5 Steps to Great Graphic Design for Your Nonprofit

I recently spoke with three nonprofit communicator colleagues and four graphic designers who outlined this three-fold path to a process that will ensure high-impact design for your nonprofit. Before you even get to the design process itself, remember to follow these five pre-design steps to effective graphic design, from finding the right designers to crafting a creative brief.

Here’s what your colleagues advise:

Be clear, comprehensive and realistic.

Kitty McCullough, communications consultant, swears by this maxim. She advises nonprofit communicators to “sketch out as much as you can at the beginning (back to the creative brief) and ask for preliminary sketches so your designer doesn’t spend time working up something far from what you want.”


Mark Dessauer, communications officer at Active Living By Design, solicits three to five design concepts from his graphic designers. “And I ask for completely distinct takes on the project, not variations on a single theme,” says Mark. “This lets me expand the discussion to go beyond my pre-conceived ideas, and pushes my designers to be their most creative.

Editorial Comment: Great idea Mark, but you’ll pay for it. Advice – specify how many design concepts you want in the creative brief to avoid surprises.

Jack Sherin, former agency creative exec and now freelance designer to a range of nonprofit clients, suggests that you be “entirely confident in all details of your design needs and process, before getting started.”

BTW, Jack presents just a single design concept if it seems right on target. Practices are indeed designer-specific. Most importantly, think through your concepts and goals before saying a word to your graphic designers.

“For us, the essence of an effective partnership is understanding that the designer’s job is to provide graphic interpretations of OUR thinking. We define the concepts we want to convey, how the new design links with existing design elements, etc.,” comments Julia Graham Lear, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools. “If we don’t take time to do so, the final product will reflect the designer’s ‘take’ on the project, not ours.”

Graphic designer Sybil Rogers swears by the creative brief, which “enables us designers to create designs that are visually relevant and strategically on target.” Here are my guidelines for creating a creative brief that works.

Build a solid, candid, ongoing relationship with your graphic designers.

Nothing is more important than building and maintaining these relationships, even when no design project is pending. Build those partnerships and keep them going, so that your designers keep you, and your organization’s design profile, top of mind.

Lenore Neier, communications consultant and former VP of Marketing and Communications at the American Liver Foundation (ALF), makes sure she develops and maintains close working relationship with favorite designers. “It seems to be the only way that works,” she says. “They have to get to know your organization intimately to give you the right design product.”

While at ALF, Lenore spoke with freelance graphic and web designers on an ongoing basis. “That way they stayed current with our focus and news, and were ready to jump in when we need them,” she says.

Don’t forget that strong relationships are built on honesty – diplomatic honesty that is. Mark Dessauer recommends that you be “completely honest about how you feel about the work, especially if a designer is a friend (which frequently happens, even if that isn’t the case at the beginning). If you aren’t happy, you’ll be saddled with a design product that doesn’t meet your expectations or needs. The results will suffer, and your relationship will too,” he advises.

Jack Sherin suggests that you take it one step further to educate your designers on your nonprofit’s internal approval process, so they understand what it’ll take to build consensus around design decisions.

Don’t try to be the graphic designer.

This is a hard one, as all of us think we have a great aesthetic sense, and want to apply it to our brochures and email templates as we do in our living rooms and gardens. Stop!

Graphic designer Barbara Wertheim, who works with nonprofit clients as diverse as the Seeing Eye and the New Jersey Hall of Fame, advises, “Make sure you hire a competent professional designer with a proven track record — and then trust her to do her job. Make changes to the design when they’re based in a sound rationale, but resist tinkering with the design — as you risk throwing off a deliberate and delicate visual balance.”

Kitty Griffith, an expert communicator who has led initiatives at organizations as diverse as Philanthropy New York and Citibank’s corporate philanthropy program, takes this one step further. “Don’t tell the graphic artist how to do her art – she’s the pro; you’re not,” she says. “Do convey any design modifications you have. But remember that a good designer will advise against changes that will weaken the design (for example, using green ink for type, which is notoriously hard to read). Don’t force the issue – the designer knows best.”

Thanks to my friends and colleagues for your great recommendations. When you follow these steps, I guarantee you’ll get better design results for your nonprofit.