse.
Photos of various spellouts: