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Working With Design Principles: Strategic Roots to Grow Your Nonprofit’s Brand

Do you ever feel like your nonprofit’s branding doesn’t accurately represent the organization? That it either doesn’t reflect the culture and values that drive it? Or somehow doesn’t present your nonprofit as the accomplished and impactful leader that it truly is? It’s a common challenge—and one that’s easy to understand. After all, a nonprofit’s brand is the sum of many parts, and effectively communicating them through branding and design takes a great deal of strategic focus and creative innovation to get right. And effective nonprofit branding and design helps build successful brands by connecting a clear strategy and visual expressions that effectively represent that strategy.

These “on-brand” expressions must be cohesive and consistent over time if they are to create brand experiences that stand for something that attracts and resonates with audiences. As designers, we focus on using the power of design to build relationships that stand for something meaningful, creating strategic design systems that scale across an organization to guide every application of the brand. Design systems are complex things with many different parts that work together to point back towards a brand strategy. Successfully creating them is an intentional process. How can you create this alignment in your nonprofit’s branding if you don’t already have it? You need strategic roots, in the form of Design Principles.

What Are Design Principles?

Creating Design Principles is a practice that has guided for-profit brands for years. They are concise, actionable, value statements that distill the core ideas of a brand’s strategy to guide the creation and implementation of branding across an organization. They’re also what help maintain brand cohesion through a design system that reflects the core ideas and values that a brand stands for.

When it comes to designing branding for nonprofits, think of Design Principles as a combination of vision and values translated into crisp, strategic statements that clearly define an organization’s social impact value. They are the handbook for how a nonprofit’s brand truths will be brought to life. They use clear language to guide strategists, designers, and anyone who contributes to creating brand experiences. Since design’s role is to make strategy tangible, Design Principles remind us what those experiences should be about—what the brand stands for and why it matters.

Think of Design Principles as a brand strategy that is condensed and made actionable for design execution—a checklist to reference when creating, evaluating, and implementing design. To make the idea more tangible, here is an example of Design Principles that we recently established for a nonprofit while developing their design strategy. They may not make as much sense as they would with more context about why they were appropriate, what you’ll hopefully see is how Design Principles start to paint a picture of what a brand stands for:

  1. To be successful, the brand must be a leader of innovation in its field.
  2. To be successful, the brand must be bold, dynamic, and proud.
  3. To be successful, the brand must embody scientific certainty.
  4. To be successful, the brand must lead with a commitment to social equity.
  5. To be successful, the brand must invite partnership and collaboration.

It seems simple—and it is. That’s the idea! What makes Design Principles powerful for nonprofits is that they articulate an organization’s vision for the future, how they’ll realize that vision, and the values that they bring every day to realizing that vision. They include some of the tensions that great branding must navigate to authentically embody the nuance of complex organizations. This combination is invaluable to design teams because our work makes this vision of a nonprofit’’s brand a tangible reality.

Understood this way, Design Principles are a perfect way for us to ensure that the branding and design that we create results in audience experiences that are aligned with a nonprofit’s brand strategy. By remaining front-and-center in our minds throughout the strategic design process, Design Principles give everyone working on a nonprofit’s brand—both inside the organization and at an agency like Constructive—a unified vision to focus on.

How Do Design Principles Empower Teams?

Starting with Design Principles makes branding and strategic design accessible and actionable for everyone involved throughout the process. The more clear and direct Design Principles are, the better they are in giving design teams the inspiration and the flexibility they need to bring a nonprofit’s brand to life and stay “on-strategy.” Design Principles also make the design process more accessible and inclusive for non-designers, which is really important because, branding often includes many stakeholders—especially in nonprofit work.

By centering nonprofit branding on strategic Design Principles and using accessible language, design teams make it more comfortable for everyone who is part of the process to contribute to it. We help everyone understand and evaluate how well (or not well) design is translating the brand’s strategic goals. We facilitate productive conversations. And, by returning to our Design Principles, we ensure that everyone stays focused on the right things, especially when subjective opinions can get in the way of strategic execution.

As designers create design systems for nonprofits, Design Principles provide guidance on the many subjective decisions they must make. How does a typeface express a “compassionate ally for children’s mental health”? What colors represent a “tenacious protector of democratic government”? What shapes and styles make “complex social issues more accessible and inclusive”? How can a user interface reinforce an “objective expert on climate research”? These are the kinds of questions that designers ask themselves and apply their skills to every day.

And while there’s no single right answer to these questions, there absolutely are better and worse choices when designing a nonprofit’s brand. Design Principles make these decisions—and as a result, the design process—faster and more effective because they make it easier for designers to evaluate how well what they are creating reflects the brand’s strategic imperatives.

Design Principles move our work forward by helping everyone move forward together. As a result, we create branding and communications that more accurately represent what a nonprofit’s brand stands for. And since Design Principles are rooted in the core ideas that guide a nonprofit’s strategies for change, they provide a guiding framework to evolve the brand as the organization grows and changes. Not only can Design Principles help audiences better understand an organization, they also help the organization better understand itself.

How to Add Design Principles to Nonprofit Branding

It’s important to say that no single design element (a typeface, a color, a logo) can encapsulate every Design Principle in a nonprofit’s list. Brands are complex things that are filled with nuance and healthy tensions. Evaluating a color or a typeface on whether it successfully embodies 5-7 design principles would be impossible! Rather, successfully realizing a nonprofit’s Design Principles is achieved through all of the elements in its design system. Taken together, this design system embodies the nonprofit’s brand and represents the totality of its priorities and promises.

As mentioned earlier, the key to creating effective Design Principles is an inclusive design process. The reason Design Principles are central to our work at Constructive is that they are a great foundation for cross-disciplinary collaboration—and collaboration with diverse stakeholders is essential both to nonprofit branding and to human-centered design. Different people in an organization have different priorities, needs, and concerns. So when creating Design Principles, be sure to use the opportunity to gain diverse perspectives on the current state of a nonprofit’s brand and its hopes for the future.

Ideally, you already have a clear brand strategy in place to reference—that’s the best place to start. If you don’t, then turn to your strategic plan. With the strategic priorities of the brand clearly understood, everyone can work together to decide what the non-negotiable aspects of your strategy are that design must translate.

How many Design Principles should a nonprofit declare? There’s no set number. What’s important is to speak to the totality of an organization’s social impact value without over-complicating things. For me, I like to define between 5-7 Design Principles when working with clients. That’s usually enough to articulate the most important imperatives of a nonprofit’s brand to guide our work, but not so many that things get confusing or impossible to reconcile.

Best Practices for Creating Nonprofit Design Principles

Agree On Your Roots

The success of Design Principles starts with uncovering truths of the brand by asking two fundamental questions: “who are we?” and “what are we promising to the world?” These are the roots from which the future of your brand will grow, so everyone must on them. Most importantly, when defining your strategic roots, make sure the process is inclusive, participatory, democratic—and that reflects your organization’s diversity of perspectives.

Carve a Wide Path Forward

The success of Design Principles is keeping them focused without being prescriptive. They should provide designers with a clear path forward, while keeping it wide enough to innovate. The idea is to provide purpose so that design is intentional, focused on vision and values, and keeps a nonprofit’s brand focused on achieving its goals.

Focus on the Audience

Successful Design Principles can be clearly seen through the eye of the audience. Of course, every design principle is saying something about the nonprofit brand for which it stands, but what matters most is what the audience values in the brand—that combination of vision and values. And, as a result, your nonprofit’s branding and the experiences you create will resonate with audiences based on what they value most.

Choose Your Words Wisely

Use descriptive language when creating Design Principles. The goal is to create a picture in people’s minds of what the brand experience stands for. Also, I like to lead into our Design Principles with “To be successful, the brand must…” and then list them out in priority order. Using “must” reinforces that Design Principles represent non-negotiable aspects of the brand, and a priority list makes clear which strategic imperatives should be emphasized most.

Stand the Test of Time

Design Principles can offer guidance to your nonprofit’s stakeholders and design teams now, as well as for people in the future that will be responsible for growing the brand. This makes them a great tool for change management and continuity—providing a North Star for strategists, designers, and stakeholders to ensure that a nonprofit’s branding continues to embody its highest strategic imperatives.

Taking Design Principles Further

If the value of leading your nonprofit’s branding efforts with Design Principles resonates with you, there are lots of ways to take this work further. Of course, if you’d like to speak with me or Constructive about how we can help, please get in touch. And if you’re looking to explore concepts and practices more on your own, probably the best place I can recommend to visit is Principles.Design, which is an amazing, open-source library of Design Principles resources and methods to learn from.

About the Author

Karla Despradel

Karla Despradel

Karla Despradel leads Constructive’s design practice, to which she brings a decade of cross-disciplinary experience in visual design, design thinking, UX, and social innovation design to create beautiful, change-making brands. Karla uses human-centered design methodologies to create design-forward brand experiences that increase creativity, equity, social justice, and resilience. Before joining Constructive, Karla worked as a Strategic Designer with global innovation design firm Doblin (Deloitte), and as a Social Innovation & Design Strategy Consultant for international nonprofits working on gender-based violence, public health, and equitable judicial systems. She holds a BFA in Communications Design from Parsons and a Masters in Design for Social Innovation from The School of Visual Arts.

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