2 min Read
June 6, 2012

Don’t let your logo trip you up

Rebecca Hume

5 tips for thinking creatively about nonprofit identity

Let’s be honest: designing good nonprofit logos can be tricky work.

Sure, they share the same basic principles as for-profit logos. Both should be rooted in a clear understanding of the target audience and a well-articulated brand strategy.

But when your product is justice, or wellbeing, or a better world, it can be more complicated to boil down into a nice, tidy mark than it can be when designing for a soft drink, or an airline, or a shoe. (Especially without resorting to clichés like the dreaded Neutered Sprite.)

Below are a few tips for confronting common challenges in nonprofit logo design—and examples of organizations that have successfully overcome these difficulties. Clearly, there’s no one solution, and creative decisions should be the result of collaboration with an experienced designer. But seeing and understanding how other organizations have tackled these issues can help shed some light on the process.

1. A good logo doesn’t have to show everything your organization does.

Most nonprofits do more than one thing, and it can be tempting to try to cram it all into the logo. But limiting the scope to a specific, poignant representation of your work is generally far more effective. World Wildlife Fund protects hundreds of species around the globe, but by focusing on a single endangered panda, their logo becomes something memorable that people can connect with emotionally.

2. A good logo doesn’t even have to show anything your organization does. 
Nonprofit work often comes with fallback imagery: columns for museums, ribbons for disease awareness, and did we mention Neutered Sprites? These may be easy ways to show what type of organization you are, but they won’t necessarily set you apart. The Smithsonian Institution’s abstract sunburst-compass logo manages to capture what they’re all about—discovery, illumination, and inspiration—without showing a single building.

3. A good logo doesn’t have to include an illustrated mark. 
There’s a common misconception that a “real” logo needs a mark—an image element that supplements the organization name. But some of the most effective nonprofit identities are based on a distinctive use of typography, color, or other design elements. Oversized words and phrases that can’t be contained by the page provide a perfectly edgy visual metaphor for BAM’s boundary-pushing programs and performances.

4. A good logo can turn around a disadvantage.

To be clear, Big Duck almost always recommends against using acronyms, whether speaking, writing, or designing your logo. A string of letters is often confusing, usually forgettable, and simply less meaningful than an actual name. But occasionally these abbreviations are so entrenched that they’re unavoidable and have to be dealt with creatively. In a recent redesign, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) transformed their acronym into a stylized logo. Reminiscent of military bars or stencils, this treatment gives fresh energy and significance to four simple letters—whether or not you even see them.

5. A good logo can make people look
(and think) twice.

While visual clichés are generally something to avoid, occasionally they can be turned into something really smart. The logo for mediation services organization New York Peace Institute puts a new twist on a recognized symbol for conversation, with the overlapping area in the speech bubbles becoming a third, neutral voice. By asking people to rethink an established icon, this logo truly surprises and sticks with you.

Have you dealt with other nonprofit identity design hurdles? Or know of a logo you think is particularly smart? Post a comment below.