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Great 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 arts & culture/nonprofits(and some insomnia-fueled fodder) I’ve concluded that it comes down to two causes: An underestimation of the value of good design, and hiring the wrong designer/developer.

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 don't trust those whose sites are disorganized and cluttered. Considering that online giving is expected to account for nearly all donations by 2020, 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 organization, SEO best practices, 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 Developer

So, now that you understand the value of good web design, how do you go about finding a qualified developer? Achieving a balance of design, story, and solid code requires a rare blend of skills that can be hard to find in web design firms. Many firms focus too much on code and not enough on organization, emotion, and design. 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 you should consider in searching for the right web design firm for your Nonprofit or Arts & Culture website:

  • 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 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, Arts & Culture space.

  • Does the firm’s work emote anything?
    Gut check: Does the firm's portfolio of web work make you feel something? Is it inviting? Compelling? Inspired? Can you understand the organization’s mission quickly from the visuals and tone in the design? How easy is it to locate the donate page? To purchase tickets? To volunteer?
A large firm will likely place your project (and its noncommercial budget) low on its priority list.
  • Will you be a small fish in a big pond?
    Many large commercial firms just aren’t equipped or accustomed to working nimbly and efficiently. And because non-profit site 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. However, smaller firms with dedicated teams can typically provide a faster turn-around, more personal service, and more thoughtful solutions.
  • 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. If the firm does not include this step in their process, you might want to move on. A site without Information Strategy and Architecture is like a house with no foundation– it will fall apart.
  • What is the average turn around time for a project like yours?
    Of course, not all nonprofit/arts & culture 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. A timeline that seems long could indicate that the firm may be bloated in staff, overhead and budget– a symptom of a firm that is accustomed to working in the corporate world, not yours. A timeline that seems 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?
    If you’re searching for a developer, you’ve likely read about Content Management Systems. There are lots of them out there, from clunky WordPress and Drupal-based systems to customized systems built from scratch. But regardless of the CMS, you’ll want to consider 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 Google Certified SEO specialists be working on your project?
    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 and designers 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 the firm how long it has taken their other nonprofit clients to earn 100% return on their investment, either through online donations, ticket sales, or leads. Is this ROI number one which you would be proud to report 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 an emotive and thoughtful design for your project.

  • Does the firm seem like someone you’d invite over for dinner?
    Okay, this one’s a little out there. But think about it: You’ll work with these people closely for months of development and probably for the life of your website. You’ll trust them with a critical component of your development goals. Their interest in your mission, their enthusiasm and communication skills can have a heavy influence on how efficiently and effectively your project comes together. If you can imagine yourself enjoying a good bowl of pho together, you’ll probably have a more pleasant experience creating a website together, too.

Teresa Kiplinger

About Teresa

Teresa Kiplinger is Principal and Creative Director at FORM, a digital-first creative services firm for Arts & Culture and Nonprofits. Her work has been recognized by organizations including AIGA, AIVA, AAF and Communication Arts. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Kent State University (92), and served on Kent's inaugural Advisory Board for the Visual Communication Design program.

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