Miss the beginning of the series? Go to Gnarly Growth Part 1: A Creative Approach To A Traditional Fundraiser.
I was recently told by a close friend that my beard started to make me look untrustworthy. It was a serious blow to my personal sense of beard-related pride. I had been under the impression that I was sporting a full beard that made me feel wise and benevolent. This comment made me realize that I was flaunting a wild beard that apparently makes me seem threatening.
As a member of Our Beards of Hope, a fundraiser helping the Obwald family adopt and bring home their little girl from China, a threatening beard was not the visual story I was going for. The upside to this tale is that the visual story of Our Beards of Hope doesn’t stop with my own menacing visage.
We’ve already looked at how the Obwalds told the impactful story behind their fundraiser, but now I want to point out how well that message was supported visually. I have a background in visual and performing arts, and Dave’s graphic design caught my eye as doing one thing particularly well: communicating a feeling.
When I first laid eyes on the website Dave Obwald had put together for Our Beards of Hope, I got it. I felt like I had just entered a party filled with family and friends. It made me feel that the beard growth I was about to embark on wouldn’t be a hard slog through a desert of whiskers, but an occasion to laugh about how ridiculous we could be together.
The landing page was simply arranged. A banner held a rugged beard behind large, loopy text. It was berserk with a touch of whimsy. The feel was rounded out with a warm family photo. The information about the fundraiser was clearly and minimally laid out to communicate necessary information without overwhelming the senses. There was a simple message supported by graphics that conveyed a sense of fun as well as heart.
To explore the other end of the spectrum, I began looking at a few different nonprofit websites and stumbled across one that was simply dizzying. The designer had made the common mistake of attempting to make everything important. Every piece of information about the organization was right there on the landing page: “Donate $1 and feed three children today!” “Join our mailing list!” “Carwash this Thursday!” “Crab feed for our members!” “Dennis is turning 60!” Each phrase was bolder and brighter than the last. It was like the Vegas strip as viewed through a kaleidoscope.
Viewing the site was like watching a beginning actor attempt Shakespeare. (I deal with this a lot.) In an attempt at clarity, they try to make everything sound important. The downside is this: when you make everything sound important, the result is nothing comes across as important. Young actors want desperately to focus on how to say each line and word, but they forget to think about who they are talking to and why they are speaking in the first place. This website failed to keep the main thing the main thing. (Notice I didn’t say “the only thing.”)
When this nonprofit gave equal focus to the lines, “Donate $1 and feed three children today!” and “Carwash this Thursday!” the power of their mission was diluted, mixed with soap, and wiped all over the dingy hood of a ’73 Ford Pinto.
While I could write yet another “How to” on graphic design, I think we can do better. I want to focus on why visuals matter and what the key is to successfully sharing your visual story.
Dressing For A Higher Purpose
Your visual story is how you present your organization to the world using design, photography, and video. It’s possible to communicate anything from trustworthiness to excitement to ineptitude—all without using a single word. If your nonprofit were a person, then your visual story would be how that person is dressed.
This is where things can get sticky. If someone were to tell me I needed to think about how to dress so my friends would like me more, I’d think that “someone” was a jerk. I’d think, “If they are my friends, they won’t care how I dress (assuming I occasionally wash my clothes).”
The same can be said about how we approach the visual elements of representing our organization. “If they believe in my cause, then they won’t care how my website or mass email look as long as the information is there.”
From this perspective, focusing on appearance feels silly. I suspect that is because when we spend the majority of our time thinking about what a product should look like, it can seem a little trivial. But what if we first look at why it exists and then let its visual representation express that deeper purpose? What if instead of asking, “How can I dress so my friends will like me more?” we phrased it this way: “How can I dress so my friends will know me better?”
Design To Be Known Rather Than Popular
At some point in early adult life (probably in high school), we all ran into a choice: I could dress to be popular or dress to be known. Dressing to be popular amounted to creating an image of yourself that you hoped others would like. But there was no way to be sure. That is because it is impossible to create something that is popular. The word popular doesn’t describe elements of a product or person. It describes the way those things are perceived by others after it is created. For nonprofits, the word for this is viral.
Take a look online and you will find no shortage of websites claiming they can make your video, photo, or website go viral. You’ll also notice none of these sites have gone viral themselves. They fail their own test. Any type of media that has gone viral did so because it broke a mold. It was a surprise, and replicating a surprise kills its shock value. If we check all of the boxes required to be popular or go viral, we may make a product that is pristine but miserably unoriginal.
The one ingredient that can allow a video or cause to go viral is the same ingredient that could have made your wardrobe a success on the first day of freshman year: authenticity.
Dressing to be known amounts to using your clothing as a means of expressing who you are inside. It isn’t giving people what you think they want. You have the control because you are expressing your authentic self. You then attract like-minded individuals and earn the respect of others because you are confidently yourself.
Likewise, if you have done the work to define your story and purpose in a way that is meant to inspire others to join your cause, the next step is representing that story visually in a way that speaks to that purpose. The visuals aren’t intended to put a pretty veneer on a noble cause but rather to present that cause in such a way that others understand it better.
Design To Communicate Feeling
I recently did a “Walk to Defeat ALS.” I was inspired to help the cause and was later invited to this specific event. If I were putting together the invitation to this walk, I would first define two things:
- Why I am passionate about helping the cause?
- Based on that and that alone, what feeling do I want the invitation to communicate about the event?
I could focus on the gravity of ALS and how difficult it is to live with by using a respectful, formal layout to communicate my reverence. Or I could illustrate the walk as a fun afternoon where we would have a jolly good time eating delicious food, talking, laughing, and raising some money at the same time. Graphically, this would result in something less reverent, with brighter colors or a photo of the fun we had last year.
Neither of these is better than the other. The goal is to communicate visually how you feel about the cause or event. When you do this, you attract people who feel the same way; you let them know what to expect. When done well, it goes one step further in communicating your belief and passion, and it deepens the understanding of what your organization represents.
This doesn’t mean you need to become a part-time graphic designer or videographer. When Dave set out to put together the blog for Our Beards of Hope, he simply wanted to create a rallying point for everyone to hear their story, get updates, and have a place to point others to make donations. For anyone who feels they have no knack for design, he did what I would suggest to anyone. He found a friend who would donate his time to making the site feel the way he wanted the fundraiser to feel.
One sentence: “I just want it to be fun.” That’s all Dave said he wanted out of his website. The result was a site that is largely dominated by colorful photos and a few relatable, lighthearted yet sincere videos. The photos illustrate a group of fresh young men progressively transforming into a pack of old prospectors. All this is intermingled with stories that share a feeling: of Aunna, of the adoption process, of interesting bumps along the way, of fun benchmarks that were achieved, and of hope.
The design lifts the story. The story lifts the cause.
Just like that awkward first day of high school, decide who you are and dress accordingly.
Up Next: Part 4
Now that you know how to communicate your cause visually, learn how to continue building relationships and grow a following in Part 4 of this series.