Look alive: the value of good graphics

Here’s a modest but thoughtful and effective gift to charity: a complete graphics makeover.  As the design firm making this grant points out, a year-long redesign partnership has a bigger impact than the more common one-brochure-at-a-time system because it enables the charity to present a unified image rather than merely the occasional attractive piece.

If this strikes you as trivial, you’re not thinking about the fact that most people never see the work of your charity at all.  They "walk" into your "front door" only by seeing the materials that land in their mailboxes.  And if every time they hear from you that "door" has a different sign on it, they’ll either think you’re someone else (so much for the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build) or that you don’t care enough about what you do to bother scraping the graffiti off your place of business (ditto).  Neither of these is positive, and neither of them is true–so many thanks to the Firebelly Design people for their sharply-targeted efforts to help nonprofits avoid yet another costly misunderstanding.

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4 Responses to “Look alive: the value of good graphics”

  1. Linda Solotaire Says:

    The posting “Look Alive: The Value of Good Graphics” cites the case of a design firm which annually awards to a selected nonprofit an entire year of design work. What is significant about this is that this design firm has chosen for its pro bono contribution this year-long commitment in place of various one-off individual design pieces for a variety of organizations. Those, it has concluded, have limited long-range value: after completion, such projects disappear into the ether, whereas a year of concentrated design effort can have lasting impact. The design firm states that “A year gives us time to solidly position an organization by developing a complete brand identity which can include logo, identity materials, collateral, website and more . . .” [from the firebelly website]

    Perhaps the key phrase in the firm’s statement is “brand identity.” Branding may be the single most important thing a non-profit can do to help boost awareness and build lasting relationships.

    But what IS a brand? A senior vice president of Visa for global brand marketing, stating some principles that could well apply to nonprofits, wrote of “an emotional quotient that is hard to define and almost impossible to quantify – the brand. A brand is more than a logo and a name; it is the way in which a consumer perceives the organization behind the . . . identity.” A brand “promises the user the opportunity to accomplish what is important to them . . . “ She goes on to cite the example of a “professor at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley, California, [who] shocked an audience . . . by claiming that if he had to choose between the company’s brand and all its systems, buildings, equipment, employees, he would opt for the brand. . . . Great brands are the result of a confluence of disciplined management, great people, great products, great creative energy, mixed with time and a continued commitment to evolve the brand to meet the current business needs.”

    Hence, a brand is something more than a symbol and a name signifying your organization. In the case of a nonprofit, it represents to the public, the audience, the funder, and the society at large how you work, how you interact with those you serve, how those within your organization work together, what is the unique value in what you offer.

    What is the perceived value of your organization, your mission and your works? In the retail market place these questions are asked daily – in the not for profit world they should be and often are not. When you write a grant – you are selling your organization to the funder. In all the materials you send that funder, is there consistent verbiage and a consistent look that evokes a consistent feeling or attitude? (Think Nike, MAC) Do your materials evoke a sense that you are organized, thoughtful, creative, warm, efficient, environmentally aware, dedicated, etc.? How the funder/customer perceives you will directly impact how much or even if they are willing to fund you, in the same way that a product perceived as superior will command a higher price.

    So where does this all begin? Not with a design or marketing firm – but with your board of directors and staff. You need to know where your organization falls in the spectrum. If your donors and audiences are falling off, and your funders are following suit, then clearly you need to do something. But if things seem good, why should you use your resources for this now? Because this is the best time to capitalize on goodwill and a positive perception. You are trusted, your product is perceived as having value. Now boost all this up a notch.

    Do your homework: survey your audiences; gather data. Do people know what your mission is? Do they know what you do, what you promise to deliver? Do you believe you are delivering on that promise? Do they? Or is there a gap, perceived or real?

    To be sure, name, logo, and mark all go into branding your organization. But before you take the step of developing a visual identity, know precisely who you are, what you stand for, what you promise, and to whom you want to communicate. A good design and/or marketing firm can help you sort out how to translate your identity into a visual voice for your company. Also, creating a long-term partnership, as in the example with which we began this posting, will do your organization more good than all the individual pieces done separately and in isolation than you could possibly gather. For more on that, talk to your CFO or Treasurer about cost-benefit analysis.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    You’re absolutely right that the whole process has to begin with internal clarity about what the nonprofit is trying to do and for whom, and how well it’s succeeding. Otherwise, as they’re fond of remarking in the for-profit arena, you’re just putting lipstick on a pig. Thanks for reminding us that brand and image aren’t gimmicks but–at their best–expressions of mission, and that the clearer those expressions the more support they’ll garner for that mission.

  3. Antonio Garcia Says:

    It’s really refreshing and inspiring to read everyone’s thoughts about non-profit branding. Linda’s explanation of a brand and its importance are spot on. Ms. Solotaire’s and Nonprofiteer’s emphasis on preliminary, internal brainstorms and upfront research is so true–and the biggest component of how we work at Firebelly.
    Spending a large amount of time researching in the beginning makes for smarter, more surefooted designing and strategy later.

    For Firebelly, research begins before we even decide on the grantee. Inviting directors from our past and current non-profit engagements (and even the previous year’s grantee) to participate in the process helps us make informed decisions and narrow down the list. Interviewing our top choices in their space not only gives us a better sense of them as a functioning organization but enables to see firsthand the dynamics between staff and directors.

    With the organization selected, the initial meeting includes all the relevant team members and as many participating board members as makes sense. These meetings happen before and after Firebelly’s 50-question Project Profile. Every decision-making member who’ll participate in the project completes one and then we reconvene and discuss all the questions as a group. With a fresh, “outsider” perspective, Firebelly is able to ask important questions the grantee never even considered. It’s rather involved but it makes for some really insightful conversations and proves time and time again asking questions from outside the non-profit causes some pretty serious self-reflection for the organization.

    The project profile is incredibly helpful and we get really good feedback from the folks who are asked to complete it. This type of more traditional research transitions right into our second phase of internal exploration as designers and strategists. This “structured collaboration” considers everything we’ve learned about the group and filters it through what we learn as a studio during our own internal research and brainstorms. Then non-profit’s mission, goals, obstacles, likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, failures, successes, competition, partners, messaging, identity materials, etc. are all considered moving forward into the design.

    Creative development, messaging and long-term strategy is incredibly important for any organization but especially non-profits. I hope the explanation above offers some more insight into our Design + Marketing Grant and the amount of research involved. Thanks again for addressing this critical issue (and for highlighting our grant)!

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