Designing for not-for-profit projects on a shoestring

I have just returned from a Melbourne International design week event titled the Business of Design for Not-For-Profits hosted by the crew at Gozer. A discussion I feel passionate about, certainly it was great to see the topic included in the design week program.  I must say however I came away a little frustrated that many audience questions weren't addressed as well as they may have been.

Many not-for-profit and social enterprise projects know they need good design. They know that a strong visual identity markets itself, saving precious advertising budgets. They also know they need to get their message out there and compete with all the other visual noise, while presenting a professional image that is worthy of support by both stakeholders and the wider community.

The hot question is not why do you need good design, but how do you go about affording it? Most NFP have few resources for start up costs.  They have limited marketing budgets and community grant jurisdictions typically won't cover marketing expenses. What do you need to consider and communicate to your designer when working on a budget? There are some tricks worth discussing to help you navigate your way.  Indeed some of these ideas are of value to any start up or small business working with small budgets for design and marketing.

Here are some tips and tricks to get going with the design you need for your NFP project on little or no budget;

1. Find a designer that has experience working with small budgets.

There are lots of advantages to establishing a long term relationship with a good local designer who you can begin a conversation with about your needs. Although it may be tempting to have a go your self at designing a logo or using a cheap online option like 'fiver', an experienced designer will save you time and money by setting you up with flexible design that can be used across multiple platforms and applications. It may be more costly in the beginning but will save you dollars in the long term. Don't be afraid to ask the designer what experience they have working with low budgets and if they offer a reduced rate for not-for-profit projects.

Stay away from showy studios that are only interested in winning design awards and having their work printed on the most expensive paper stock so it looks awesome - these guys are not for you. Find a designer that has personal values attuned to your project, as they will be more sympathetic to your cause and have more motivation to find solutions to your budget restrictions. Designing with budget restrictions is a skill that is worth seeking out in a graphic designer. Look for personal interest in your project, flexibility, willingness to think outside the box.

2. Think long term while starting with small steps

Although you may not have the budget to do it all at once, you can have a big picture of where you are heading while chewing off small chunks in steps as your budget allows. This saves money by building on what you already have rather than having to reinvent the wheel at each stage.

Most likely you will want to start with some visual identity and brand elements or at least a simple logo. This is something that will carry you forward into the future and can be fleshed out as you go along. Let your designer know you can only afford to roll out one step at a time and ask for advice about what will best meet your needs first and what can wait.

3. Think long shelf life

This goes without saying. You can't afford to rebrand every few years like some corporates might. Your design needs to be the best quality to last you as long as possible and get the most mileage for your money (another good reason not to do it yourself or use a cheap online short term solutions). Also don't go for the latest fashion trend that will date quickly. State "long shelf life" in your brief.

4. Ask for the elements to be user friendly

Chances are you won't have the budget to pay a designer every time you wish to apply the design or make changes, so most likely it will be your admin staff that will be using the visual elements and they will most likely have limited design skills, so ask for bomb-proof elements that are easy for lay people to use (this should be stated in the brief).

One client of mine had a previously designed logo which was asymmetrical, right justified and had very unusual spacing and scale. It was a very complex and non user friendly logo and even I found it challenging to apply at times. So the office staff had no hope of getting it to work for them. At best it looked crap and at worst it was unreadable. This logo should never have been given to a NFP— 'easy to apply and use' needs to be a consideration in the initial brief.

5. Use free resources

Social media, social media social media! It is our best friend on a low budget as it is free and effective. There are also heaps of other free resources that you can access to promote your project so think outside the box and use the free options first before wasting money on advertising. Then you can spend the money you save on a strong logo or brand so you have what you need when it's time to promote.

6. Digital is cheaper than print

Don't get me wrong, I am a print girl! I love print! but generally speaking, focusing on digital collateral at first is cheaper than print, as print is fixed and you can't edit or update it yourself easily. An example of this is where you run workshops or events that need promotion with different dates and times and you don't have the budget to design and print multiple flyers. Set up online, which you can edit yourself.  Then a good option is to print a single promo directing traffic to your website where all your changeable info can be updated regularly.

Online collateral also has a much larger reach than printed material which is always limited to the number of viewers that you can afford to print to.

7. Get clever with collateral

Which is cheaper?? printing 20 posters at $5 each which can be stuck up around town and hundreds of people will walk past and view, or printing 200 flyers which only 200 people will pick up and carry off? Leaving that cafe or info stand empty of your info.

You need a business card with contact details as well as a DL with info about your project, but can't afford both - find a solution that works for both, maybe a postcard which can have contact details on one side and more space for info on the back. Ask your designer to design collateral to be multipurpose and meet more than one need.

8. Good design does not need to be expensive to roll out

Although all designers love a big budget to play with and there is nothing more satisfying than sending off a custom sized bespoke design to print with flocking or letterpress embossing or gold foil, there is nothing wrong with designing standard sized collateral for standard print and a good designer can work within these limits and restrictions and still produce great outcomes.

Some of the great design solutions have come when limited to only black and white, or two colors and standard size print runs. The same applies to typography.  Ask your designer to do something fab with accessible typefaces.  Your organisation does not need to pay extra dollars for bespoke font licensing.  Also don't choose custom type that needs to be created every time it needs to be used.  Good designers can work within restrictions to create beautiful work and some even thrive on limited parameters, so If your your designer is over-designing because they are bored - get a new designer.