The essentials: Visual image - Design for giving

The way in which a charity presents itself to the public is more vital than ever. Alex Blyth gets tips from the image makers.

Each of the 200,000 registered charities in the UK has a unique character and mission. But how can they express their individuality amid a sea of competing messages? One key way is through visual impact.

Charities need to communicate with stakeholders and the public at large through printed materials such as direct mail, information leaflets, posters and donor forms. They also need to use other visual media such as television and the internet.

An image creates an instant effect. It's a shorthand but powerful means of putting across a message. It can also go disastrously wrong if that instant message creates an impression that is at odds with the ethos and aims of the organisation. Good design doesn't come cheap, so it is vital that it is devised and executed with precision.

As Max du Bois, executive director of design agency Spencer du Bois, says: "In our modern world of the brand, visual design is the crucial link between what an organisation wants to achieve, its key messages and the audiences it wants to reach. This goes across all communications, from the logo to the web to the flyer. If it isn't relevant and clear, it's a waste of money and opportunity."

Achieving successful visual design depends on the careful navigation of each of the following seven stages.

1. Get the brief right

The first, crucial stage is to establish a clear idea of what you want your design to achieve. Know your objectives, then develop a clear strategy for how your organisation will achieve them and how visual design will play a part in that strategy. Then start talking to some design experts, whether they are agencies or in-house staff, about how to translate your strategy into a design brief.

Mike Marshall, creative director at design agency Eatsleepthink, says: "You must understand what you need before you go to a design agency. It's no use just telling it what you do and asking it to design a logo. For one thing, how do you know you need a logo? The look, the feel, the voice, the positioning, the way you communicate - everything stems from the brief, so make sure it is properly thought through."

2. Aim for value, not cheapness

Charities are under enormous pressure to spend donors' money wisely - and rightly so. All too often, however, this translates into buying everything as cheaply as possible. This does not always mean best value. A badly designed logo will be a waste of money, however much it costs, whereas a well-designed one will help the public understand the charity's purpose. A well-designed mailing might persuade supporters to increase their monthly donations, whereas a badly designed one could head straight for the bin. Value comes from results achieved.

Still, even those charity buyers who realise this can find designers' fees hard to swallow. You could fork out several thousand pounds and receive no more than an idea or a few picture boards at most. The best way to deal with this is to consider the potential cost of using a bad design.

Steve Creamer, creative director of design agency Black Pig says: "Your visual design is a large part of your brand identity. It's your chance to make that crucial first impression and shape the way the public perceives you. The visuals you use are pivotal. After all, you don't have a product to sell. You're perceived only by the work that you do, so if you don't present yourself well, there's a good chance you'll fail."

3. Research your audience

Bill Green, managing director of agency Funnel Design, says: "It is important to match design to target audience. To do this effectively, you need to ensure that your designer and your marketing department conduct extensive market research early in the campaign."

When Green was developing a corporate identity for Felt, a joint venture between four charities in north-west England, he identified two distinct audiences for its campaign to attract legacies - those over 60 nearing retirement and those between their late 20s and their 40s, planning for their future - and created his designs to appeal specifically to them.

4. Be clear about your concept

Mark Pearson, creative director at design agency TDA, has worked with a huge range of charities, including the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, Cats Protection, Save the Children, Oxfam and the Meningitis Trust. He offers this advice on coming up with a creative concept: "It's easy to get carried away and opt for the most profligate, outlandish designs just to get noticed. However, design should be a clean and simple way of implicitly communicating a charity's messages and territory." Most designers agree that the most powerful visual designs are the simple ones that reinforce other aspects of the brand.

5. Ask stakeholders for views

A charity is accountable to donors, trustees and beneficiaries. Although they can be the sternest critics if you produce poor design, they can also offer informed opinions and will be far more committed to providing honest responses than consumers would be to a commercial brand. Even if you receive some uncomfortable feedback, this is an invaluable resource. Sarah Moss, deputy director of communications at the RNID, says: "To find out what your customers need and what they respond to, make sure you ask them. It's also useful to find out what your customers and supporters think of the charity itself. What are their perceptions and what are these based on?"

6. Be coherent and consistent

Once you have a visual design that is clean and simple and devised to appeal to your audience, and it has received good feedback from your supporters, you can begin to roll it out. You need to make sure your design remains coherent and consistent across all media and all of your communications.

Elly Woolston, managing partner at design agency Proximity London, says: "A charity with a strong and consistent design can be recognised even without its logo or brand name. A good example of this is the RNLI. Its design uses a constant colour palette and typeface, with visual imagery that typically features the crew at work, saving lives at sea.

"The visual design is strong, clear and exudes the charity's values of selflessness and bravery. Clear brand and visual design guidelines are important to ensure a strong and consistent look for any charity."

7. Measure response

The final stage of the process is to measure the response to your design. If you have successfully followed all of the steps, you should have achieved your objectives, whether that is to raise funds or awareness of an issue, increase membership or indicate a change of direction or purpose within the organisation.

Your investment in good design should have been repaid several times over and you should now be able to evolve your initial design to make it even more effective.

CASE STUDY 1 - CATS PROTECTION GETS PERSONAL

A warmer design created a friendly feeling for the annual review

In its annual review for 2005, the Cats Protection League wanted to showcase some of its achievements over the year to stakeholders such as volunteers, staff, supporters and partners. However, it also wanted to take a fresh approach.

Debbie Holt, design services manager, recalls: "The brief was to look at the annual review in a new light and produce a document that communicates the nature of the charity. We wanted this annual review to stand out from the crowd and to be read and retained by a wide variety of recipients."

The design team came up with the idea of asking members of staff to take Polaroid(TM) photographs of their own cats. Holt says: "As well as saving money, we felt this would give us exactly the right feel and would involve a wide range of people. We also used handwritten headings to give it a personal feel and highlighted sections of the text in a contemporary style that implies the use of a highlighter pen. The use of environmentally sound uncoated paper stock gave increased bulk and the right feel for the document."

Having overcome occasional fears about producing something so far removed from previous reviews, the design team is now pleased with its achievement.

Holt says the review has also been received well by trustees, supporters and partners. She offers this advice to other charities: "Many factors will affect the success of a design project, but the most important is to get the brief and concept right, and to consider the audience and purpose of the item."

CASE STUDY 2 - WHIZZ-KIDZ ON THE MOVE

An emotional image transformed a children's charity

Whizz-Kidz provides mobility equipment such as wheelchairs and tricycles to disabled children. Although it has enjoyed great success since its foundation 15 years ago, recent brand research revealed that only 2 per cent of the UK population was spontaneously aware of the charity. An audit of its strategy and communications found significant inconsistency in brand communications. And compared with its competitors, Whizz-Kidz lacked distinct positioning and emotion.

As a result, it called in brand communications agency 23red. Jane Asscher, managing partner and chairman of the agency, describes the brief: "The aim was to create a brand identity that had impact, was 'ownable' and emotionally led, and could represent Whizz-Kidz consistently across all marketing communications. It was to evolve the positioning away from the very functional 'movement for non-mobile children' towards a clear, emotive and compelling brand identity. This would raise awareness of Whizz-Kidz and generate long-term funding relationships." The first stage was stakeholder consultation: interviews with staff, trustees, supporters, corporate partners and other charitable organisations, each of which had different views of the organisation's vision. On the basis of insights gleaned from this process, 23red undertook a full review of the brand's strategy and communications and developed a fresh identity.

It communicated these in a brand book, which was circulated to all staff and stakeholders.

Asscher comments: "The new vision and positioning recognise that Whizz-Kidz' work is about so much more than the wheelchair. It's about giving disabled children the independence to be themselves. It also establishes values such as 'inclusive', 'dynamic', 'liberating', 'upbeat' and 'achievable', to distinguish Whizz-Kidz from other charities. Converting the 'dz' of the Whizz-Kidz logo into a wheelchair meant we could adopt a far more emotive strapline and avoid having to use words such as disabled or non-mobile."

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