Tell Your Story (And If Necessary Use Words)


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 the “full beard” noted in the graphic above, which made me feel wise and benevolent. This comment made me realize that what I was flaunting was, in truth, the “Homeless Beard” which 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, “threatening homeless 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 next I want to point out how well that message was supported visually. I have a background in visual and performing arts and his 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-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 other nonprofit websites and stumbled across one that was simply dizzying. They 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 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 that nothing is 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 the key 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. So if your nonprofit was 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 that I needed to think about how I can dress so my friends will 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, this mass email, or that mailer looks, as long as the information is there.”

From this perspective, yes, focusing on appearance feels utterly trivial.

I suspect that this is because when we spend the majority of our time thinking of what a product should look like – it does seem a little trivial. But what if instead 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 more?”

Design to be known, not 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 could only hope others would like. But there was no way to be sure.

This 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 and received by others once 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 that none of these sites have, themselves, gone viral. They fail their own test. The reason for this is that 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 will find we 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 the first day of freshman year: authenticity.

Dressing to be known amounts to using your clothing as a means of expressing who you are beneath. It isn’t giving people what you think they want. You have the control because you are expressing your authentic self. It attracts like-minded individuals and earns the respect of the rest because it is confidently itself.

Likewise, if we have done the work to define our story and our purpose in a way that is meant to inspire others to join our cause, the next step is representing that story visually in a way that speaks to that purpose. Not to put a pretty veneer on a noble cause, but to present that cause in such a way that others understand it better.

Design to communicate feeling
Just this weekend I 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 had last year.


The point is that neither of these is better than the other. The goal is to communicate how YOU feel about the cause or event visually. 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 deepens the understanding of what your organization represents.

This doesn’t mean that 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, catch updates, and have a place to point others to make donations. He did what I would suggest anyone do that feels they have no knack for design. He found a friend that would donate his time to making the site feel the way he wanted thefundraiser 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 blog page that is largely dominated by colorful photos and a few relatable, lighthearted but 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 achieved, and of hope.

The design lifts the story.

The story lifts the cause.

So my advice to you: just like that first, awkward day of high school, decide who you are and dress accordingly.

Joshua is bit of a Swiss army knife around Aplos. More like one of those generic, off-brand multitools that really only has two or three tools that are actually of use, but darn if they're not the best at what they do. So when he's not writing code for the company website or giving a copyedit to the eblasts, he's home working on his novel, spending time with his wife and daughters, or out cycling up by the Millerton Lake. (What's that? My bio isn't long enough? Ok, I got this...) He also likes cheese, prefers Pixel to iPhone, hates click-bate article titles, is a strong believer in the Oxford Comma, thinks Rouge One was better than The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi was better than both. (Boom, nailed it.)

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