Photo by Copper and Wild on Unsplash
November 6, 2019

How can you design when you’re not a designer?

Big Duck pros Sarah Durham and Claire Taylor Hansen discuss the do’s and don’ts of design—how and when to use white space, how less is more, typographic hierarchy, and staying on-brand with little frill to get in the way. Listen in to learn more about how you can design as a non-designer for your nonprofit.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the smart communications podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I’m joined today by Claire Taylor Hansen, Big Duck’s Creative Director. Welcome back, Claire.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Hi.

Sarah Durham: Those of you who’ve been listening to the podcast for a while have probably heard Claire before. She is an expert on all things creative, writing, and design, and she and I have developed a workshop and a webinar that we’ve given together a few times about creating materials. The intent of this workshop is really to help people in nonprofits who might be responsible for writing or designing materials, particularly materials that go to major donors. What we’re interested in doing is giving them some tools to become better writers and designers, and we’re going to focus today specifically on the design part of that equation. So Claire, I’m delighted that you are here to share your design wisdom.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Oh, thank you. Happy to be here.

Sarah Durham: So in this workshop you talk about a lot of principles or best practices that designers are trained to do, but non-designers may not think about. One of them is white space. What does a non-designer who’s creating materials or designing materials need to know about white space?

Claire Taylor Hansen: It’s your best friend. So non-designers, I often see materials that are produced by folks that maybe don’t have a design degree or didn’t go to art school. There’s the temptation to pack as much content as you possibly can into a material and really sweat over how to lay it all out perfectly and beautifully when really you could spend a third of the time and put a third of the content on it and have five times the impact. So white space is a really beautiful thing and it kind of signifies, I think a level of sophistication and confidence in a sort of subconscious way in a design.

Sarah Durham: I think that’s particularly true with PowerPoint presentations. I often see non-designers create PowerPoint slides that we’ll have like a hundred bullets or a lot of copy, a lot of things you have to read. Whereas somebody with more of a design sensibility will have a big bold image or just two words or something like that and then they’ll speak rather than put everything on the page.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Absolutely, and that works for a print that works for social media posts basically just to minimize the amount of copy and image and go for that big bold statement.

Sarah Durham: So maybe in design less is more.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Less is so much more.

Sarah Durham: I think the kind of sibling to white space is probably also hierarchy, right? How some things are big, some things are small. Do you have any advice for non-designers about how to think about scale or hierarchy when they’re designing?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah. My big tip for hierarchy, and oftentimes there’s many types of hierarchy, but typographic hierarchy is often the most common type of hierarchy that is used in design. For type hierarchy I often give advice to just pick five type styles, no more, and if less even better. There’s no reason why you need to have an infinite variety of type styles. So all caps, sentence case, bold italic, just pick five sizes, five treatments, and use that consistently. Whether it’s one page or 20 pages less, again, is more.

Sarah Durham: And when you say type styles, I assume you don’t mean five different typefaces. You mean if you’re using Times New Roman, Times New Roman Bold would be a type style or Times New Roman 12 point would be a type style.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Exactly. So Times New Roman 12 point Bold. That’s one style. Don’t use more than five.

Sarah Durham: Is there a rule of thumb for how many typefaces or fonts to use period? Do you recommend that non-designers try to stick with one or maybe two?

Claire Taylor Hansen: I’d say three maximum.

Sarah Durham: Three maximum. Okay. Words to live by.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yes.

Sarah Durham: I’ve also heard you talk a lot about designing for flexible uses. What does that mean?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah. Well as you’re creating materials…So if you’re in a communications department in a nonprofit, it’s so common that something that you’re going to make is going to need to be repurposed for another brochure, another social media post, or a PowerPoint. You may be thinking of this piece in a vacuum, but it’s going to need to reincarnate in many different ways and shift its shape. And so because of that, if you invest a lot of time gridding something out really carefully or creating something really bespoke to the format of the piece that you’re creating, you’re gonna struggle when then the very next week you have to make that into a square or whether you have to supply that to a video team to animate. And so if wherever possible, if you can think about how to keep your design simple and think about how they could easily be reformatted into different media and different shapes, it’ll really serve you well.

Sarah Durham: Thinking about that reformatting piece makes me think about data and the challenge that many nonprofits have with how to show data. And particularly when you’ve got a statistic or a chart or a bar graph or something and you want to use it in social media, you want to put it in an annual report or newsletter. How should data be visualized?

Claire Taylor Hansen: That’s another common thing that we see. Someone will spend a lot of money and time and energy making a beautiful piece either in the annual report or on a website and then they’ll throw whatever data they’ve got into that beautiful design without re-customizing it or tweaking it or changing in any way. It’s really important to think about those data points, whether it’s a pie chart, whether it’s a bar graph, whether even it’s just a pulled out statistic that’s a simple percentage as an art moment or a design moment and to really treat them with your nonprofit’s colors to make them large, to make them beautiful. There are a lot of online tools now. You can just Google how to visualize data and there are a lot of online tools to make even something simple like a bar chart or really beautiful little moment on your PowerPoint or on your brochure.

Sarah Durham: If it’s a data point you’re going to use a lot, it’s really worth taking the time to either find an app to make it more interesting or even hiring a designer to create something special and unique to your organization that expresses your brand a little bit more, particularly for something that’s going to have a long shelf life. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that actually data visualization is a specialty in the area of graphic design. We used to have a graphic designer on staff at Big Duck, in fact, who had- I don’t know if her graduate degree was in data visualization or she had a graduate degree in design, but with a specialty in data visualization. It really is a highly specialized area and it’s, it’s hard to get right, but worth the time investment I think.

Claire Taylor Hansen: And it really adds credibility to that major donor when they look at that and realize that it’s of a piece with the entire designed materials. It just adds a level of sophistication.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and data visualization doesn’t have to be all charts and tables and bar graphs. One of the things that I think we’ve seen a lot of organizations develop really well or timelines or instead of just listing bullets to show it in kind of different ways- show it horizontally instead of vertically or kind of play with different axes.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Or pull out one particularly compelling data point and then put it on top of a photo to relate that data to the human impact.

Sarah Durham: Hmm. I love that. Okay, so what about the brand? If you are designing materials for major donors, let’s say it’s a capital campaign or it’s some sort of special event, should you be loyal to the colors, the logo, the topography of your brand? When should you be loyal? When should you go rogue?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Never go rogue.

Sarah Durham: Glad you said that.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah, it’s tricky ‘cause sometimes when you’re making something that’s a very special event or for a very high level donor audience, the temptation is to say, “Oh, we really need to pull out all the stops here,” but if you deviate too far from your organization’s brand, then you’re going to lose that credibility and that feeling of familiarity that that donor has with the nonprofit. So it’s really important to stay true to the brand, especially with the key DNA points like typeface choice colors, those major, major points that are really essential to maintaining that brand recognition areas where you could do some play would be if it’s a special invite. Maybe doing a special die cut, a thicker paper than normal, maybe an interesting fold? If it’s online, you could invest in animation and have something, do something really dazzling where it moves, get a motion artists to animate elements of your design, but stick to the brand guide.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I’m definitely with you on that and I think there are actually a lot of really good examples of that, not only in the nonprofit sector, but actually in the for-profit sector. If you think about companies like Target, when they launch a new campaign or they do something special, it’s still red and white. It’s still the bullseye. They don’t walk away from the brand, they play with it. They come up with a new theme or a new concept to express it. Same thing with UPS. It’s always brown. I think sometimes it’s tempting to throw the brand out because it feels like this gala invitation or this annual report or this capital campaign case statement should be different. And so the assumption is that staying true to the brand would be somehow boring or old, but it’s often the case that just at the time when you’re sort of sick of those colors, those fonts, all that stuff, that’s maybe when your target audiences are just starting to pay attention. So consistency is your friend. It’s not the enemy.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Absolutely. Another way to elevate communications is to invest in a special photo shoot. So ordinarily with nonprofits, maybe they don’t have the budget to do maybe a series of portraits of people in the community or to take that energy that you were going to spend in completely revamping the brand and instead maybe invest in something special like that.

Sarah Durham: Find a new outlet for that creative opportunity. Yes. So one of the things you’ve talked about a lot that I’ve never heard before, but I really like a lot, is when non-designers are designing that they should design like movie directors. What does that mean? What does a movie director know how to do?

Claire Taylor Hansen: So I think of that as a framework for anything. So that could be for a PowerPoint, that could be for a brochure, that could be for an actual movie, a short film for your website. And so what I mean by that is having a variety of experiences as that donor moves through the communication. So pulling out different ways of telling the story and packaging the information in different ways to engage them. So for example, the closeup. So finding a portrait of someone that’s very affected by your nonprofit’s work and treat that image with a special care. Maybe it’s full bleed on the page. Maybe it’s the only thing on that slide of the PowerPoint and really zoom in on one individual. Treat them like the hero.

Sarah Durham: What other tips of the trade does a movie director have that apply to major donor materials?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Well, you can think about a flashback in a movie demonstrating all the impact that that nonprofit has had in a series of quick images, a timeline, that can be really powerful and if you pair that with that closeup, then you have a real dramatic shift where you go from a page or a PowerPoint or a brochure that’s jam packed with information and then a breath of fresh air with just one individual. So it’s all about those shifts from moment to moment. Another one is dialogue, so movies are full of people having conversations. If you think of your communication as a conversation with the donor, then of course as many quotes as you possibly can, making it feel like you are actually having a conversation with that person. Pulling out quotes from, again, folks on staff from other donors, from people that are affected by your nonprofits work can be very powerful.

Sarah Durham: The other thing I love about the quote is that it can be a great alternative for an organization that doesn’t have a budget for photography or good stock. You can take something powerful. Somebody said make it really, really big and this sort of dynamic graphic element. Yeah, so the closeup, the flashback dialogue, I’ve heard you talk about montages- all of those things are things that create a cinematic journey when we watch a movie and if you combine them together you think about them as devices for a brochure, for a video, for something you produce for your nonprofit. What you start to get, I think, is texture or variety or something that keeps it interesting.

Claire Taylor Hansen: That’s especially useful for materials that tend to feel monotonous like an annual report or even a website project. If you can think about infusing visual variety and variety in how you’re conveying information into those long form projects, it’ll really engage the viewer more.

Sarah Durham: So before we wrap up, I just have a kind of a parting question, which is: What advice do you think non-designers most need to think about designing or what do you want to say to non-designers when they’re designing that maybe you can’t say to their faces but you think needs to be heard?

Claire Taylor Hansen: I think non-designers don’t look outside of their individual work enough. So I think they get trapped in this feeling of needing to create excellence and over invest their time in any particular piece. When instead, if they looked for inspiration outside of that individual product, looking at blogs, looking at books that they’ve bought, that they’re very inspired by, and not copying them, but drawing inspiration and using other designers work as a template for how to produce their work. That would be my biggest advice. Not get trapped in your own workstation.

Sarah Durham: So if you’ve got to create a great presentation for a board meeting, don’t just sit down with some generic PowerPoint template and then try to make it look pretty. Maybe go on SlideShare or something, find a presentation that you think is great and use it as a model to inspire the PowerPoint you’re creating or something like that.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Exactly.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and I would also just want to reinforce what you said at the beginning, which is less is more. I think that one of the most common mistakes I see non-designers making is just trying to kind of cram too many ideas on a page or too many elements in something and often that just ends up being harder on the reader. You’re asking the reader or the viewer to do more work. When you start to strip things out things can breathe and they become a little bit more elegant, more sophisticated, so don’t be afraid of that white space.

Claire Taylor Hansen: If you suspect that some of the materials that you are producing fall into that trap. A fun exercise is to say, okay, let’s double my page count and then see how you would play with that information with some of these tips about using white space, about maybe using one quote on a page, about using one full bleed photo of a person and then see how that piece looks with twice the amount of pages, especially in this world that we’re living in where it’s most often an email PDF rather than a bound hard copy book.

Sarah Durham: Great. Claire, thank you for joining.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Of course, this was fun.