10 posts categorized "author-Matt Schwartz"

Designing Brand Experiences for Social Impact

January 19, 2017

Brand-experienceFocus and clarity are critical if brands hope to stand out in our message-saturated world. And for social change organizations, the challenge is even greater. When the message is about a better future, somewhere down the road, mission-driven brands must figure out ways to create a sense of urgency among their supporters to act now. Often, this means explaining concepts and ideas that can be difficult for people to understand. And even when the lift is big, organizations have to figure out ways to demonstrate tangible results and progress if they hope to sustain our engagement.

Fortunately, changes over the last few decades have provided brand designers with both an environment and the insights necessary to meet these challenges. The rise of networked technologies and digital communications, the maturation of the design field, and a recent awakening within many nonprofits about the value of their brand have combined to provide new opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the social change sector.

The challenge, then, is to understand the environment in which social change brands exist and apply this understanding to design solutions that offer the best chance to maximize your organization's impact.

The Rise of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector

It's no secret that the concept of brand has had a rough go of it in the nonprofit sector. Fortunately, more nonprofits are getting past their skepticism (if not outright resistance) to the idea and have been re-examining their relationship to "the B-word." By making smart adaptations to traditional business-centric principles, organizations like the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Communications Network are helping to change the way people in the nonprofit sector think about the role of brand.

This new way of thinking, spelled out in Nathalie Laider-Kylander's and Julia Shephard Stenzel’s book The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity, is summarized in the book's introduction by Open Society Foundations president Christopher Stone: "A brand is a powerful expression of an organization's mission and value that can help engineer collaborations and partnerships that better enable it to fulfill its mission and deepen impact, and [is] a strategic asset essential to the success of the organization itself."

CCD_Fig1

Understood this way, a social change organization's brand is far more than just compelling messages and visuals. It's the ideas, expertise, relationships, resources, and experiences embedded in the organization's DNA, and as such it shapes organizational culture by bringing people together around a shared vision to create shared value.

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Design Vendors Are Destroying Nonprofit Organizations!

June 30, 2016

Stop_figureven·dor

/ˈvendər,ˈvenˌdôr’/

Noun

  • a person or company offering something for sale, especially a trader in the street.
  • a person or company whose principal product lines are office supplies and equipment.

Synonyms: retailer, seller, dealer, trader, purveyor, storekeeper, shopkeeper, merchant, salesperson, supplier, peddler, hawker; scalper, huckster, traffic

__________

Over the last sixteen years I've learned that if there's a word folks in the nonprofit community love to use to describe design firms, it's vendor. Maybe it's me, but every time I hear it used in conversation or read it in an RFP, the "V-word" is accompanied by the soothing sound of nails on a chalkboard. I don't believe I'm being thin-skinned here, but applying vendor to a design firm like Constructive is, well, a bit insulting.

"What's the big deal?" you might be thinking. "Why should I care?"

Both good questions. The short answer is that if you work for a nonprofit and are tasked with researching and choosing a design firm to lead your organization through a website redesign or other design project, using the word vendor is symptomatic of a bigger problem. It suggests a mindset that misunderstands what design is. That shortchanges the value of good design and the value a social change organization can get from working with a design firm. And that damages the kind of relationship any nonprofit would want to build when working with one.

Sounds serious! But if I'm overstating the case, I'm only overstating it slightly.

To understand what's so troubling about putting the "vendor" label on design firms, it's helpful to deconstruct the term itself. Take a look again at the definition of vendor and its synonyms at the top of this article. Pretty uninspiring, right? By definition, a vendor doesn't provide insight or strategic value. Vendors have customers, not clients. (Does any nonprofit really want to be treated by their design firm as a "customer"?!). At best, they are trying to sell you something — usually a commoditized product or service. At worst, the thing they are trying to sell you is a lemon.

Would anyone in their right mind want a vendor to do something for them as important as design?! Well, it depends on how you view design.

So why is vendor used so frequently in the nonprofit sector to describe the design firms that play such a critical role in translating organizational strategy into tangible experiences? I don't believe it’s because anyone is intentionally minimizing the value that design firms bring to the table. (If anything, the case for strategic communications in the sector is on the rise.) To me, it's a subtle sign of a more widespread misunderstanding that can lead to missed opportunity — one that's often exacerbated by design firms themselves and the organizations that hire them.

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How to Translate Brand Strategy Into an Effective Website

April 14, 2016

Effective-website-designIn my last article, I noted that the best place to start when developing a website is with a clear brand strategy. It is what provides the shared understanding needed to unite the big ideas and day-to-day details of a nonprofit's activities into a cohesive online experience. It is the glue that ensures a site's design, content, and code work together in harmony to express the entirety of an organization's mission, strategy, activities, and impact to a range of audiences.

No small task, especially when talking about a process that typically spans months and involves many participants.

A Complex, Multidisciplinary Process

The process of creating a website is, by its nature, collaborative and multidisciplinary. It involves many contributors — each with a different area of interest, expertise, and professional vocabulary — and typically spans months and countless decisions, which means there's no shortage of opportunities for miscommunication and stumbles. Over the years, I've learned that these can be minimized (they're almost never eliminated, trust me!) by a framework that emphasizes collaboration and establishes clear goals for the team, in a language everyone can understand.

That is why brand strategy is such an effective unifying force. In a medium that calls for collaboration across such a wide range of stakeholders, it is the one thing that everyone can (or should) agree on, support, and apply to the area they are responsible for.

Sounds great in theory, but what, you're probably thinking, does it look like in practice?

Every website has four major components: Brand, Content, Technology, and Design. The most effective sites are those that get all four working together like members of a band — each playing their part, and each complementing the work of the others. When executed well, the results are much like the experience of hearing a great song: harmonious and uplifting, with a clear point of view you can easily relate to.

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The One Strategy You Need to Design an Effective Website

March 02, 2016

Bigstock-Web-Design-For many organizations, a website is the biggest window into their work and values, helping their supporters and other audiences understand what the organization believes in and stands for, what it does, and why its work matters. In many cases, it also is a critical component of the day-to-day operations behind those efforts, whether as a publishing platform for knowledge sharing and thought leadership, or as a direct link to the organization's events management and CRM systems.

Nonprofits, educational institutions, and businesses whose work is dedicated to advancing positive social or environmental change must not only make sure their websites meet all the criteria by which the success of websites in general are measured (i.e., usability, visual design, and compelling content), their websites also must paint a much bigger picture of the organization — elevating its issue(s), educating audiences, and generating action while clearly communicating everything in the context of the organization's mission and values. No surprise, then, that at Constructive we believe that as purposeful as organizations tend to be about developing the strategies and actions needed to drive change, they should be equally focused on the decisions that determine whether their websites contribute to those goals.

Unfortunately, many organizations with incredibly inspiring missions too often end up with a website that falls flat and leaves their audiences more confused than committed, more exhausted than energized.

Why is this?

The Discontent of Our Disconnect

When organizations set out to redesign a website, the problems in need of solving on every organization's list inevitably include things like: "confusing; not user friendly," "content and resources hard to find," "not engaging or visually appealing," "difficult to update," and, most telling of all, "fails to clearly communicate our mission and work."

It is baffling how so many organizations can go through a lengthy website design engagement and still wind up with something that fails not only in website-specific areas like usability, visual design, and technology, but also in terms of the most important strategic goal of all — clearly communicating an organization's mission.

The reason, I believe, is actually quite simple.

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7 Ways to Strengthen Your Communications in 2016 (And Why They’ll Work!)

December 17, 2015

Npo_commsAs we prepare to close the books on 2015, it's a good time to reflect on the year we've had, make resolutions for the year ahead, and think creatively about how we can achieve our goals.

For foundations and nonprofit organizations, this often means shoring up plans and budgets in support of organizational strategies. And for those responsible for their organization's communications (or who take an active interest in the organization's communication strategy), it's also an opportunity to apply a critical eye to sharpening the effectiveness of those communications in terms of advancing the organization's goals.

Depending on the state of your nonprofit's brand, you may be looking to embark on a large-scale initiative like a rebranding or website redesign. Or you may be targeting ways to optimize, strengthen, and extend the materials you already have in place. Whatever the case, to help you increase the impact of your nonprofit's communications in the year ahead (and beyond), here are seven of the most common, high-value areas the organizations I meet with are interested in exploring.

Brand Strategy

If your organization has never committed itself to a brand strategy engagement, it's hard for me to understate the value of a branding process for surfacing insights, sharpening your communications focus, and strengthening your case for support (whatever form that takes). Similarly, if you have a brand strategy that is a few years old, here are some things you can do to make sure it still conveys who you are, what you do, and why what you do matters.

Listen to your audience. If your organization works on complex issues that are hard to unpack or lend themselves to jargon-laden language, reaching out and listening to members of your audience provides invaluable feedback and a much-needed perspective. An effective research interview process designed to explore core strategic questions is an incredibly effective way to evaluate how well-aligned your organization and its goals are with the expectations of your audience. It's also a great way to gain insights into how your target audience uses language to frame the issues you all care about — ensuring that your communications strategy is focused on your audience, speaks to it, and rings true.

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How Nonprofit Branding Strengthens Impact: Part 3

November 16, 2015

Brand_under_constructionYou probably noticed that it's been a while since the last Cause-Driven Design® article. My apologies! While it is my goal to have a new article for this column every six to eight weeks, in July I decided to rebrand our firm to coincide with its sponsorship of an annual nonprofit conference. Going from a blank slate to a new website in three months meant that, unfortunately, along with my social life, the column had to be put temporarily on hold.

So, after fifteen years, Matthew Schwartz Design Studio is no more. Today, we are Constructive. And the experience of rebranding my own firm has only served to increase my focus on what we do, who we do it for, and why we do it — increased clarity that I hope to put to good use here in our Cause-Driven Design conversations.

Picking up where we left off in July on how branding can help your organization strengthen its social impact, let's now examine how branding theory and process are made tangible.

Improving Nonprofit Brand Alignment

As I noted in an earlier article, maximizing a brand's potential requires "a strategic framework for thinking about, creating, and managing the different ways the brand is understood and expressed." This starts with an organization having a strong understanding of itself and its relationship to the individuals, organizations, and networks that comprise its ecosystem.

Nonprofits typically understand and define themselves through a mission statement and theory of change, using both as a foundation for organizational strategy. Branding is the way this understanding is reinforced and communicated. It both informs and articulates this foundation by establishing conceptual clarity and by creating greater intentionality in the experiences the brand delivers — whether online, in print, or in person.

At Constructive, it's our mission to bridge the gap between branding theory and practice by aligning an organization's ideas, actions, and culture with its use of design, messaging, and technology. We help translate concepts and dynamics into a clear narrative and engaging experiences that reinforce a nonprofit's value. And, like much of the work nonprofits do, this process calls for a systems-based approach.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

In order to create engaging brand experiences, designers, copy writers, and technologists must apply their skills to the difficult job of translating a complex issue and an organization's efforts to address it into something that resonates with a public that, in most cases, has only a passing knowledge of the issue. To accomplish this, we apply synthetic thinking, uniting the conceptual and tangible elements of a nonprofit's brand to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts — and whose individual parts also function effectively on their own, in any context.

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How Nonprofit Branding Strengthens Impact: Part 2

July 09, 2015

Brand-PowerIn my previous article, I introduced some thinking on the nature of a nonprofit's brand, three characteristics of a compelling nonprofit brand experience, and the six key components of every brand. The big takeaway (hopefully) was that a brand is a combination of psychological concepts and tangible assets that together embody the vision, values, and mission of a nonprofit.

In Part 2 of this three-part mini-series on nonprofit branding, I'll take a closer look at the ways in which an effective brand creates organizational value for nonprofits, as well as how design firms and nonprofits collaborate to translate organizational strategy into brand experiences that reflect a nonprofit’s values and help advance its mission.

A New Approach to Leveraging Social Impact

Seeking new ways to increase their impact, leading nonprofits increasingly are taking a broader view of the strategic role their brands can play in driving long-term social change. In this new view, a nonprofit's brand is critical to organizational strategy — making that strategy tangible through a system of designed experiences that express the ideas and values the organization represents.

Such a view marks a significant departure from the communications-centric model of nonprofit branding in which a brand exists primarily as a marketing tool for managing perceptions. In the new paradigm, a brand must embody critical elements such as social innovation and design thinking (as exemplified by the work of design firms such as IDEO). This view also embraces the ability of a brand to shape conversations, strengthen relationships, and increase an organization’s effectiveness. This line of thinking is best articulated in the work of Harvard professor Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Christopher Stone — and detailed in their book The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity.

Among its many insights The Brand IDEA suggests a new role for "brand" within the nonprofit organization — a role in which it is both driven by, and acts as a primary driver of, organizational strategy, exerting influence and commanding mind-share, both internally and externally, to create a virtuous cycle that strengthens and reinforces itself with each success.

Visualized, what Kylander and Stone title the "Role of Brand Cycle" in a nonprofit looks something like this:

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How Nonprofit Branding Strengthens Impact: Part 1

May 13, 2015

Brand-PowerIt used to be that nonprofits shied away from prioritizing their brands. After fifteen years of running MSDS, however, I've noticed that nonprofits are becoming more aware of the link between a brand's strategic value and organizational impact.

One reason for this shift, I suspect, is that competition — for funding, people's attention, human capital — has gotten stiffer. And nowhere is that more apparent than online. When a nonprofit's website is underwhelming, it is not only out there for the world to see, it also sends the wrong message and undercuts the organization's mission.

That said, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what brands and branding are. In this article and the one that follows, I'd like to provide some context regarding what a brand is and how it is experienced, then offer insights into how to think more strategically about the brand experiences your organization creates.

What Is a Brand?

Branding expert Marty Neumeier famously defines brand as "Who you are, what you do, and why you matter." For nonprofits, this translates to your brand being a combination of your mission, values, strategy, relationships, impact — and their value to the world. It's a gut feeling about the promises you make and your reputation for keeping (or breaking) them.

As Neumeier says: "It's not what you say you are, it's what they say you are."

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8 Keys to a Successful Client/Design Firm Relationship

March 19, 2015

Casablanca-Blaine-RenaultIn my last post, I suggested that the shared interests of nonprofits and design firms make us ideal collaborative partners. One of our readers, Emily, added a valuable perspective, commenting that trust was an essential element of the client/design firm relationship because while those who work at design firms and at nonprofits may have shared goals and values, we often have different experiences and vocabularies.

Emily's comment made me think about how, in my experience, communication often is the biggest impediment to a productive client/design firm relationship. It also underscored the importance of discussing the dynamics of the client/design firm relationship before exploring the nuances of the design process itself.

In other words, what do clients and design firms want and expect from each other? And what can we do to ensure that those needs and expectations are met?

Process Makes Perfect

For clients in any consultative relationship, it can be unsettling to work on an important project while navigating unfamiliar territory. You've got a lot invested professionally, financially, and emotionally. You have a sense of where you'd like to go, but only a basic understanding of how to get there. And to get there, you have to depend on people you only recently met.

This dynamic highlights a truism: when it comes to design, process is far more important than results. Process enables us to more consistently create effective solutions, embrace the unknown, and blend a wide range of skills and disciplines (especially if you accept Herbert Simon's definition of "design" I shared) in my last post. Structured effectively, process turns design into an inclusive endeavor by inviting participants from both sides of the client/design firm divide to set expectations, establish benchmarks, and work toward a common goal.

At my firm, process is as collaborative as the work we produce. We are continuously evaluating it, getting feedback from clients, discussing it internally, and evolving how we work – all with the goal of creating the best possible experience and the best possible results. Given the complexities and competing interests inherent in collaborative design, that is no small task!

The Convergence of Business and Design

Used to be that design and business professionals operated in silos, with designers brought in at the end of a process to execute other people's ideas. Over the last twenty years or so, however, "design" has become an integral part of the business lexicon. Clients expect to be part of the process, and designers want (and often expect) a seat at the table when strategy is being developed. This new, more collaborative "co-design" model offers great advantages. It can also bring its fair share of challenges, as individuals with shared goals but different experiences, vocabularies, and expectations are asked to work together to design solutions to complex problems.

An effective process with clearly defined phases can help strengthen this collaboration. Process, however, is only one part of the equation; for it to work, everyone must respect and be mindful of everyone else's goals and priorities.

Rules of Engagement

To help foster this kind of open, collaborative dynamic, we at Constructive have made the following principles the cornerstones of our design process. We live by them, and we look to build relationships with clients that encourage them to do the same.

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How Nonprofits & Design Firms Collaborate to Change the World

March 14, 2015

Collaborating-GroupLike siblings separated at birth, nonprofits and design firms are connected by a common bond: to understand the world around us and to create new ways to make it better, more rewarding, and more meaningful. We do this, usually, not for ourselves, but for the satisfaction we get from helping others.

Nonprofits bring passion, dedication, and expertise to the often complex problems they are trying to solve. Design firms bring a similar passion, dedication, and expertise to the work of designing experiences. While the specifics of what we do and the way we do it may be different, at our cores nonprofits and design firms share similar values and a commitment to the greater good.

What makes being part of a firm that works with nonprofits so rewarding is that every day I have the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from experts in different fields who are hard at work addressing some of the world's greatest challenges. It's like earning a post-graduate degree in "How the World Works." Even better, I get to take this continuous learning and apply the skills I've acquired over the course of my career to collaborate on meaningful work that helps nonprofits make a difference.

For those with whom we collaborate, a firm like ours offers an equally deep reservoir of expertise — expertise that can help them turn their missions, research, and programs into brand experiences that connect people to big ideas — and each other. We also bring a fresh set of eyes and ears, providing a valuable outside perspective on how effectively an organization's messaging resonates with its target audiences.

A Shared Mission & Vision

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that the key to a successful partnership between a client and a design firm is that both parties must engage in the spirit of active listening and share a commitment to both learn from, and educate, each other. Whether we're working with nonprofit clients who are well versed in the principles of design or relative novices, the best partnerships hinge on whether, and how much, everyone is committed to establishing a relationship based on trust, respect, and a shared vision. You simply cannot produce effective work without it. What's also needed is a commitment to always doing what's best for the work — which means a willingness to challenge the ideas of others, to have your own ideas challenged, and to check assumptions and preconceived notions at the door.

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