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Field Notes

Using Design Empathy for Better Nonprofit Brand Storytelling

For the last 5 or 6 months, I’ve been collaborating with The Sephardic Foundation on Aging to create new branding and a new website that shares their story—and the stories of the community that the nonprofit’s work supports. Before I began thinking about design, our brand strategy team created a messaging platform that expresses SFA’s mission, vision, values, and history. This foundation for nonprofit brand storytelling gave me the insight and energy I needed to design the brand identity and website that now represent them. And as I learned more about SFA’s work and the communities that the philanthropic foundation supports, I found that design empathy for nonprofits became a strong force in how I approached my work—and a new lens through which to view the work I do.

SFA’s history goes back 60 years. Designing the brand for a nonprofit with such a long and rich history meant it was especially important for us as designers to understand who they are, where they’ve been, where they’re going—and most importantly, who their audience is. A big part of this nonprofit storytelling is the story of the people that the Foundation has supported for decades. These are personal stories that are essential to the nonprofit storytelling that our team needed to do through design. So we made sure to find opportunities in our design research process to practice design empathy.

A quick summary of The Sephardic Foundation on Aging’s story: SFA began in 1951 as a nursing home in Brooklyn for New York’s community of Sephardic Jews. The home was a sanctuary where Sephardic people could grow older with others who held similar values. Looking to grow their impact, SFA reimagined their mission in 2015, moving on from direct care to become a philanthropic organization that makes a diversity of grants in areas that benefit older people (with an emphasis on the Jewish community). This shift in strategy was a somewhat complicated story to tell and it was important that we got it right.

Design Research for Design Empathy

As part of our brand strategy, Constructive’s strategy team visited the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan to learn more about SFA’s history by exploring their extensive archive of photos and documents. They returned with tons of inspiration for us to reframe SFA’s history and re-imagine their historic brand identity in a contemporary way. During our research, we learned that handshake symbols were a prevalent seal for historical Sephardic organizations around the United States. It reflects a key belief within the Sephardic community that we are all a part of the collective humanity and we should embrace everyone with compassion. The handshake resonated and the symbolism connected with me in a way that I hadn’t expected—and provided a jumping-off point for how to visually connect the brand to the history, culture, and narrative of the Sephardic community.

When it came time to design SFA’s website, I had to use our new brand identity to design a website that brought The Sephardic Foundation on Aging’s mission, history, values, and work to life with greater richness. A big part of that focus was to make sure that our use of imagery strengthened the nonprofit’s brand and reflected their values. SFA’s work is all about human connections—about our shared humanity. So,  I jumped at the chance to visit the archives and immerse myself in what this meant. I had two goals during my visit: get a better understanding of SFA’s history to inform our digital strategy, and to select photos and documents that could be used in my design to tangibly connect to the Foundation’s history. 

At the archives, I was amazed by how much there was to look through. Almost seventy years of meeting notes, annual reports, financial docs, construction specs—and hundreds upon hundreds of photos. The photos were mostly of the residents in the home doing everyday things: cooking meals together, doing chores, and spending time together and with the staff. Though these photos were engaging, I struggled initially with deciding which ones I should choose as part of our digital storytelling strategy for the nonprofit. I wanted to show and share the lives of the residents to really communicate how well the home cared for them. But with so many options, deciding which images should represent SFA’s history to the public felt like an awesome responsibility. 

I’ve always found the act of archiving to be somewhat problematic. It requires a certain amount of subjective curation that ultimately influences how a story gets told. And since not every event, person or experience can be properly documented, when tasked with storytelling, it’s important for designers to consider who is responsible for deciding what gets remembered and what gets lost to the sands of time. Since we didn’t know what the History page’s narrative would be yet, my hoarder mentality kicked in. I figured that having too many photos would be better than not having enough—especially given that this page would only be able to capture a small fraction of SFA’s history. I selected as many photos as I could that were both aesthetically pleasing and captured SFA’s brand and spirit. 

One of SFA’s board members joined us at the archive later to help us comb through the photos. He had grown up around SFA when it was first founded as the Sephardic Home for the Aged by people who were concerned that Sephardic people didn’t feel culturally accepted in Jewish nursing homes. He had a picture-perfect memory of who was who in the photographs. He knew everyone’s names and he pointed out friendships, families, and rivalries. His perspective altered how I was choosing photographs because the photos became less about my personal aesthetics and more about which ones were actually important. I began to get a better sense of the organization through the people. History literally came alive when he pointed out someone and told us their life story. 

What I Learned About the Importance of Design Empathy

I learned a lot by visiting the Center for Jewish History and I’m glad I did. Not only did I gain an understanding of the history of the organization I was responsible for designing a brand and website for, I gained new empathy and appreciation for the lives of a community of Sephardic New Yorkers that I never would have had I not visited. It gave my work more weight and depth—and as a result, I feel made it possible for me to both get the brand’s history right. Which I hope means a brand experience and brand story that resonate deeply with SFA’s audiences today.

About the Author

Doug Knapton

Doug Knapton

Doug is a visual and UX designer who is passionate about creating positive brand experiences for mission-based businesses and nonprofits. He specializes in interactive data visualization, mobile design optimization, and long-form editorial storytelling. After graduating with a BFA in Graphic Design from Pratt Institute in 2015, Doug joined TIME, where he specialized in creating long-form digital experiences and cross-brand native advertising campaigns. At Constructive, Doug collaborates with clients to create user-centric UX and visual design—working closely with team leads to ensure that design execution is aligned with strategic priorities. In his free time, he enjoys illustrating absurd compositions.

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