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5 Tips for Giving Great Design Feedback

Receiving feedback and iterating on creative work is a huge part of what we do every day at Constructive. Whether we’re conducting an internal review between our designers and art directors, or discussing work with clients, collaboration is crucial to improving our work.

It’s easy to go through the motions of this feedback loop without thinking critically about how to optimize the delivery of feedback when deadlines are approaching, budgets are tight, and multiple projects are being juggled. In my role as a project manager, I’ve experienced countless meetings to discuss feedback and seen teams (ours, and our clients) use different tactics to deliver feedback with varying degrees of success. What I’ve found is that the difference between good and bad feedback can make a real impact on the final output and overall success of a project, so I believe it’s worth paying attention to. So much so that I want to share some tips on how you can give great design feedback.

How to Give Great Design Feedback

1. Ask questions

A successful design process is collaborative, and by asking thoughtful questions, communication between the client and the design team is strengthened. Rather than sending a list of specific changes that need to be made, posing questions opens up the lines of communication, encourages further discussion, and ensures that no assumptions are being made. Ultimately, we look to our clients for their expertise in the issue areas they work in, and often times we learn more about their needs and their audiences’ needs when they question our design choices and conversation ensues.

2. Communicate problems, not solutions

It can be tempting to review a design and propose solutions to things you don’t think are working. Instead, communicate what the problem is, and why said design decision is troublesome. For example, if you don’t like the placement of a newsletter call-to-action and suggest moving it to another page, telling us more about why users might be more inclined to sign up for the newsletter when reading another content type (news updates vs. insights for example), will give us more insight about your audience and help us propose better solutions. By describing the problem, you’re equipping the designer with more knowledge to explore other solutions, rather than feeding a solution that might not be the best one.

3. Keep the focus on strategic goals

Visual design can be subjective, so keeping the conversation focused on whether or not the design is meeting the stated goals is a great way to keep feedback discussions productive and move projects in the right direction. Instead of asking yourself if you like the new design, pause to recall the strategic goals and key audiences. Does the design successfully address the needs of the audiences it serves? For example, if the stated goal of a research hub on a website is to be the go-to resource for policymakers in X field, does the layout support their need of finding timely updates and skimming dense articles? If so, great! If not, it’s the right time to start asking questions and describing the problem (see tip 1 & 2).

4. Consolidate feedback

Establishing a clear process for feedback delivery is critical to the success of a project, even more so when many stakeholders are involved. Consider this example: several stakeholders are reviewing a design mockup and provide comments that contradict one another. Some think highlighting metrics on a grantee’s performance will be too difficult to maintain on the website, while others feel strongly they should be included. Not only does sorting through this feedback take time, it also puts the onus on the designer to makes sense of competing opinions and decide which one is a priority.

To avoid this cringe-inducing scenario (a project manager’s worst nightmare) we ask our clients to deliver feedback that’s representative of the client team’s final opinions. When projects warrant it, we advise clients to define roles on a project using a RACI matrix, or responsibility assignment matrix. We suggest having one team member be “responsible” for delivering feedback, but ensure those who need to be “consulted” had a chance to voice their opinions.

5. Don’t forget to share the good

Everyone likes to receive affirmation on a job well done. Even though feedback meetings typically focus more on ways to improve work, we love it when clients share what’s working really well within a design. Not only does this pat on the back give us encouragement to keep working hard for our clients, but it also allows us to build up a knowledge base of what our clients like so that we can bring more ideas to the table that align with their tastes.

Wrapping up

Paying attention to the way in which design feedback is delivered can have a real impact on the success of a project. By implementing these five tips, collaboration is fostered, roles are defined, strategic goals are brought to the forefront of decision-making, and projects can run a little more smoothly.

How Design Agencies Cook Up Project Plans & Estimates

Let’s say your organization is planning to redesign its website. You do your research, craft a thoughtful RFP, send it to a short-list of impressive agencies, and have a few promising conversations. After follow-up discussions with those agencies, proposals start landing in your inbox. Exciting stuff! Now it’s time to start reviewing them. But what distinguishes a good proposal from a great one? And how do agencies assess your project and whip up a plan and budget without really knowing you all that well?

The reality is that even after having a few conversations with you, agencies still have limited insight into your organization and project needs at this point. It’s why we often ask so many questions before developing a proposal! With strategic brand and design work in particular, the variations in how a project could play out and what the outcomes need to be are pretty massive.

Our job when making a proposal is to mold our limited insights about your project into a document that articulates how we’ll meet your goals and what working with us will be like. This is no small task considering we’ve only just met!

The Bread and Butter of a Great Proposal

So how do we grapple with this uncertainty and create a proposal that really resonates? Well, if you’re anything like me—which is to say, a mediocre yet overconfident home cook whose culinary education came entirely from Chopped—you might best understand the elements of a proposal the same way I’ve come to: in terms of food.

As with any good recipe, there are a few key ingredients that make a proposal successful. These elements add specificity and depth to an agency’s understanding of your project; without them, we risk pitching a project based on assumptions. Would you make guacamole without limes, salt, or cilantro? You could try…but you’d basically just have mushy avocado. Still edible, but not quite what your dinner guests were expecting.

Craving tacos now? Me too, all the time. But before you ditch this article for your nearest taco joint, let’s talk about the key ingredients that make up a thoughtful proposal. While every agency might have a bit of a different recipe, we find that having an understanding of your goals and your project’s working rhythms, process, scope, and budget lead to a more robust and accurate proposal. This is no secret recipe, either. In fact, we’re eager to share it in the hopes that doing so will help you develop more detailed RFPs, better prepare for calls with agencies, and evaluate proposals with a clearer understanding of the process that goes into creating them.

Four Essential Ingredients

Ingredient #1: Your Goals

Before we open up InDesign to start working on your proposal, we want to have a good understanding of what’s going on at your organization, the main drivers of this work, and your overall goals for the engagement. (Luckily, InDesign often takes so long to load that we can afford to be quite reflective while we wait!)

If you read our insights often, you’ll know that we’re big believers in the power of brand and design to help organizations advance their impact and improve internal cohesion. So it follows that the success of your project can play a critical role in helping advance your larger organizational goals too.

Understanding these top-level goals and how your project relates to them helps us contextualize your project in our proposal and make the case for the approach we’re presenting. It also helps you make the case for this work to other stakeholders by demonstrating its connection to larger internal and/or programmatic ambitions.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • Before you reach out to any agencies, take time with your wider team to reflect on what’s driving this project, why your current brand or website isn’t working for you, and what you’re hoping a new one will do. It can be tempting to start listing out specific details like features on a new site, but trust us when we say it’s a better use of your time at this point to focus primarily, though not exclusively, on organizational goals—even if they’re vague.
  • When you’re reviewing proposals, be on the lookout for alignment with your expressed goals. In our opinion, it’s a great marker that an agency understands the broader context of the project.

Ingredient #2: Working Rhythms

Next, we’ll want to know what you’re expecting a partnership to look like. A slightly corny question we ask to get at this when we’re chatting with organizations is “What are you looking for in a partner?” It typically takes folks by surprise—maybe because it sounds more like an eHarmony question than one about a creative project—but since brand and design work is highly collaborative, understanding your expectations goes a long way in beginning to build a relationship of trust.

Answers to this question shed light on how our relationship will play out over the course of the project and allow us to dig a bit deeper into the dynamics of a potential partnership. By gaining an understanding of your project team, key decision-makers, and deliberation styles, we can start to gauge how long different phases of the project might take and how involved in creative deliberations your team will be—this will be important for determining the scope of our work with you. And like your goals, this information helps us contextualize details about our process, outlining one that best fits your working style.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • Think about what you’re looking for in a partner as you begin to have conversations with agencies. Do you need a partner who takes a strong lead to move the project along quickly? Or are you looking for more collaboration and patience because you know your team is quite deliberative when it comes to making decisions? In any case, knowing this in advance will help you get a sense for which agencies would be the best fit.
  • Establish a project team with defined roles and a process for making decisions. This should include key decision-makers and anyone else at your organization who needs to be consulted about this work. Not only will this help us tailor our process to your unique situation; it also gives you a great question to ask potential partners—do they have experience working in a context similar to yours?

Ingredient #3: Project Process

The project process pages are the meat of any proposal (and you thought I forgot about the food metaphor!) This is the part of the proposal where things start taking shape; where we take what we’ve learned about your goals and working style and adjust our process to best set the project up for success. And while we have a pretty refined process for brand, design, and digital projects, no one engagement is the same. So, knowing that your organization might need ample time to deliver feedback on a new logo, for example, allows us to build additional rounds of revision into the design phase of the project.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • Try to focus your attention on process as you speak with different agencies and make sure you have time to ask questions about it. An agency is always happy to talk to you about their unique approach, and while we can never tell you exactly what project success will look like, we can tell you how we’ll get you there.
  • Despite the fact that proposals look like quite official and formal documents, none of the information within them is set in stone. A proposal should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one, so if you feel as though parts of a suggested process won’t work for you, speak up! An agency should be happy to either incorporate changes or explain their thinking to you.

Ingredient #4: Scope of Work & Budget

Who else agrees I’ve left the best part for last?! No one? Hm…how strange. Not.

It’s no secret that one of the most important (and for agencies, challenging) aspects of a proposal are the scope of our work and the budget. The reality is that when it comes to scope—the clearly defined boundaries of your project—agencies never know exactly what we’ll be creating until we actually start the work. That means that when we put together proposals, we have to rely on past experience with similar projects to understand what makes the most sense to prioritize.

That’s not to say, however, that we can’t make a proposal in cases where the scope is unclear. In fact, in those cases, we’ll propose a Strategic Discovery Engagement as a first step toward clarifying goals and more clearly outlining the details of future work.

A project’s proposed scope is intrinsically connected to its budget because, well, how can we know how much something costs if we don’t have a decent sense of what it’s going to include? Budget is a design consideration like anything else, so being upfront about your expectations and limitations helps us adjust our process to meet your needs. Candid conversations about budget also help ensure that the number we put in front of you in our estimate is in line with expectations.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • If there are any specific elements you want your project to include—a robust analytics assessment, for example—tell agencies about them so we can make sure we’re not missing anything as we think through the scope. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to tell us if your priorities are unclear. Good agencies should have an approach for tackling such situations and can develop a proposal that articulates how they’ll help you define goals and priorities.
  • Research the costs of brand and design work as you start to think about your budget, then be transparent with agencies about that number as soon as you start talking with them. If you don’t have a budget, giving us a sense of your expectations still helps agencies avoid delivering an unrealistic estimate in our proposal.
  • Ask questions! Like I mentioned above, we’re happy to justify or clarify different items or make adjustments if necessary, especially with something as important as the budget.

Summing Up

Long story short, it can take a lot of information-gathering for agencies to feel prepared enough to develop a proposal. Like a chef needs access to certain ingredients to make a dish worthy of a 5-star Yelp review, agencies need an understanding of your organization’s unique context to craft a proposal that makes an impact. Using your top-level goals, working rhythms, process, scope, and budget as our guiding lights, agencies can begin to add specificity to your project needs and outline an approach that sets our potential project up for success.

Alright, it’s finally time to get those tacos! Just think how much better they’ll taste now that you’re fully equipped to distinguish between good proposals and great proposals—or, if you’ll indulge me one last time, Guy Fieri proposals and Julia Child proposals.

Why Branding & Design Agencies Should Ask Why

We have a lot of clients who come to us with clearly defined priorities for their branding and design projects. Often they’ve identified their problems and the solutions—they’re looking for a partner to simply execute their vision. We think as an agency, we sell our clients short if we take all of their priorities as gospel. In fact, our process is designed to first ask Why, not How, we’ll deliver the goods.

You know what they say about assuming…

One of the most important roles we can play as strategic partners is to identify and politely probe at our clients’ assumptions. We want to make sure that we’re fully understanding our clients’ problems and needs before we all agree on solutions. My worst fear (OK there are worse ones if I’m honest) is establishing a strategy based a faulty hunch and then realizing half-way through the project that we’ve made a poor decision, wasting time and money.

To make this more tangible, here’s how these assumptions/push-back typically plays out:

Client: We’ve heard from our constituents that they struggle to find our offices [Problem]. A priority for our new website is an interactive map that shows every one of our offices [Solution based on Assumptions].

Now, we’re confident that we can make a great interactive map. But are we absolutely sure that the interactive map is a solution to this client’s challenge?

This is a perfect opportunity to dissect the problem and identify questions we need answers to. Perhaps we should ask who can’t find the offices? How are they searching for them? What information are they finding and not finding?

Probing assumptions at the beginning of a project almost invariably confirms the need to speak directly with the people who will use your website, interact with your designs, or read your messages. There are countless examples of user research providing completely unexpected and critical insight for projects. By asking questions that shed light on our information gaps related to our audiences, we’re able to prioritize learning about their needs and perspective.

So short of employing the somewhat reductive 5 Whys Method (which we still dig in the right setting), how do we structure engagements to focus on the right questions, get answers, and not move at a glacial pace?

5 whys method of asking questions
The 5 Whys Method, in all its inquisitive glory.

Putting Inquiry into Practice

In a nutshell, as we begin the Discovery phase of a project, our team focuses our energy on identifying all of our information gaps and any assumptions. From there, we group these questions thematically into areas of inquiry. Then we try to capture these areas of inquiries in 3-5 specific and concise Key Discovery Questions that we’ll present to our clients and use to guide our research activities.

To make this slightly less abstract, I’ll use a (very silly) example:

The Society for the Promotion of Nontoxic Spoons, (SPNS) partners with us to design a new website. They tell us one of their primary goals is to create a more user-friendly knowledge hub that will drive traffic to their plethora of thought leadership on spoons. They tell us the current knowledge hub is difficult to navigate and search.

First, we begin by listing all of the questions we have about SPNS, their audiences, their thought leadership, and their current website. From a long list, we’re able to focus our areas of inquiry on several Key Discovery Questions:

  • Who is currently reading your thought leadership?
  • Are these your target audiences?
  • What information do your target audiences need and how do they need it delivered?

After sharing and refining our list of Key Discovery Questions with SPNS, we design a set of sub-questions that we’ll ask over the course of our research to gain deeper insight. Then we establish which research activities will help us get answers to these questions. To stick with our ridiculous example:

  • Who’s currently reading your thought leadership? → What can analytics tell us about their behavior? (Analytics Review)
  • Are these your target audiences?→ What do you hope to achieve with each audience? What specific actions do you want each audience to take on your website? How do these actions serve your broader mission? (Staff Survey & Workshop)
  • What information do your target audiences need and how do they need it delivered? → Why and how do users find their way to the website, and the knowledge hub specifically? How do they prefer to consume information? (User Research)

I’d love to go into the details of our research intake process here, but it’s probably best to save that for a future insight. Regardless, once we’ve finished our intake, it’s time to make sense of our findings in order to present them in a way that establishes clear recommendations/priorities for executing future work. For digital projects, like PHI or Surdna Foundation, these recommendations often take the shape of business requirements and a project roadmap. Similarly, for brand strategy projects, we present a brand assessment and project roadmap. In both cases, our Key Discovery Questions serve as both a framework for structuring our findings and recommendations and provide a strong foundation from which to launch a project.

Some of our research findings in a brand assessment.

Summing Up

Exhausted yet? It’s a lot of inquiry. It might be easier to just build the interactive map or the knowledge hub. But the question-asking pays off when we have a ton of data and insights to back up our conclusions. We’re able to set priorities and measurable goals for the project based on a broader perspective on our client’s challenges and their audience’s needs. And perhaps most importantly, we establish an ethos for the rest of the project around testing assumptions and exploring ideas that will serve all of us as we navigate decision-making. With a little luck, our partners will be on board with the idea of continuing to test our work as we move into the execution phases with message testing, user-research, and prototyping.

I sense another article coming…

How Collaboration Makes us Better Designers

The concept of the solitary creative genius is a myth. When I first began as a designer, I felt like my designs had to be complete before I could show them to anyone. I think this vulnerability stems from a feeling that we as designers have to think through every element before we can call a design complete. As a result, it can be tempting to withdraw—to fully embrace the solitary designer stereotype—and assume the problems we’re facing are uniquely our own. But here’s the thing: usually another person on your team has dealt with similar challenges, and a collaborative design process is the best way to learn from their experience.

It can be nerve-wracking, vulnerable, and challenging at times, but getting out of our own heads and incorporating collaboration into our design process can make us all better designers. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that designing collaboratively means putting your egos aside to make something that transcends the sum of its creators. Here are six techniques from Constructive’s design practice that you can use to be a more collaborative, and hopefully a better designer:

1. Start a Conversation

I spend most of my days independently thinking through interaction concepts and visual executions with prototypes, wires, sketches (lots of sketches), and of course .jpgs, .pdfs and some .sketch files. But the computer can be one of the worst tools for problem-solving because we start to think more based on what the tool can do, not what we’d like to accomplish. So it’s critical to step away from your screen and talk through the work with another person (or two…or three!) to make sure your ideas and intentions are coming through in your designs and that they make sense to people. When I get to a place where I feel comfortable that most chips have landed in approximately the right places, I usually first reach out to my fellow designers to get quick initial reactions, advice on how to elevate the work, and general tips on what’s working and what’s not.

2. Embrace Internal Reviews

We always review internally as a team before presenting our design work to a client, spending a good amount of time discussing things both big and small. This talking through a design system with a team of designers is an invaluable way to add expert perspectives to your thinking. What’s working? What’s an outlier? How can we can extend the design system? Usually after we talk through a problem, I get reassurance of how to go forward because I know how other people have interacted with the prototype. It’s easy to justify a system’s flaws in your head when you’re the only person who’s seen the design, so it’s critical to get a second or third or fifth opinion on design so we can make certain the system works and is helpful for everyone.

internal design collaboration review
Live shot from one of our internal reviews.

It’s also good practice to test your ideas in presentation mode before having a formal client presentation. What sort of language am I using to describe the design? Is it intuitive enough or do I have to explain my rationale in order for someone to understand the intention? If the latter is true, it’s a good indication that I might need to work through the design to get it to a place where it can exist without me explaining how the user should interact with it.

3. Incorporate Prototype Testing

A prototype can be almost anything—a piece of paper, an interactive InVision board, a card sorting sitemap, or a fully-coded interactive experience that can be used to test how a typical user engages with a design. When I’m uncertain about an assumption I have about a design, it helps to do some informal user testing both with our agency’s entire team—both designers and non-designers. This testing with members of your team is a really helpful exercise for thinking through basic user experience patterns because everyone brings a unique understanding of web accessibility standards and how to improve usability. For example, when we were creating The Air Quality Life Index, a website with a complex data visualization tool, I did several rounds of user-testing with colleagues early on in the process of developing the information architecture before doing an additional round with target audience members. As a result, I was able to streamline controls and make sure there was a solid understanding of how things functioned from our team before asking external people who had no understanding of the product for their feedback.

4. Schedule Weekly Design Huddles

In addition to our focused internal project reviews, we also have weekly design huddles, or stand ups,  that allow us to get aligned on what everyone is working on and give us the chance to have a focused conversation on trends, processes, and inspiration. It’s important to come together as a group like this because it creates a forum for bringing up issues and opportunities that we’re experiencing as individual designers.

design team huddle
A Constructive design huddle in action!


5. Share Inspiration

Browsing the internet is primarily an individualized activity—unless of course you’re forcing everyone around you to watch videos of thirsty pets. We try to share and keep an organized record of all the things we see online that inspire us. We do this by using Slack channels and Dropmark to categorize links to sites we like. This is an important practice because it makes browsing the internet a more collaborative activity. It allows us to understand each other’s reference points. And since we’re continuously learning from new experiences, it’s important to share what speaks to us in creative, professional or personal ways. It’s also a good way to gauge what your competitors are doing and what techniques or trends are shifting the industry to new and exciting places. By keeping an inspiration library, we can easily reference industry-specific sites in project strategic briefs. It also helps us align as a design practice through having a shared knowledge base about our creative inspiration and aspirations.

Screenshot of Dropmark - collaboration web service we use to organize sites we dig.
A screenshot of Dropmark – the web service we use to organize websites we dig.

6. Collaborate on Larger Projects

Larger projects demand even more collaboration between designers. Some of our recent team projects have been re-launching our own site and designing the Communication Network’s journal Change Agent. These projects have allowed us to put our egos aside and engage in meaningful conversations about what’s best for the overall project. It has been challenging to give constructive criticism on a colleague’s work, but when something is bothering one person, it’s usually bothering more too. Giving each other feedback forces us to have tough conversations about what we’re trying to convey with our designs and understand if something isn’t as inclusive or accessible as it could be.

Working toward one unified idea also allows us to learn collective processes and knowledge. I didn’t know that much about production work before redoing the Constructive site. So I racked my brains for several months figuring out how to optimize images for the web (see future insight). It was only when the other designers started helping with production that we learned from each other to create a process that worked based off all our shared knowledge. Methodology and process solidify when they happen many times with different people over time.

Final Thoughts

Why am I telling you this? The obvious answer is that any team needs to collaborate to work successfully. That holds a nugget of truth, but the real answer goes much further. No matter your discipline—design, development, content, or strategy—I believe we get better each day as individuals by engaging in challenging conversations with each other. This, in turn, creates a much stronger, more powerful team.

Hopefully, these collaboration techniques from Constructive’s design practice can help you improve your design process, which I’ll summarize with:

  • We all strive to create excellent work that conveys truth and value.
  • Our differences make us stronger together.
  • We’ll never recommend using Helvetica as your brand typeface. (Okay, we didn’t explicitly say that here but it’s still true!)

Some of our Favorite Moments from ComNet18

Let’s go back in time to Monday October, 8th—the Monday before ComNet18. Just as Lexie and Senongo were putting their finishing touches on our pre-conference workshop, the plans for our trip seemed as up in the air as ever. Workers at the Westin San Francisco—the conference venue—were on strike along with thousands of other Marriot-owned hotel workers across the country, citing strenuous and dangerous working conditions, low wages, and other concerns. We didn’t know where we’d be staying, where the conference would be held, and more importantly, whether we’d be asked to sacrifice our values as an agency to cross picket lines.

The good news: We didn’t have to cross any picket lines. The Communications Network team decided to switch venues just a day before things kicked off. Kudos to them for all that last-minute scrambling and what we can only assume were more than a few sleepless nights. You deserve all the applause. 

The better news: Just like years past, we learned a lot, met dozens of interesting people, and left inspired and excited to incorporate some of the ideas we learned into our work. So yes, you guessed it! Here comes another conference takeaway blog post.

A brand’s actions speak just as loud as words.

One of the biggest themes of this year’s conference from our perspective was inclusive, equitable communications and how an organization can be an advocate, ally, and facilitator of the change they seek in the world with their messaging and actions. Case in point? ComNet deciding to move the conference so no one had to cross picket lines. It wasn’t the easy move, but it was the right move and as a brand committed to improving lives through communications, it was the only move. 

As nonprofit brand strategists, it can be challenging to articulate how a brand is a living representation of your organization’s values and how important that brand is to establishing trust between your organization and its audiences. ComNet 18 showcased this idea in action perfectly. Not only did The COmmunications Network totally change venues at the last minute to align with their brand’s values; they also invited one of Unite Here Local 2’s leaders onstage during the final morning of the conference to talk about what the protest meant to her, her family, and her community. Talk about using your brand as a vehicle to share the stories of others!

Storytelling is more than telling stories.

Speaking of stories, “storytelling” has become a buzzword in the nonprofit world over the last few years. And for good reason—sharing the stories of the communities we work with is a great way to illustrate and build empathy for the issues we’re tackling. But storytelling isn’t that simple. The stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them can make or break the way they are interpreted by our audiences.  

Our pre-conference workshop, With All Due Respect, touched on this idea. That while stories can be a powerful tool for change, they can also reinforce biases if they aren’t told carefully. In her portion of our workshop, Lexie discussed the ways in which our brains fill gaps in stories with pre-programmed, implicit biases. To overcome this tendency, we should tell stories that make systems a leading character, explaining the connections between individual challenges and systemic barriers so the audience doesn’t have to rely on their own assumptions to connect the dots.

group of people working in a team on a project
An action shot of some of the lovely folks at our workshop writing explanatory stories.

We dove a bit deeper into the complex facets of storytelling on Thursday morning at What We’re Up Against, the Second Stage presentation led by Shaun Adamec of Adamec Communications and Nat Kendall-Taylor of the Frameworks Institute. They began their discussion with this question: why is it that our messages are so often misinterpreted by our audiences? In other words, what is it that comes between what “you say” as an organization and what “they think” as your audience? The answer is culture. More specifically, it’s a set of pervasive cultural myths that shape our interpretations of various social dynamics and issues. One of these myths is “fatalism,” or the idea that the problems we face are too big and deeply rooted to ever change. Framing our messages in a way that balances the problem with potential solutions is a powerful way to ensure our audiences’ brains don’t default to a fatalistic way of thinking.

man giving a presentation on theater stage at ComNet18

Brand isn’t a bad word anymore.

Ten years ago, it was uncommon and unpopular to talk about branding in the nonprofit sector. The “b” word, as we like to call it, was reserved for the for-profit world. But over the last few years, brand has become much less of a dirty word—in fact, the topic of brand made quite a strong showing throughout this year’s breakout sessions. During one of ComNet’s new Dialogue sessions, the Walton Family Foundation discussed their recent, large-scale brand rollout and the ways in which they used the process as a tool to generate enthusiasm across departments. The room was packed full of folks with engaging questions and comments about the benefits of branding.

Of course this is great news for everyone in the agency world, but it’s also great news for the nonprofit world. Why? Stronger nonprofit brands lead to nonprofits with more focused missions, more devoted teams, and an increased capacity to create impact. We could talk for pages about this idea alone, but since that’s not what you came here for, here’s a link in case you want to learn more about that.

See you next year?

I could go on about ComNet18 for hours. But for the sake of your time and attention, I’ll stop myself here. Actually, one more thing: Lena Waithe and Cecile Richards totally blew our minds with their insights about sharing stories and perspectives that otherwise might go unheard or untold. Can one of you please run for president in 2020? Okay now I’m done. See you next year in Austin!

happy panelists smiling after a presentation
Our happy (and relieved) team after our pre-conference workshop!

Content-Heavy Websites: A Better Design Process

Since the beginning of time (i.e. August 6, 1991), web designers and developers have been working to perfect the process of creating websites. It’s a process that’s never complete because things keep changing in digital design (fortunately for the better!). When it comes to designing for digital, we have a lot of things to take into consideration: planning, architecture, design, development, front-end coding, testing, and deployment. The general process many web design firms use goes something like this:


This approach may work well for certain kinds of projects, but when it comes to large, content-heavy websites with a large number of page types and content types, there is room for improvement. Over the years, a lot has been written about “Content First” approaches to site development (Luke WroblewskiJeffrey ZeldmanGeorgy Cohen), especially in the age of responsive design. These ideas are all well and good, but in the real world, having content developed before initiating the site build isn’t usually realistic. However, we can (and should!) include content in the process sooner and more often than often is the case. This is exactly the kind of thinking that goes into developing content strategy for websites.

Content Development is Hard!

Let’s get this out of the way first: content development is always, always, always the hardest part of a website project. Yet how often do we underestimate the amount of effort it takes to collect, analyze, write and edit good site copy? Never mind getting good images, which are also content but somehow treated separately. Hours spent, from needle-in-the-haystack scrolling through stock photos to hiring photographers and illustrators to create custom imagery.

The main reason people visit our websites is to read our content. Yet, time and again, (especially in the world of nonprofit websites), content treated as a separate thing—handled by the client (often for budgeting reasons), divorced from the design and development. The problem with this approach is that once the visual design work is done, unless a design firm is handling content development as an integrated part of the process, clients are asked to create and/or massage content to fit site designs that expect idealized content.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a little structure is good to help focus our content. Good wireframes and design comps can help give clients an idea of how a new site design will help them frame the discussion and focus their message. But unless a content team is integrated into the process, rarely do the results live up to the promise once designs have been approved and it’s time to get to writing.

The Discontents of Our Content

Over the years, we’ve continuously refined our design and development process to reflect the needs of delivering great content for the nonprofits we work with. And one thing is clear: approaching a website by designing lots of great-looking comps and/or prototypes, building them, and then populating with content can be problematic.

When it comes to designing content-rich nonprofit websites, we can run into serious trouble when real content is integrated into the idealized world of our design comps. Symptoms include content that doesn’t consistently fit the templates, content that exists but has no place to live, content that breaks the visual designs, and so on.

And this problem extends to the development side as well: when final content is delivered after a CMSs is architected, it rarely fits into the neat little boxes we create to support it—or unanticipated content creates problems, forcing the redevelopment of pages or features.

As a result, for many projects, after content is entered, there is a period of fixing where designers and developers spend countless hours working together to get the pages to “work”—tightening up all the loose ends and pushing ever closer to those idyllic design comps the client (and designers) fell in love with. This introduces a painful period of rework into the process that looks like this diagram, and points to a flaw in how we plan and design for the real content.


Process Adjustments

Given all of these issues, it seems clear that what’s needed are “content reality checks” along the way. Because, ultimately, the real content must meet the real designs and decisions need to be made when there are issues. So, as part of our ever-evolving digital process, we’ve added check-ins throughout the design and development process that make it easy for everyone to translate our content strategy into effective designs, saving a lot of time, money, and headaches. It looks something like this:


Two things are different here:

  1. There are periodic check-ins between the content developers, the designers, and the developers. The designers and developers should have access to some of the content plans and the content developers need to have some idea of what is going on with design and development. There is a lot of efficiency to be gained if visual designers, developers, and content developers can work together more.
  2. Deferring Theming (which includes front end coding and its integration with the CMS) until at least some representative content is entered into the CMS allows the front-end coders to make real-life decisions on how pages will render. This also prevents them from having to refactor their front-end code to handle last-minute changes to the site. Additionally, this is a major boon when working on projects with a responsive design component, as the front-end coder can test real-world content on a variety of devices and screen-sizes while they’re coding.

A More Integrated Approach

When greater effort is made to incorporate content strategy and content creation into the website design/development process, teams save significant time and effort—and their results will be a user experiences where content, design, and technology work together in harmony to engage audiences.

What are the Benefits of Internal Branding for Nonprofits?

In a previous insight on the importance of internal branding for nonprofits, I explained that “brands are created from the inside-out.” While it’s essential to drive external branding with a well-designed strategy, it’s also important to use that strategy “to focus your mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and culture.” The shorthand for this concept is called a “living brand,” a well established concept idea in the world of business management for some time. Living brands help build and maintain organizational identity and cohesion, which is especially important in the social impact sector, where success is harder to measure than it is in the bottom-line-driven for-profit world.

Unfortunately, nonprofits engaged in strategic planning and brand strategy work often struggle to translate the volume of valuable documents generated by the process into broader organizational change. There’s a difference between strategic work that signals an organization’s commitment to change and gaining the traction needed to get staff aligned with the ideas and concepts behind the strategy. Fortunately, closing this gap is where internal branding shines.

Branding is about engaging and activating audiences, mostly through design (in the broadest sense of the term). But as is the case when engaging audiences outside your organization, you have to do more for your internal audiences than just communicate what a brand stands for; you have to demonstrate it. By being purposeful about the experiences created for staff, design can help us translate strategy into something tangible and exciting — something that “lives and breathes” for staff and stakeholders alike. In other words, positively influencing how staff view and experience their work requires being both strategic and creative in how you weave the ideas and concepts that are the pillars of your brand into everyday life. It also requires nonprofit leadership that is committed to the brand and what it stands for.

So, if you’re working on strategic nonprofit branding and are considering whether going further than developing the positioning, messaging, and visual identity design to add an internal branding initiative, what will success look like? Here are five benefits of internal branding that underscore its value to nonprofit organizations.

1. Internal branding improves mission focus.

Any nonprofit looking to create significant impact needs to start with a focused mission. Strategic planning and brand strategy are the primary ways to create that focus. Internal branding acts like a catalyst that translates this work into action by making it more accessible and  tangible to a nonprofit’s staff. Through strategic communications, dense brand strategy documents that most people have little time for are turned into designed experiences that engage staff with your core brand ideas—which, in turn, are then projected out to everyone they interact with.

Think of internal branding as a platform that enables your people to embody the core ideas driving your brand and the specific ways in which you deliver value, both to your different audiences and the world at large. Just make sure your internal branding is consistent with the expectations and experiences created by your external branding.

2. Internal branding deepens employees’ connection to the organization.

Work is a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves — especially for people in the social impact sector. By weaving the ideas an organization stands for into the employee experience, you can actually deepen the work-life connection — and make staff feel more connected to the values, attitudes, beliefs your organizations stands for.

The platform for cultivating this connection is a brand strategy that has been developed through an inclusive process. This helps ensure that your brand has buy-in from staff and that they will be more willing to embrace it. It’s also the best way to turn static documents into meaningful brand experiences. By being thoughtful and creative about how you integrate core ideas into your organizational culture, your brand becomes a deeper part of that culture — and something staff are empowered (and will want) to contribute to.

3. Internal branding breaks down organizational silos.

Silos are damaging in any organization, but particularly in nonprofits, where partnerships and collaboration are critical to success. When people don’t understand what their colleagues do or how their work fits together, initiatives tend to become disjointed and less effective. In the worst-case scenario, distrust and resentment set in.

Internal branding — both the process of developing it and the results it can produce — is an effective way to “un-silo.” The key is to articulate how change happens — both in terms of your organization’s operations and its aspirations. Clarifying the different roles your organization plays in its ecosystem helps staff contextualize their contributions to the work and makes clear how everyone’s efforts work together to advance the mission.  

4. Internal branding improves hiring and retention.

For any nonprofit, finding the right people — people who contribute to the desired mix of skills, values, and personalities — is a never-ending challenge. Of course, people who feel passionate about an organization’s work and are happy in their roles are more likely to be, and stay, committed to the organization — and to share that enthusiasm with others. This creates a magnetic force that keeps teams together for longer, increasing continuity, cohesion, and performance.

Also known as “employer branding,” internal branding helps hiring and retention by reinforcing your brand value among the people most likely to feel passionate about it, your staff. And when your organization’s core values are woven into its culture in a way that makes “living the brand” second nature, it becomes much easier to identify and attract people who will fit right in — and stay with you longer.

5. Internal branding strengthens organizational leadership.

Everyone knows that strong organizations need strong leaders to succeed. But to succeed, leaders need a strong brand from and through which they can draw inspiration and channel their efforts. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two that, when embraced and approached thoughtfully, is mutually reinforcing.

As noted above, it’s essential you develop your brand from the bottom-up through an inclusive process. It’s equally important that leadership proactively drive that brand-building effort. Articulating and helping to build a brand that your people believe in will earn you the trust and confidence of your staff, not to mention valuable political capital. By being visibly engaged in the process (and reinforcing it), you signal to staff that the organization’s brand is a priority, that living it is everyone’s responsibility, and that you applaud and support their commitment to being good brand stewards.

Adding it All Up

These five benefits are, of course, only some of what makes internal branding so valuable for nonprofits. Achieving the results, however, requires a significant, ongoing commitment to make brand building a core part of a nonprofit’s strategy. In a future article, I’ll go into the keys to an effective internal branding process that generates traction.


A version of this article originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest as a part of the Cause-Driven Design®series

Write Your Way to a Better Website

We talk to a lot of folks at nonprofits who aren’t happy with their organization’s website. Usually, the site is failing to connect with audiences and accurately reflect who they are. Oh, and in almost all cases, it looks dated and stale. As a result, organizations sometimes ask us to “refresh” or “reskin” their website. In other words, they want the design of their site updated so it looks more modern, but want the existing structure, navigation, and technology to remain in place. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting your site to look better, asking for a design refresh like this can be a band-aid fix for much deeper problems.

Every website is built on four foundations: brand, design, technology, and content. If your site isn’t performing, you need to invest in a redesign that takes all four of these elements into account—assessing how each serves your users’ needs and impacts their experience of your website. Why? Because on average, users only spend 10-20 seconds on a web page before they leave, and according to a 2006 study, they can develop an opinion of your organization after as little as 50 milliseconds of being on your site. That means it needs to make a good impression on all fronts quickly, or else you risk losing potential advocates. If your website has been “refreshed” to look modern, but users still can’t find the information they’re looking for, they’re not likely to stay interested for long.

“Okay,” you’re thinking, “that’s all well and good, but what if I don’t have the budget for such a big overhaul right now?”

Start with something you know. Content is one of the most important elements of a good website, and if you work for a nonprofit, chances are you and the people around you are adept communicators. So why not rewrite the content on your website? We like to call it content design—and we offer it as a unique service—because the way you write, format, and structure the words on your is site should have as much intention behind it as visual design. This quote by designer Jeffrey Zeldman says it all: “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

In fact, if you know your organization wants to more fully redesign its website in the future, getting your hands dirty with content now will give you a good understanding of what’s currently on your site, and in what ways it might be falling short. So if your site’s visual design isn’t compelling enough to make a quick impression, and you don’t currently have the budget for a full redesign, try putting your communications skills to work by redesigning your website’s content. Here’s how:

Before you start…

First off, you’ll need access to and familiarity with your website’s content management system (CMS). If you’re unfamiliar, most CMS’s offer tutorials for making changes and open source platforms like WordPress and Drupal have plenty of educational resources.

Assuming you’re good to go there, you’ll want to start prioritizing your content. Rewriting the content of your website is no small feat, especially if you’re dealing with a large, information-heavy website. Start with the pages that users visit the most: your homepage, your about page, etc. If your organization tracks analytics, even better! You can check which of your pages are visited most and add those to the high-priority list.

You’ll also want to gather a team to help rewrite the content. Try to choose staff who work in different areas of your organization, with varying areas of expertise so the content is as accurate as possible. Just make sure that one person is tasked with being the final eyes on content, and is responsible for entering content into the CMS. That way, you can better ensure that the content voice and style across pages stays consistent. We typically recommend using a spreadsheet like this one to keep track of the process. 

Know Your Audiences

A clear understanding of audiences is the key to determining how you should write and present the content on your site. Who are you writing it for? Keep in mind that this will likely vary page by page.

When your team is prioritizing the pages to rewrite, it can be helpful to note which of your audiences will be frequenting each page. If you’re an organization that provides emergency health services, for example, a ‘Get Help Now’ page would likely be most commonly visited by clients. Think about their content needs when they visit this page of your site. What do they need to know? What content is most important to them?

When we work with clients, we conduct surveys and interviews to learn about an organization’s core audiences. From there, we extensively research those audiences in order to build out in-depth user personas to guide the information architecture, content strategy and visual design of a site. Here’s an example persona:

Scannable Content vs. Long-Form Content

Have you ever stumbled upon a webpage with large blocks of dense text and thought “Wow, this looks SO interesting! I can’t wait to read it all!” If you’re like us, probably not—you’ve likely found it daunting!

One of the simplest ways you can make your website more effective is by breaking up large, dense blocks of text whenever possible. In other words, stop writing so much! This holds especially true for more general landing pages, like your homepage and about page. These pages should be easy to scan, so users can quickly understand who you are, and then learn more by digging deeper into your site.

One of our favorite books on this topic一appropriately named Content Design一details the ways in which the human brain reads and processes text. Spoiler alert: we’re not really reading every word. In reality, people only read about 20-28% of a page’s content online. We look for patterns and words we understand in order to comprehend content as quickly as possible. You can nerd out more about how people read online here, but suffice to say that the less words you can use to inform a reader, the better they’ll retain information and the more interested they’ll remain in exploring your site further.

When users take the time to explore your site deeper than overview pages, you can and should display long-form content, like published research or program descriptions. Such content doesn’t lend itself well to being shortened, so don’t stress yourself out thinking all the content on your site needs to be scannable. While design is a key asset in making long-form content like this more digestible, there are also some content design techniquesyou can adopt to maximize engagement with this more complex content.

The main takeaway here is that by making the more general pages of your site quicker and easier to read, you increase the likelihood that users will be more interested in reading your longer-form content, learning more about your organization in the process.

Formatting For The Win

Rewriting and trimming down your content will only get you so far. Without proper formatting, the text on your site might still be difficult to parse through. By establishing typographic hierarchies, you can establish an order of importance for your content with different text sizes, colors, and/or emphasis. This makes it easier for readers to quickly skim and digest your content. Plus, when text is properly formatted, it encourages users to read more, and engage more deeply with the rest of your site.

Don’t believe us? Here’s an example that makes the power of formatting pretty clear. Which content block is easier to digest? For more tips on writing and formatting for the web, check out parts one and two of our complete guide.

Via Kaboom Design

Incorporate Hyperlinks

Once you’ve revised and reformatted your content, you’ll want to make sure users can find all that great information you worked so hard to redesign. By incorporating hyperlinks into the content of various pages of your site, you can encourage users to explore more of your work in different areas of your site. For example, if someone is reading your programs page, they might also be interested in reading some client stories, annual reports, or learning about ways they can volunteer. Have you noticed us using hyperlinks throughout this article?

To Conclude

By now, you should have all the tools you need to start redesigning the content of your website. Of course, content alone won’t fix all your website woes. Brand, design, and technology are equally important elements of a great website. But addressing content concerns will help make the information on your site more digestible, and increase engagement with your audiences as a result. Plus, the more you work on your content now, the better off you’ll be when you secure the budget to begin a full website redesign project.

Happy writing…or should I say, content designing!

Incorporating Concept Boards into Our Design Process: What We’ve Learned

Designers often talk about “design intent”, or the overall visual structure of what we want to design based on our intentions at the beginning of the project. During design projects, ommunicating our design intent to clients can sometimes be tough—it’s often abstract and relies on a few creative leaps to understand. This is especially true when partnering with clients who have varying degrees of experience with design teams. We realized that to more clearly communicate with clients, we’d have to build better methods of showcasing our visual and interactive ideas before jumping right into design comps, full layouts, or refined brand elements. That’s where concept boards come in.

Why We Started Using Concept Boards

We started using concept boards about a year ago as a way to clarify our thinking to clients. Each board is organized around a specific theme. Those themes relate to the strategic goals of the organization. For example, an organization may be trying to tell a story about health care in the developing world. The two concept boards may then be called Clean Initiatives, and Bright Future. The visual ideas on each board would be based on that two or three-word theme or title.


Doing it this way helps us to make some strong differentiating choices early on, so the client has a real sense of which visual direction they can go. It might be something clean and minimal, or something warm and lively. Those choices are ones we explore with our clients, using the concept boards as the focus of those discussions. We found that having two of them provided enough of a differentiator that clients could make some clear choices about which one felt ‘right’ for their digital brand. For larger brand initiatives, we might use more concept boards as a way to focus our client’s attention on a wider set of choices. 

What We Learned

After using concept boards for the better part of a year, we’ve come to a few key conclusions.

First, it is critically important to explain how the concept board process will benefit clients. As part of our initial conversations with a new client, we go over how the boards work and why we find them useful. Where necessary, we include them in our scope of work as a separate deliverable. When speaking with a client about our design process and methodology, we can pair these concept boards with finished products in case studies, to show how our approach works. For organizations that may have a tighter budget or time constraints, we pitch concept boards as a very effective way to communicate design without a longer investigative process.

Second, you need to dedicate time to selecting and editing images that relate to your client’s brand and area of expertise. We start with quick investigations into interface and typography and pair them with images and other visual artifacts. Those elements, combined with the organization’s brand colors, logo, or key photos, can help tell a much more effective story. Essentially, what we show and what we don’t show can really make or break the conversation.

Third, how you deliver the concept boards matters. Many of our clients are not in New York or would struggle to schedule office visits, so we need to do a lot of things virtually. Our first attempt at concept boards used large jpegs or PDFs that were difficult to view over screen share or on laptops. Those weren’t really effective. The format wasn’t one that a lot of clients were comfortable navigating, and the files got really large. For our subsequent attempts, we started to look at digital tools which could help facilitate that delivery. Pinterest was one we looked at briefly, mostly because of their in-browser sharing tools. We also looked at InVision Boards and decided to keep using it. Their tools worked with a lot of our other design workflows,  and features like public link sharing and commenting made the client communication bit much easier.

When reviewing concept boards in client meetings we found it helpful to do a few things to set up the conversation. First, we need to explain what concept boards are (and what they aren’t). We tell clients that these visual design conversations are directional, and not completed designs. Creating a false sense of a solution before we had actually started design would hurt us later on as we explored ideas in more detail.

Clients often like to mix and match elements they find in each concept board. That might mean those clear choices we defined early on got slightly muted. Ultimately, however, it means our clients get more involved early in the design process, and we get feedback on what is (and isn’t) going to work for their brand and their project.

To Conclude…

Concept boards clarify our design intent in a number of ways. Starting with client conversations to explain our process, we clarify concept boards as a design and communications tool. While creating the boards, we focus attention on our client’s needs and their overall brand goals by selecting appropriate images, patterns, and sample user interface concepts. When presenting the concept boards, we clearly explain how they’re used and what feedback we are looking for from the client.

Since everyone needs time to digest and think about these more visual presentations, we use InVision or other digital platforms to share the concept boards with the client. This way, they can look at them independently and speak privately with their team. Overall, concept boards are a very effective way for us to communicate our design intent, and we are very happy with the results!

Why Brand Strategy is So Important To Website Design

Imagine you hear about a really interesting social impact organization that sounds like it’s doing important work in an area you have a lot of interest in. You’re immediately curious and want to know more. What’s one of the first things you do? Head right to their website.

You might be on your phone at a conference, working at your desk, or at home surfing on your tablet. You might go directly to their homepage, or you might be clicking a link someone shared that goes to a page deep within their website. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, the second you arrive, you’re presented with a snapshot of the organization.

And in this instant, you start forming an opinion. Is this organization interesting? Do they reflect your values? Are they credible? Effective? Trustworthy? Relevant?

Decisions the organization made months or years ago to introduce you to its brand at this moment—from the budget they set for the website, to the partner they worked with, to their content, design, and technology choices—are now significantly influencing what you’ll do next. Will you explore further, perhaps sign up for a newsletter, and hopefully visit again? Or will you leave without viewing another page, likely never to return?

Of course, the difference between a website that helps build a meaningful relationship with someone and one that turns them off for good isn’t as cut-and-dried as our hypothetical scenario. But it’s not an overstatement to say that websites play a pivotal role in how effectively nonprofits are engaging audiences and turning that engagement into action.

Understanding Brand Value

So, why do people choose to engage with social impact brands? And what role does a website play in creating this engagement?

We engage with nonprofits because they give us an opportunity to put our values into action. Purpose-driven organizations provide us with ways to help realize a world more like the one we’d like to live in. The nature of this relationship—and why it matters to us—is based on the kind of engagement we’re looking for.

“Casual” supporters such as donors, volunteers, and brand advocates are typically attracted by a nonprofit’s intangible and aspirational value—subjective things like the kind of world we’d like to live in, our emotions, and how we’d like others to see us. For these audiences, imagery, storytelling, and campaigns bring them closer to issues they identify with  and are usually the most important part of their experience with the brand.

More engaged audiences, such as issue area experts, practitioners, and policymakers are also influenced by intangible qualities. Taking it a step further, though, they also want to know the tangible ways social impact organizations can help them be more effective in their own work. For these audiences, access to things like knowledge resources, tools, and networks is usually the most important part of the brand experience. 

Of course, whatever a person’s specific needs and interests, it’s the job of a nonprofit’s website to create an experience that bridges the divide between interest and action. And if it is to be an authentic and effective expression of a nonprofit’s brand, a website must represent an organization and respond to the needs of its audience as well as we would if we were representing the organization in person.

Designing Digital Brand Experiences

When an organization creates (or redesigns) its website, there’s an understandable focus on things like making sure it’s “visually appealing,” “well-organized,” “mobile-friendly,” and other fundamentals of good design. These are all important things, but they only scratch the surface of reasons why people visit our websites. Design’s role in translating different types of brand value goes further than these basic principles of effective design.

If social change brands are to build the kinds of relationships they want with audiences—and if they are to have the kind of impact they envision—we must approach the design process with the goal to provide different people with the kinds of value they seek in a nonprofit and its mission. The website is simply a conduit for this exchange.

Using brand strategy as the lens through which we view the websites we create, website process is the best way to ensure we accomplish this goal. Because if successful design (and by this I mean design’s true definition) is all about context, then brand strategy is by far the best way to give everyone who contributes to the process the insight they need to create a website that helps social impact organizations achieve their goals online and in the real world.

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