The essentials Design: Getting the message across

Katheryn Mohr

Good design and careful research of your audience can make your advertisements more effective.

In an era when someone can see up to 25,000 ads in any one day, it is increasingly crucial for charities to communicate effectively. Whether it be a brochure, a pamphlet, a website or a charity's annual report, quality design is vital.

"We are living in a world of information fog," says Max du Bois, executive director of design consultancy Spencer du Bois. "With so much exposure to communication messages, it is absolutely necessary for charities to ensure their messages stand out."

According to media monitoring company Thompson Intermedia, 8,000 national, regional, business and consumer press adverts are published each day in the UK. About 1,760 charities advertise in Britain and those charities spent an average of £200m last year on advertisements alone.

It is not just the quantity of advertisements that is causing charities' messages to get swallowed, according to du Bois.

"The problem is that most charities are failing to engage with the public in a distinct and relevant way," he says. "They are all just doing the same old thing in the same old way."

He cautions against blaming 'compassion fatigue'. "A lot of rubbish is talked about compassion fatigue," he says. "Live 8 and Make Poverty History show that people are hugely compassionate. What they have got is charity fatigue."

To overcome this, charities should design their communications so that each piece is germane and diverse - overexposure to the same messages stops the public engaging with charities on an emotional level because their messages lose relevance and significance.

The key to any successful communication is to be clear and concise about what exactly it is you are trying to achieve. Charities that do this will be better able to motivate, inspire or educate their target audience.

1. Understand your objectives - The first step when designing any piece of communication is knowing exactly what it is your organisation wants to achieve. Charities design things for a variety of audiences, so it is important for them to understand what they are trying to accomplish with each individual piece.

"Too many organisations spend because they have a budget or because they think they should, but too few ask the fundamental question 'what real difference is this going to make?'," says du Bois. "I think this helps everyone involved to understand how it can move the whole organisation forward."

Steve Harvey, managing partner of design agency This Way Up, says that if a design is to be successful a charity has to make its intentions clear not only to the public, but also to the agency with which it is working.

When This Way Up takes on a new client, the first thing it asks them is: "For this design to be a success, what does your organisation need to achieve?"

If an agency doesn't have a clear understanding of a project before starting the design, it is not doing its job, Harvey says. "There is a responsibility on both sides of the relationship," he adds. "If an agency doesn't ask what its client's goals are and it is working with a client who isn't familiar with the design process, it's a recipe for disaster."

2. Research, research, research - Every organisation, whether large or small, needs to take this step seriously because a design doesn't mean anything if the target audience can't relate to it. There is a variety of different research techniques a charity can use, such as external perception surveys, test projects or principal concept tests.

Harvey says the best way for a charity to gain insight into public perception is to look outside the office at the general public or corporate sector and ask people what they really think about what the organisation is doing.

"You can keep your ear to the ground by asking people who work for you why they support your organisation, but then you will probably get a biased view," says Harvey.

Research can also prove valuable because it can provide charities with an understanding of the market or sector in which they are working. "It is important for charities to become familiar with the work of their competitors and to know what other organisations like them are doing," says Harvey.

"If you launch a campaign with a similar logo in the same week as your competitor, you're in trouble."

3. Know your target audience - Decide who it is you want to reach and what it is that you want to say to them. Richie Parsons, creative director of marketing agency jpmh, says it is not enough to identify your audience - a charity must also be single-minded when communicating with it.

"It is important to be clear when you are trying to motivate people to do what you want them to do," says Parsons. "Whether it is giving time or money, charities need to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute."

The key is knowing how to speak to your audience so they understand what your organisation wants to accomplish. The best way to do this is to become familiar with the day-to-day environment and attitudes of your audience, says du Bois: "You are competing for awareness and action against a host of other players, commercials and not-for-profit messages. Too many organisations miscommunicate important messages by using 'their speak' rather than 'people speak'."

4. Decide on your designers - When looking for a design agency, it is important to do your homework. Many charities aren't familiar with the design world, which inevitably leads them to work with agencies that might provide the cheapest deals, but not necessarily the highest quality of work. However, as Nick de Cent, managing director of marketing agency The Creative Element, points out, "cheap is not always best".

"A good design is immensely important, but good design doesn't grow on trees," says de Cent. "The right approach is for a charity to deal with an agency that has an established track record and is prepared to offer some kind of charity discount."

Something else to think about when looking for a designer is whether or not the agency has had any experience in the not-for-profit sector.

If an agency hasn't had exposure to the voluntary world, it is important that it understands the inclusive nature of not-for-profit organisations because they are very different beasts from, say, commercial companies, according to du Bois.

"Running a project for a not-for-profit is very different from running it for a commercial organisation," he says. "There are different pressure points and different things you need to understand in terms of the process.

It always helps if an agency has had exposure to the sector, but exposure at a good level."

5. Prepare a brief - "Creating a good brief can be the difference between a successful project and a failure," says Parsons. The key is to give as much information as possible and be clear on what you'd like to achieve, he says. A charity should use its brief to provide the design agency with a picture of the organisation and to give it an insight into what it wants to accomplish.

If a charity has never done a brief before, it should be able to talk to its design agency to get help. "Any good agency or in-house design resource should be able to sit down with anybody and run them through it," says du Bois.

Once the brief is completed it is important to have all parties agree and sign off the brief - and stick to it. "A sure-fire way of increasing costs, incurring delays and causing general frustrations is to change a design brief after the work has already begun," warns Harvey.

He adds that developing a strong, open relationship with the designer is the best way for a charity to get the most out of the process. "The best judge of the charity is the charity itself," says Harvey. "If a charity works with the agency it will get the best result."

6. Set the budget - The key here is to be realistic. Establish your goals and outline a clear and concise budget that shows how you are going to achieve them. A designer should always be aware of a client's requirements on cost, impact or anything else, says Dave McCourt, a partner at Bananadesign, a design agency that works only for organisations that want to achieve positive social change. "Designers working in the charity sector should always be aware that cost is a factor and produce print specifications that will meet these needs," he says.

Harvey understands that cost is often an issue for charities when it comes to creating designs. But he adds that there are several ways charities can save money by "piggy-backing" on other opportunities.

"Mundane things such as telephone conversations or email signatures can offer an opportunity to build your brand," says Harvey. "Think about every design as one piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Every piece builds a bigger picture."

7. Keep it simple - There is no reason to use 80 words where 10 will do.

"No one has the time to plough through a whole bunch of turgid, self-serving copy," says du Bois.

Parsons adds that charities should be clear in their intentions and wary of using shock tactics. "The danger lies in desensitising your audience," he says. "We should concentrate on the good that is being done by a charity.

The best way to do this is to convey your message in the most straightforward way possible."

8. Test and retest - Never presume to know what your audience thinks. Whether you are designing a logo, a leaflet or a website, it is worth coming up with several alternatives and presenting these to a focus group.

"Not testing concepts is one of the most common mistakes made by charities," says Harvey. "You can second guess what your audience might think, but it is better to ask them."


When Crimestoppers set out to target young people with its Game Over for Knives campaign, it turned to creative agency This Way Up.

The members of the designer team recognised that the only way they would be able to create a campaign young people could relate to was if they immersed themselves in their world.

"We bought all their magazines and listened to all their CDs to find out what their influences were," says managing partner Steve Harvey. "In the end, however, none of us were 16-year-olds, so we had to go out and really interact with these young people so we could gain an understanding of their mindset."

The agency came up with three campaign concepts that were shortlisted by Crimestoppers. They then invited a group of young people to look at them and decide which of the three had the most impact and appeal. "When we talk about research and how important it is, this is a good example," says Harvey.

The final creative was chosen unanimously. "It wasn't a complex process, but even something this simple gave us a real insight into designing something that would work," he adds.


- If you are likely to want to photocopy your poster or leaflet, ask the designer to make sure it works in black and white

- Consider the typeface carefully. ActionAid's Stop Corporate Abuse logo (below) uses typefaces from well-known brands. Remember logos must be legible in a variety of sizes

- Make sure your organisation's name is clear on the page. The Mental Health Foundation made the word 'health' more prominent to emphasise the positive message (see below)

- The key to any successful visual is to keep it simple and concise - less copy really is more, and large blocks of colour help to draw attention.

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