Designing (or not) a non-profit brochure

Reader Mark Scholmann asks:

“I support a local charity group that manufactures wheelchairs for kids living in war-torn and less-fortunate locations. I’ve always been struck by their gaudy brochure enticing new donations to their cause and wondered if its ‘eye-catching’ design is really effective, or would it be better if it were more streamlined and less loud? That is, does this blast of the senses actually get more attention than a more ‘designed’ brochure?

“I wondered if you wanted to use this example as one of your discussion topics. Of course, any redesign and suggestions could ultimately help a very worthwhile group in their endeavour to help others.

Wheelchairs for Kids is located here on planet Earth.”

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Great question, great issue. How designed is too designed? Wheelchairs for Kids is a bootstrap operation with a beautiful mission, sustained by unpaid volunteers. It’s clear that no professional attention has been paid to its brochure design. Would a more polished look add to or detract from the soul of its message?

(By more polished, I don’t mean slick. I mean more intentionally presented, with visible thought given to a theme, a style, typography, photography, and all the rest.)

This is not easy to discern. On one hand, there’s a matter of credibility. Does its kitchen-table look give you confidence that a real, well-run charity is handling your contribution truthfully and well? On the other hand, might a more-professionally designed piece broadcast a sense of wastefulness? After all, we want our money spent sending wheelchairs to children, not designers to dinner.

I’m not an authority here. My closest charity-design experience is the logotype I made for Twinomujuni orphanage in Kabale, Uganda:

Twinomujuni (pronounced: twin-ohm-zhu-nee) is a similarly bootstrapped operation that cares for orphaned children, of which in Africa there is no shortage. My goal was to give them an unpolished look that captured, in the colors and earthy style of Africa, the exuberance and hopeful resilience of youth.

Although I’d loved to have developed the whole project — Web site, newsletter, all that — I knew that I didn’t have time and that everything else would remain undesigned, so the logotype would have to do the heavy lifting. My goal was to make it strong and vivid enough to bear that weight.

So readers, what is the role of design in these cases?

Let me suggest this: that the most authentic route is to forget “message” and “target audience” and other marketing-speak. Charity is not about putting on a show (“cheap paper, can’t look fancy”) or twisting arms. Rather, your work should portray, visually and verbally, in the purest, most elemental way, who you are. This is a job for the team, not just the designer. If you can actually make that visible, results should follow.

Talk to me.

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This article has also been published at LinkedIn.