Throughout the last decade, the nonprofit and branding universes have intersected to the point where it’s no longer surprising to find the two words in the same sentence. For some designers, that overlap has become the foundation for a whole portfolio of work that focuses on nonprofit-centric projects. Designers working in this space are handed a laundry list of constraints—small budgets, short timelines, a lack of design literacy—and yet are responsible for building identities that can impact socio-political discourse on a potentially global scale. Like any brand, there are certain considerations when crafting a company’s identity, but how might those factors differ when branding an entity centered around advocacy versus, say, a new wellness brand? We asked designers with nonprofit clients what lessons we can glean from a service-oriented space.
Lesson 1: Focus on pragmatism, not pretension
Like any branding project, the first order of business is to consider the client: who are they, what are they looking for, and what design capabilities do they have, if any. Oftentimes, the needs of nonprofit clients are less about the aesthetic wow-factor and more about delivering on an organization’s mission. “In the commercial world, it’s more flashiness that stimulates [the client] relationship,” says Deroy Peraza, co-founder of Hyperakt, a nonprofit agency whose clients range from Girls Who Code to Pete Buttigieg. Be it a logo and color palette or an entire campaign layout, “there’s an undeniable pragmatism to our work,” says Peraza. Knowing the logos they design might have to stand on their own without extravagant ad campaigns or expansive animation behind them, Hyperakt relies on what they call “forgiving” brand systems— ones that don’t depend on premium artwork and might only need two to three colors within a palette.
Since most of Hyperakt’s clients don’t have in-house design expertise to deploy a design system, the studio keeps it simple when it comes to guidelines and type systems built for their nonprofit clients. “We’re creating the rails so the bowling ball doesn’t go into the other lane,” Peraza adds. For Pete Buttigieg’s logo, this meant developing a public toolkit so anyone could download graphic assets for the Pete 2020 campaign. For education nonprofit Donors Choose and the political movement Vote Early Day, Hyperakt created customizable graphics—with illustrations, color combinations, and message boxes— so that those behind the movement could spread information via social media. Rather than posters and markers, these designers are giving people downloadable files so they can make the designs their own.
Lesson 2: Community is key
For designer Genesis Henriquez, a key differentiator in her work for the advocacy-focused studio Purpose is visualizing who will implement the brand identity and where it will live—from the CEO’s pitch deck to the grassroots organizer’s neighborhood fliers. When Purpose worked on a campaign for the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), the US’ largest housestaff union, this meant creating Google slides for campaign volunteers. “We had to rethink brand accessibility,” Henriquez explains of how the team reconfigured its Adobe system to sync (as closely as possible) with Google Fonts. “We made it so that any volunteer—with or without experience— could pop an image onto a slide, change the copy, and then send it to print.”
Nonprofit design is also about understanding the history of an organization. Jessica McGhee, associate design director at Purpose, says that there’s an academic quality to starting a project that comes with “a deeper sense of responsibility to do well.” Henriquez and McGhee emphasize the importance of getting to know the client’s impacted community before building a brand’s identity. For their work branding Project Period, this meant chatting with existing advocacy groups in the menstruation space particularly in the U.K. For the Racial Justice Storytelling Toolkit (published collectively by Purpose and a variety of racial justice nonprofits), it meant offering a public questionnaire following a summer of racial reckoning in 2020. Instead of reiterating the standard, one-noted Instagram graphics populating our feeds, the designers used community feedback to identify what issues they needed to better visualize— from intersectionality to defunding the police. “The point we run into a lot is brand loyalty,” Henriquez adds of her team’s design process. “Some of these organizations have been around for many, many years. These communities have a history, and people respond to that.”
Lesson 3: Typography is about more than style
Of course, even a nonprofit has to consider money when it comes to brand design— and Michael Yuasa, founding designer at Antarctic, says his team often spearheads strategic positioning. “Putting the donor first plays out in all visual communication,” he says. For their client God’s Love We Deliver, this meant spelling out that $10 equals one meal for someone in NYC. “Visual design is not only graphics and photos,” he adds. “We like to communicate with type and text to focus on showing what a donation can do.”
Type also plays into furthering a nonprofit’s accessibility and diversity. For LGBT-Elder nonprofit SAGE, Antarctic used stamped typography for the two central messages of their (in)visible campaign: the website’s URL and the overall message to support the community. The Antarctic team uses fonts and designs layouts that consistently follow ADA Compliance—ensuring the contrast of the page is readable for someone who might be colorblind, that text is big enough for folks with poor vision, and that bilingual versions of a brand are available if relevant. “If we’re working with a multilingual community, we have to create a flexible design layout that makes room for languages that might not be as succinct visually as English,” Yuasa says. “Because you’re servicing marginalized communities, understanding their capabilities plays out in every design aspect.”
Lesson 4: Multitasking is a must
“You have to wear more hats and prioritize your time and energy,” says Sara Duell of working for a nonprofit with smaller staff. As the senior designer at criminal justice reform nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, Duell says she often works beyond her job description, thinking critically about where she can actually have an impact. “I’m a designer, and that’s what I’ve been trained to do over the last decade,” she explains. “But in these types of organizations, you have to look to see where the need is.” For her former work at photo nonprofit Aperture, this meant being flexible with budget and using the office printer to create custom invitations for the organization’s gala. At the moment for Vera, this means less focus on template work, less emphasis on kerning or the perfect alignment; instead, Duell has shifted gears to design strategy.
Duell shares that she’s been spending the past few months sifting through Vera’s photo archive to understand what exactly she can work with for Vera’s storytelling. To differentiate Vera and avoid imagery that feeds into stereotypes, Duell decided to tap in-house case workers and data analysts for brainstorming sessions that would establish a “range of visual voices.” In these hour-long meetings, she was able to establish what illustrations might be missing in Vera’s branding—from setting the stage for a courtroom to understanding wait times during bail. “We’re seeing beyond what we’re supposed to do, getting resourceful with the information available to us, and hopefully making the most out of very little.”