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Graphic Design for the Greater Good

I’m always disappointed when a noteworthy arts institution or nonprofit has an uninspired or cluttered website. I lose sleep wondering how this happens. After 25 years designing for mission-driven organizations, I’ve concluded that it comes down to two causes: An underestimation of the value of good design, and hiring the wrong designer.

The Value of Good Design

The web is brimming with worthy organizations vying for patrons and donations– and they’re doing it in ever more visually compelling ways. Today, an organization whose website is easy to navigate and tells a compelling visual story will win the donations, sell the tickets, recruit the members.

According to a recent Nielsen Norman study, users instantly trust an organization whose website is clean, organized and professionally designed – and they don't trust those whose sites are disorganized and cluttered. Considering that online giving is expected to account for nearly all donations soon, good web design has become a critical aspect of an organization's development goals.

The tremendous potential for online giving and lead generation can’t be realized if visitors don't trust an organization, can’t easily donate or sign up– or worse, can't find a reason to care.

It can be tempting for Arts & Culture and Nonprofit groups to forego good web design, but this is a costly mistake.

It can be tempting for Arts & Culture and Nonprofit groups to forego good web design in the interest of saving money, but this is a short-sighted and costly mistake. On the surface, it can be easy to assume that design provides little value beyond window dressing. But good web design is based on a results-driven methodology that’s a blend of information architecture, strategy, organization, SEO, and visual story telling. When it’s done right, good design can turn a site into a donation engine and valuable lead generator.

Choosing the Right Designer

So, now that you understand the value of good web design, how do you find a qualified web design firm? Achieving a balance of visuals, story, strategy, and code requires a rare blend of skills that can be hard to find in web design firms.

Many firms focus only on code and not enough on organization, emotion, and user experience. Others focus only on design, while the code is unstable and limited in functionality. How do you find a firm that's a perfect mix?

Here are some things nonprofits should consider when searching for the right web design firm:

  • Does the firm have experience designing for organizations like yours? If so, ask to see several examples. Ask for relevant references, too– and call them. If the firm works primarily with commercial businesses who sell widgets or engage mostly in B-to-B sales, you might want to keep looking; developers who work mostly in the commercial space often lack the nuance required to appeal effectively in the nonprofit space.

  • Does the firm’s work emote anything? Does the firm's portfolio of web work make you feel something? Is it inviting? Compelling? Inspired? Does the firm's work quickly communicate the mission of their clietns through tone and design? How easy is it to locate the donate page? To purchase tickets? To volunteer?

  • Will you be a small fish in a big pond? Because non-profit website budgets can be 40-75% lower than their commercial counterparts, a large firm will likely place your project (and its non-commercial budget) low on its priority list. You might find your project relegated to interns, or threaded in between commercial projects in the production schedule.

  • What is the firm’s process? Does the firm you’re considering include Information Strategy and Architecture in their process? It's a critical step for developing a site that delivers results against your goals. It allows clients and developers to envision the flow and functionality of your site before colors, photos and fonts ever come into play.

  • What is the average turn-around time for a project like yours?
    Of course, not all nonprofit web projects are the same, but most fall into a few tiers of complexity and budget. A very large project shouldn't take more than 4-6 months to complete, and likewise, a simpler site probably can’t be done properly in less than 8 weeks. Ask your developer to estimate how long your project will take to complete. A timeline that seems long could indicate that the firm may have inflated overhead and expenses– a symptom of commercial firms accustomed to bloated commerical budgets. On the other hand, a timeline that seems too short probably means you won’t receive the critical Information Strategy and Architecture that should be a part of your project.

  • Will your site design hold up over time?
    Examine how a firm’s site designs hold up – or fall apart – after a couple of years of content changes and CMS updates. A great web designer knows how to build a foolproof design that can accommodate content changes.

  • Will the project team include SEO specialists?
    As search engines have grown more sophisticated, so have the requirements for a high performing website. If you’re working with a firm whose architects, designers, and developers don’t know their way around SEO, you will likely end up with a website that looks good, but that no one will see.

  • Can the firm demonstrate ROI for projects like yours? Ask for examples of how long it has taken their other nonprofit clients to earn 100% return on their investment, either through online donations, ticket sales, or leads. Would you feel good about reporting such a number to your own CFO?

  • Does the firm belong to a professional design organization? Is their work recognized by a jury of peers? This isn’t everything, but it can help you separate the truly skilled designers from the firms that possess only technical skills. A web development firm with membership in and recognition from organizations like AIGA and the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts is likely more qualified to provide a user-friendly, emotive, and effective design for your project.

  • Does the firm seem like someone you’d invite for coffee? You’ll work with these people closely for months, and probably for the life of your website. You need to know you can trust them with one of your most important revenue building channels. Their genuine interest in your mission, their enthusiasm, and their communication skills can have a heavy influence on how efficiently and effectively your project comes together. If you can imagine yourself enjoying a latte together, you’ll probably have a good experience creating a website together, too.

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