How to Manage Your Graphic Designer to Get Great Design for Your Nonprofit

Nothing is as compelling as managing the design, of a printed piece or web look for your organization, service, or campaign. It’s easy to get swept away, envisioning the impact it will have on your target audiences. And the creative adventure of bringing that piece, or web design, to life, is usually a welcome change from strategic and administrative work.

However, the excitement often fades when you dive into the process of finding, hiring, and managing a designer or design team. Let’s be honest. It’s challenging to maintain a designer’s creativity into a design take that meets your organization’s needs can be challenging. You want to allow the designer to channel her creative genius into something powerful. On the other hand, you want to ensure that she translates your marketing concept into something that speaks to your audiences and motivates advocacy, donations, registration, inquiries, or whatever call to action you need.

I’ve run up against this challenging time and again, first as an in-house marketing director in several publishing houses, and at the Foundation Center, and most recently as the marketing firm point person for nonprofit and foundation clients. Over the years, I’ve devised a few strategies that ensure that the design process goes smoothly. And they work.

I advise you to take these five steps. When you do, you’ll generate the design results that make the most significant impact for your organization:

Step One: Take your time to find the RIGHT designer.

NOTE: Take this step immediately, not when you’re in desperate need of a designer.

I have, over the years, developed a stable of about seven good designers. They are all the RIGHT designers, but not one of them is the right designer for every single design project.

The question is, how do you find your stable of RIGHT designers? You’re likely to need relationships with three or four designers. The number depends on the volume of design work, the range of looks you’re trying to achieve, and the diversity of materials and online projects to be designed. My situation is unique. Because I work with many clients with diverse needs, I require more of a range of design skills and price points than would any single nonprofit or foundation.

Here’s how to find your designers:

Step Two: Gather favorite design samples. Keep a folder of favorites, printed materials you identify as good design in the same range as your organization’s image or the image you want to establish. Bookmark website designs in the same way.

Make sure that nonprofits and foundations produce some of your picks.

Step Three: Compile your list of prospective designers. Contact communications colleagues (make sure you like their design sensibility first, judging by their products) and ask for designer recommendations. Get necessary information on pricing, work style, and client base.

Contact the communications director at those organizations who produced the print materials or websites you’ve tagged. Start by contacting the folks at organizations closest to yours in focus and budget. It’s most likely, but not a definite, that their designers are the best fit.

Step Four: Hone your list to the top three or four by interviewing ten to twelve designers. Contact the top ten to twelve before you have a design project ready to go. At that point, you won’t want to waste a minute in getting design estimates in.

Here are some of the questions I ask prospective designers:

  • How long have you been designing? With this firm/working freelance?
  • Have you worked with nonprofit organizations? If so, who are some of your clients? How did you get into design work for nonprofits?
  • Do you design for print and online media?
  • Could you show me a few samples of what you consider to be your most robust design projects? What is the average size (dollar-wise) of your design projects?
  • Take me through the design process for a brochure? How about an annual report?
  • Do you have any references I can call?
  • Will you personally be designing our work, and be my point person? (for non-solo designers)
  • These are the quirks you’ll face in planning for our nonprofit (explain any, from the Executive Director thinking she’s a designer–and putting her stamp on every piece–to a boss who always changes his mind entirely on what a part should feature when he sees a design concept)
  • While reviewing past work is a critical consideration, be sure you also spend some time talking to their clients to find out more about their design process, working styles, and the results of the project.

Step Five: Write a creative brief the moment you get a whiff of a pending design job A creative brief is the most effective way to get everyone (your colleagues and the design team) started with a shared understanding of what needs to accomplish. An effective creative brief gives the designer direction and provides your organization with benchmarks against which to evaluate design concepts. Spending the time to complete a thorough, original summary will save you a lot of time upfront, and ensure that you get the design product you envisioned. In two pages at most, your submission should:

  • Define the project and its objectives
  • List, characterize and prioritize audiences
  • Present Unique Selling Proposition(USP), one sentence about what makes the organization, program or service unique
  • List top features and facts about the program, service or organization, and its value to audiences
  • Detail tone or image
  • Specify budget and time frame
  • Outline internal review and approval process

These five steps will lead you to strong relationships with the right designers. As a result, I guarantee that your print and online design work will be more useful than ever in engaging and spurring recognition from your target audiences. Start right now by diving into the stacks in your office. It’s likely that, when you do, you’ll find some great design samples that will lead you to more productive (and maybe even less expensive) graphic design for your organization.

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