Judging Communication Design

tool theme for publishingpioneer

Setting out on a research exploration, I didn’t expect to become frustrated. Like any gold miner trudging up the first hill, I expected to find gold. Or, at the least, I expected to find that the 80/20 rule would apply. Not so.

The gold I seek comprises nuggets of excellent graphics. I wish to explore the question: How does good communication design affect organizations? After the site is launched, book is in the stores, e-announcement has launched, trade show booth has handed out brochures, what happens next? How is performance determined? And, of course, what comprises “good design?”

Not able to take on the total business world, I choose one sector that represents the best and the worst of all the others: nonprofit organizations. Nationally, there are about 1500 worth considering; about half are headquartered in the Midwest. Of the 700+ groups based in the region, Chicago is the hub (dominating management and events). Most in the other half are based in Washington DC (dominating legal and governmental activities).

Gingerly flipping through 700 sites over a year, I became very familiar with clarity, commonalities, trends, first impressions, and varying degrees of professionalism. Everyone knows that nonprofits are hurting financially more than any sector, so dollars spent on promotion and design have never been more guarded. However, small budgets inspire a greater focus. These are the conclusions I’ve derived—some predictable but others surprising. (View the project that resulted: The Sebastian Study.) Here are the conclusions, experience, and concerns I have derived from the numbers:

Design Advantages in a Tight Economy

tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian1. Priorities become very clear. How an organization values the viewer is immediately apparent. The most savvy strategy employs a triangle of resource allocations with logo at the point, homepage in the middle, and publications for the base.


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian 2. Creative approaches stand out more. Though good design always stands out, when there is less to spend for it, the division between have and have-nots is greater. The majority of nonprofit web sites, for example, seem to be set up by technicians versus communicators. However, if the design doesn’t evolve, viewers miss new postings because they believe they have already viewed. Most groups change their sites dramatically—in stops and starts, not evolutionary. What might be a compelling first impression can become old quickly if visited often.


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian3.
Publications are difficult to judge. The best give enough content online to entice subscription. But so many are closed completely to nonmembers, these groups miss a marketing opportunity. By offering sample articles, a free issue, or an online version, audiences can expand virtually.


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian 4. There are three predominant styles for web design, all supported (or ruled) by templates. Finding three styles doesn’t surprise me. However, I expected them to reflect different categories: visually attractive, mundane, or poor. Instead, I found the treatment of the content to be the major determinate over and for visual appeal. Navigation, emphasis, and point-of-view matter more than photos, animation, or blended media. Approach doesn’t mitigate the need for a good logo, a recognizable theme, or publication base. But design without enticing content is unsatsifying. These are the three styles of content approaches prevalent:
Defines market. The rarest style of site is to find one that asks the viewer to self-define.Visitors feel that the content speaks directly to their concerns and hot buttons.
Declares identity. Most sites begin with “this is who we are.” Certainly viewers want to know when they find their selected sites, but most content presented is essentially narcissistic.
Succumbs to stock. For over half of the sites, there is nothing distinguishable from others. Photos and templates are used out of necessity and images used like decoration. Those who use stock seem probably have no awareness of how common such images are!


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian 5. Groups are quick to jump onto social media but don’t invest in how to use them as tools. There is initial enthusiasm when launching a new connection, but it fizzles as the effort becomes hard to sustain. Announcements seem to work well for most groups who know how to use a suite of outlets.


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian 6. Blogs are neglected. Paralleling a poor use of social media, organizations with blogs (about 1/5) demonstrate their frustrations. Most are not sustained and begin with commitment but are soon back-burnered. The “post-and-ghost” tendency actually hurts a group more than if they never would have started the project at all! The fizzle-rate is alarming!


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian 7. Audience communication preferences have become more fractured with more choices. The “check-on” fatigue is setting in. For a blogger and a LinkedIn participant, it is a challenge to keep up as most of my time is spent working on design projects. So my preferences are different thant Tweeters and FaceBook buddies. Most of my clients and colleagues have accounts in all popular venue but display minimal involvement in most of them. I always match my technology to theirs as getting ahead or behind becomes unprofitable. So if I am an e-mail perferred person, then phone-oriented connections inspire my flexibility to adapt.


tools of the trade by Liane Sebastian 8.
Logos are misunderstood. Making the leap from symbol to theme hasn’t occurred to 95% of the 700 Midwest organizations in The Sebastian Study. A logo is a visual diving board that always suggests the design of the swimming pool below. Those who don’t realize this connection dive off head-first onto concrete. They are visually wounded and resistant to revisit the challenge. Continuous change in leadership plagues decision-maker attention. To take on a logo change or to start a new publication are each three-year projects (development, implementation, promotion). Few board members are willing to undertake such a large change that will generally take longer than their tenure.

The challenges of developing good design in a bad economy sharply silouettes nonprofits. But it is obvious who is thriving and who is not just by their graphics and attention online. They are the directors and executives who stress marketing. If it is has proven to grow organizations, why don’t more groups stress marketing? Like buying a house, the downpayment is needed before benefits are enjoyed.

Perhaps the best result of a tight economy is that creative services (with an increase in competition) have become more affordable. Hourly rates are trimmed or lowered; all creatives strive for a lean overhead and better use of technological vehicles. But of course, I will say this because I’m a designer. Happy to report that this conclusion is one of numbers—evaluating 700 groups—instead of only my opinion. When a personal view represents a factual base, science moves forward.

Liane Sebastian, illustrator, designer, writer, and publishing pioneer

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