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Web Design for the Greater Good

I’m always a little heart broken when I notice a noteworthy arts institution or nonprofit has an uninspired, cluttered website. I lose sleep wondering how this happens. After 28 years designing for mission-driven organizations, I’ve concluded that it comes down to two causes: An underestimation of the value of good design, or 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.

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

The potential for online giving and lead generation can’t be realized if visitors don't trust an organization, or worse, can't find a reason to care. It can be tempting for nonprofits to forego professional 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 professional design provides little value beyond window dressing. But good web design is based on a results-driven methodology that’s a sophisticated blend of strategy, information design, 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

How do you find a qualified web designer? 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.

Here are are 10 qualifications non-profits should consider when searching for a web design firm:

1. 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; web firms that work mostly in the commercial space often lack the nuance required to appeal effectively in the nonprofit space.

2. 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?

3. Will you be a small fish in a big pond? Because non-profit website budgets can be a good deal lower than their commercial counterparts, a commercial typical agency might place your nonprofit project low on its priority list. You might find your project relegated to the "B" team, or your launch date might be pushed back in lieu of higher paying deadlines.

4. What is the firm’s process? Does the agency include Strategy in their web design process? Strategy is a critical step for buiding a site that delivers measurable results toward your goals. It allows you to envision the flow and functionality of your site before colors, photos and fonts ever come into play.

5. What is the average turn-around time?
Of course, not all nonprofit web projects are the same, but on average, most fall into a few tiers of complexity and budget. An average, simpler nonprofit site should take about 3-4 months. A very large nonprofit webiste with deep functionality and integrations could take up to 10-12 months to complete. Ask your developer to estimate how long your project will take to complete. A timeline that seems eccessive could be a sign of agency bloat, mismanagement, or high rates. On the other hand, a timeline that seems too short probably means you won’t receive the critical discovery and strategy that should be a part of your project.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Can the firm demonstrate ROI for projects like yours? Ask for examples of how long it has taken their other nonprofit clients to earn a return on their investment. Would you feel good reporting such a number to your CFO?

9. 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 firm whose web desgin work has been recognized by organizations like the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts and AIGA is likely more qualified to provide a user-friendly, emotive, and effective design for your project.

10. Does the firm seem like someone you’d invite for coffee? You’ll work with this group of 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 sources. Their genuine 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 latte together, you’ll probably have a good experience creating a website together, too.

Do you need help with web design or branding for your mission-driven organization? Send us a note, we'd love to chat!

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