‘Clean’ Doesn’t Cut It: Nonprofits Need Smart Design That Works Harder
These days, it seems that everyone wants “clean” design. But I would argue that clean is not what nonprofits need. Before you go all Nike on me and tell me how you want a symbol that everyone can recognize in an instant, let me explain.
I’ll start with the story of an institution looking to raise $20 million for a capital campaign to renovate a building purchased to expand their current space. In reviewing design firms to develop their fundraising brochure, they expressed their desire for a clean design.
Undoubtedly, this request was from a board member who liked the look of a corporate ad—such as Apple’s ads that just show the product on a white background, often with no text.
Now, let’s put aside for a moment that the architecture of the nonprofit institution was very detailed and ornate (that already suggested a certain visual approach in terms of representing the brand). Let’s look at how Apple is able to pull off these clean ads.
1. Tens of millions of people own Apple products, so they have first-hand familiarity with
2. Apple has more than 250 stores around the country in which you can sample products for free.
3. Apple has a website that has massive amounts of information about their products.
4. The company is supported by legions of bloggers, websites and support groups that provide additional information—free—about their products.
And don’t forget their highly anticipated launch announcements for new products that are covered extensively in the media.
So, in short, those “clean” ads really aren’t “selling” anything—they are just reminding you of their products. All the other things are doing the hard work of selling—explaining features and benefits, options and comparisons, pros and cons.
And the reminder ads still cost Apple $1 billion per year. That’s right, billion with a “B”.
Now, remember that nonprofit looking to raise $20 million? Can you relate to them? They have to:
● Explain that they need the money.
● Why they need the money.
● Create an emotional connection with potential donors.
● Demonstrate similar religious values, experiences as a community and a shared vision of the future.
● Provide a rational argument for how the money will be spent wisely.
● Build support by showing others are invested in the project as well.
● Instill confidence that the project has a chance of being completed and donors’ money won’t be wasted.
● Demonstrate that the organization is financially viable and will be a good steward of their
And they have to do that for less than $50,000 in total marketing and advertising costs.
Now tell me, do you really think that a clean ad is going to do that? If you know how to do that, I have a job for you.
I know of another nonprofit that brought in a new leader from the corporate sector, wanting to “clean up” the organization’s design. While the intention was good, the organization’s new annual report featured pages with one huge word on each page and not much text to support it.
It had full-page photos with no explanations. In one case, a full page photo of an empty field next to a page discussing the problems of population density—a complete mismatch in communicating the message. Nothing about the need for the nonprofit, the value of its work, and the emotional tug necessary to engage support.
I believe that nonprofits deserve good design—design that delivers the message clearly. But
that shouldn’t be confused with clean design that strips away so much that there is nothing left for readers to latch onto.
When your nonprofit is ready to take on the challenge of selling your cause without the billion-dollar budget, make sure you work with someone who understands the realities of the nonprofit world.
Howard Adam Levy is the president of Red Rooster Group, a brand strategy firm that promotes nonprofits, governments, and foundations. For the past 20 years, Howard has assisted countless organizations to launch new brands, clarify their messages, gain visibility and raise hundreds of millions of dollars.