Print Design: How to make a visual impact

Alex Blyth

Magazines, newsletters, posters, postcards - all printed materials should be designed so they are an effective voice for your charity.

Not many people know that Crimestoppers is a charity. Most people think it is part of the police force or a television programme, and this makes the public more wary of giving it information about crimes and criminals.

So, the charity set its director of communications, Jane Reay, the challenge of changing this public misconception. She had been using printing firms to design and produce the charity's literature, but she decided that to meet this new challenge she would have to bring in some more specific design expertise.

"Our visual brand was all about police cell bars and law enforcement," she recalls. "We needed to move away from this, so I appointed a design agency to help me develop a new brand that would make it clear that we are an independent charity." This new brand was endorsed in the annual review, two newsletters, leaflets, posters and a series of postcards promoting an anti-gun crime campaign.

It is too early for her to be sure of the impact that this work has had, but the local divisions have been enthusiastically using the new materials and she is convinced it was a worthwhile investment. She believes that other charities ought to adopt a similar approach: "Charities should realise the value of their visual brands and use well-designed literature to get the greatest possible benefit from those brands."

Annual reports, leaflets, posters, brochures, letterheads, compliments slips, business cards and information leaflets to beneficiaries, fundraisers, and volunteers are just a few examples of the printed items used by charities.

In the past, little attention has been paid to the design of these items, but this is changing. Mark Whatham, head of publishing at Help the Aged, says: "The importance of design for print cannot be understated. Our publications and printed communications are a projection of the organisation. They may be the recipient's first or only impression of the charity and if they look a bit shabby or dated, who's going to stop and read them?"

Who is best placed to do it?

While larger charities often have in-house design departments full of qualified and experienced designers, many smaller charities tend to think that design is no more complicated than making something look attractive, and so will get someone with a bit of spare time to be their de facto graphic designer.

But effective design is actually much more complex than that. Beyond attracting the readers' attention, it should guide them through the document.

It should help them navigate from beginning to end or to the section that is of most interest to them. It should prioritise information on the page, introduce a hierarchy and manipulate the relationship between text and imagery. As they realise the importance of getting all of this right, more and more charities are recognising the need for external help in this area.

Most printing companies claim to be able to deliver design services, and, mainly because it is a cheaper route, many charities do take them up on the offer. However, you get what you pay for and many charities have found that the quality of design from printers is, in almost every case, inferior to that from a specialist design agency.

When the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust decided to update its 20 year-old logo, its chief executive, Libby Halford, saw several design agencies and printers. She found the printers to be less expensive than the designers, but eventually went for a design agency. "The printers didn't seem to have the same understanding of how to integrate our logo across different formats," she explains. "The designers had much more design expertise and I think it's worth paying extra to get something as important as your company's literature right."

There are thousands of design agencies, ranging from individuals operating out of their spare room to multinationals with thousands of staff. Many are prepared to work for charities for free, but increasingly charities are wary of this, having discovered again that they get what they pay for, and that clients who pay nothing are always the last priority for the agency's most junior staff.

A growing trend is to use design agencies that specialise in the not-for-profit sector. For example, D2PS Communications was set up in 2000 to provide literature and digital design to not-for-profits.

It now has 10 staff, turns over £1m a year and has worked for charities including the British Heart Foundation, the Eating Disorders Association and Holidays for All.

There are several others. Five years ago, Holly Dyer and Dave McCourt were working together in the in-house creative services department of Action Aid and came up with the idea of setting up a design agency that would only work for organisations that are bringing about positive social change. Banana Design was born, and it now counts Breast Cancer Care, the Ecology Centre and Scope amongst its clients.

Another option to consider is to use a design agency that is itself a charity. Bruce Allinson set up Design Aid in 1998 as a registered charity that offers graphic design services to other charities. For the first seven years he offered his services for free, effectively working as a full-time volunteer. More recently he has had to start charging for his work, but he is still considerably cheaper than most other agencies. In his view, however, this is not why charities such as Shelter, Friends Conservation and Age Concern use him. "I understand the issues associated with being a charity," he explains. "I know all about the difficulty of raising funds and operating on a tight budget."

How to reduce costs?

None of these options are cheap but by working with the right designer, charities can save money on print costs. Allinson at Design Aid often advises his clients to get one item to do several jobs: "For instance, a compliments slip cut into three can become a business card. A leaflet can become a poster and so not attract the 17.5 per cent VAT that applies to posters. When using two colours, don't make one of them black. Use a very dark blue for your main text, and then you can use a 25 or 50 per cent version of that blue elsewhere, making it appear to be three colours at no extra cost."

Charities can also reduce costs by correctly estimating how many copies they will need. On the one hand, no one wants to be the person who took delivery of 10,000 copies of the charity's letterhead the day before the charity announced it was moving offices. On the other, ordering too few copies on the initial run can be a false economy. In fact, a second run can cost almost as much as the first one, so it is worth spending time working out exactly how many copies will be needed.

It pays to shop around nationally or even internationally if you're large enough. Having worked for many years for charities including the Breakaway Trust, Countrywide Workshops Charitable Trust and Leonard Cheshire, Paul Sample has set up his own agency and produced a leaflet entitled The 21 essential steps to saving money on your design and print. In it, he claims that design and print companies in London and south east England have to pass on higher overheads, such as staff costs, business rates and the cost of premises.

He says: "Similar companies in other parts of Britain, and elsewhere, often have lower overheads and are frequently more competitive. The use of Adobe Acrobat to enable designers to exchange proofs with their clients over the internet is leading to a global market for design and print."

What are the main pitfalls to avoid?

Many charities fall at the first hurdle by failing to devise a clear brief at the outset. Steve Harvey, managing partner of design agency This Way Up, comments: "Having a clear objective for any print publication is vital. Ask yourself what the piece of print is going to do, who it is aimed at, what you want to say, what you want the reader to do in response, and whether you have produced or are planning to produce something that is similar."

This ought to result in a clear, concise brief, which will enable designers to provide accurate prices and timescales. There are many stages in the design process and so it takes time. Attempting to rush the process will lead to mistakes being made, a poorer finished product and probably higher costs.

Good design is usually simple design. Inexperienced designers are often tempted to use too many fonts, or to try to fit too much text and too many images into one space. Designers and printers all complain that charities are not fastidious enough at checking proofs. Doing simple things like spell-checking a document before sending it to the designer, getting someone else to double-check the copy, and asking to see a final proof from the designer can all help to minimise costs.

However, the most common mistake that charities make when it comes to design for print is not investing in expertise. A good designer should be able to help keep printing costs down and ensure that mistakes are avoided. The good ones will want to be paid well, but it should not cost the earth, and if the process is managed correctly, the improved results will outweigh the increased investment.


When the Spinal Injuries Association asked D2PS Communications to help it redesign its magazine, Forward, the agency's James Armstrong-Holmes recalls that it was for a good reason.

"In their own words, it was dull," he says. "It was two colours and looked like something that would be okay as a small in-house newsletter, but this was going to 7,000 members and was meant to be providing them with inspiring stories and new ways for them to improve their daily lives."

The problem was that the association wanted a better magazine but was not able to increase its budget. The agency had less than £50,000 a year to produce six issues of between 48 and 64 pages each, but it managed to keep within this budget and to make the magazine full colour, with a vastly improved layout.

It did this by reducing the paper weight, says Armstrong-Holmes. "A lot of people don't take paper weight into account, but with such a large magazine it saved a considerable amount of money in printing and postage costs. That freed up enough budget to improve other areas, and the end result was so impressive that readership has significantly increased."

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