You probably noticed that it's been a while since the last Cause-Driven Design® article. My apologies! While it is my goal to have a new article for this column every six to eight weeks, in July I decided to rebrand our firm to coincide with its sponsorship of an annual nonprofit conference. Going from a blank slate to a new website in three months meant that, unfortunately, along with my social life, my column had to be put temporarily on hold.
So, after fifteen years, Matthew Schwartz Design Studio is no more. Today, we are Constructive. And the experience of rebranding my own firm has only served to increase my focus on what we do, who we do it for, and why we do it — increased clarity that I hope to put to good use here in our Cause-Driven Design conversations.
Picking up where we left off in July on how branding can help your organization strengthen its social impact, let's now examine how branding theory and process are made tangible.
Improving Nonprofit Brand Alignment
As I noted in an earlier article, maximizing a brand's potential requires "a strategic framework for thinking about, creating, and managing the different ways the brand is understood and expressed." This starts with an organization having a strong understanding of itself and its relationship to the individuals, organizations, and networks that comprise its ecosystem.
Nonprofits typically understand and define themselves through a mission statement and theory of change, using both as a foundation for organizational strategy. Branding is the way this understanding is reinforced and communicated. It both informs and articulates this foundation by establishing conceptual clarity and by creating greater intentionality in the experiences the brand delivers — whether online, in print, or in person.
At Constructive, it's our mission to bridge the gap between branding theory and practice by aligning an organization's ideas, actions, and culture with its use of design, messaging, and technology. We help translate concepts and dynamics into a clear narrative and engaging experiences that reinforce a nonprofit's value. And, like much of the work nonprofits do, this process calls for a systems-based approach.
Seeing the Forest and the Trees
In order to create engaging brand experiences, designers, copy writers, and technologists must apply their skills to the difficult job of translating a complex issue and an organization's efforts to address it into something that resonates with a public that, in most cases, has only a passing knowledge of the issue. To accomplish this, we apply synthetic thinking, uniting the conceptual and tangible elements of a nonprofit's brand to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts — and whose individual parts also function effectively on their own, in any context.
This dynamic is important for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that branding takes many forms. Branding can be experienced holistically (e.g., a website or report), or as individual elements (a tagline or logo). Understood this way, a systems-based approach is critical to developing a framework that helps all stakeholders more easily and effectively manage the nonprofit's brand.
So, what goes into this framework, and how do its different parts work together?
The Foundations of Verbal and Visual Branding
Branding provides an organization with two important things: a messaging platform to articulate its organizational/brand strategy, and a design system to communicate that strategy visually. Here's an overview of how we work to develop them.
Brand Messaging Architecture. To develop strong connective thread that runs from an organization's mission through to the types of experiences it hopes to create for its audiences, the key concepts should flow from one to the next, providing answers to the following questions:
Mission: What is the organization's reason for being?
Vision: What does the world look like when the organization's mission is successfully executed?
Challenges: What are the challenges that stand in the way of getting there?
Theory of Change: How is change possible and how will it happen?
Audiences: Who's engaged, directly or indirectly, in advancing the organization's mission?
Beliefs & Values: What are the principles that guide the organization and its people while working to advance its mission?
Roles & Functions: What are the key activities in which the organization engages?
Differentiators: What qualifies the organization to play these roles?
Attributes: What's the personality of the brand and what kinds of experiences is it trying to create for different audiences?
Building a nonprofit messaging platform with the answers to these questions empowers us to communicate vital aspects of the brand in ways everyone can understand, making it easier to develop compelling brand narratives from multiple vantage points. It also provides a reservoir of content that can be drawn on for a broad range of business and marketing communications.
Visual Identity Architecture. Unlike with language, which uses the same element (words) to communicate the ideas behind a brand, visual branding uses multiple design elements to communicate these ideas and add greater meaning than words alone can convey. While most people are familiar with many of these elements (Logo, Typography, Color, Photography, etc), their nuances often are less clear.
When designing nonprofit branding, firms like Constructive look to balance the functional and emotional attributes that elements of a visual identity system offer the brand. We test and evaluate how effectively they help an organization accomplish its goals by asking countless questions along the way. The answers may be as much about a subjective aesthetic consideration that needs to be rationalized as about objective, measurable criteria that can clearly be evaluated. For example:
Logo Design: Subjectively, how well does the mark embody the attributes or values that have been identified during brand strategy? Objectively, how well will a proposed design retain its clarity and legibility at different sizes and in different contexts?
Color: Subjectively, what does a proposed color palette communicate emotionally about the brand? Objectively, does the palette support the range of functional demands an organization’s content calls for (e.g., data visualizations)?
Typography: Subjectively, what does the design of a proposed set of typefaces say about the personality of an organization? Objectively, do the typeface families chosen provide the functional support for specific types of content (e.g., are they legible in all contexts and media)?
By evaluating, both subjectively and objectively, all elements of a nonprofit's visual branding, we're not only more likely to design brand experiences that are an accurate reflection of the ideas and values the organization stands for, we're also more likely to develop a toolset that is effective in delivering the organization's messages and in making its operations more efficient.
So, this concludes our three-part series on nonprofit brands and branding — the ideas they stand for, the tangible value they add to an organization, and the primary ways they are expressed. Now that we've gotten through some theory and hopefully laid the groundwork for a better understanding of the underlying principles of branding and design, I'll be focusing in upcoming articles on the execution side of design and messaging. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. Until next time, happy branding!
Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact.