The importance of Visual Design for charity brands

IE's Creative Director David Crichton looks at the importance of visual design in charity communications, and whether size matters.

Here at IE, we’re often contacted by students who are trying to make their way in the industry. We were recently contacted by a design student looking for industry insight to inform her third year university dissertation. The focus of her query was the important role that visual design plays in a wider rebrand and, interestingly, whether there was a difference between how we’d approach the project based on whether it was a large or small charity client.

As a brand consultancy, we’re always keen to stress that a rebrand is about so much more than a new logo, or a ‘redesign’ – it’s about improving the way a client communicates – how it looks, how it sounds and, crucially, how it acts.

But, the way a charity looks is important, and here’s what we told her:

1) Understand the client and solve their problems.

All IE projects are about solving a client's problems, never about making them look 'prettier'. We're a brand consultancy, so the first step in a project is immersing ourselves in the organisation. We do this to understand a charity's history, structure, audience and ambitions. We'll then work to understand the 'pain points' – what challenges are the clients facing? Sometimes we'll be able to gain this insight through workshops with the client, sometimes we'll carry out stakeholder research to hear what the outside world thinks.

Eventually, we'll get to a point where we've got an understanding of the gap between how the charity sees itself (how it thinks it looks, sounds, and acts) and how the outside world sees its brand. At that stage, we start to think about how we can bridge that gap, and improve the brand through behaviour change, messaging and visual identity.

2) Size really doesn’t matter.

It's really important that brand design never becomes a 'sausage machine'. Each clients' needs are different, and we have to respond accordingly. As such, our designers have to be capable of changing their styles – sometimes a visual identity is led by typography, photography or illustration. No two portfolio pieces are the same, because no two clients are the same.

Size really doesn't affect the visual style significantly. But it can sometimes change how the client is perceived. For instance, a relatively small charity may want to look bigger – to increase people's perception of its reach. Other larger clients may want to look smaller and more personable to increase donations. There's really no golden rule.

But it's undoubtedly true to say that the transformative effect of ‘getting it right’ can be felt more acutely for smaller charities. Large national charities already spend many millions on marketing and advertising, whereas some smaller charities simply don’t invest sufficiently in marketing themselves. When they do, it can revolutionise their organisation's impact and reach.

3) Tell me why I should care.

It's all about engagement. Design has to help a client tell its story really quickly in a crowded marketplace. Whether it's a poster, advert, banner – or anything at all – people need to take notice of it. That's about building awareness. Once people have taken note, it's down to how compelling the proposition is – what are you asking people to do? And why should they care? It's really important to have a great call to action. When people hear your message, and take action – that's engagement.

4) Make an impact.

Helping clients to communicate better, which includes visual identity, can have a transformative effect on a charity. Charity clients frequently survive on donations – and the only way you get donations is by offering audiences a story they believe in. Often, clients have been doing great work for years, or even decades, but they've forgotten how to articulate their mission, and their story, to their audiences.

5) Harness the power of design.

It takes a lot more than good design to build a great brand, but it is a crucial ingredient. Imagine a potential donor is looking to give money to a charity – it needs to be a cause, and an organisation, they care about. Bad design won't necessarily stop people from donating, but it might paint an inaccurate, or even damaging, first impression.

The old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' has its roots in reality. Ultimately, if you read a book, your enjoyment will be based on whether you liked what it had to offer, not the cover design. BUT – and it's a big but – if the cover is bad, fails to excite you or gives a misleading impression of what's inside, you'll probably never read it in the first place.

That's the power of design, and it's true for each and every one of our clients. Their 'cover' needs to be as compelling as the story inside.