In the nonprofit world, as in corporate America, one of the most important keys to success is the ability to communicate a message clearly and effectively. That's a lot easier when an organization's branding is eye-catching and memorable. In Designing for the Greater Good, design experts Peleg Top and Jonathan Cleveland share twenty-four case studies and hundreds of illustrations that highlight what works — and sometimes what doesn't — in cause-related marketing and nonprofit design.
Top, a veteran designer who led his own graphic design firm for eighteen years, has done cause-related marketing work for a number of nonprofits, including the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Shoah Visual History Foundation, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Cleveland, the founder and principal of an award-winning graphic design and communications firm, has been a strong supporter of such nonprofit causes as literacy promotion and AIDS research. Their message is simple: What makes a branding or cause-related campaign memorable is no different for a nonprofit organization than for any other type of organization.
According to Top and Cleveland, success in branding boils down to a worthy cause, a memorable slogan, clever marketing designed to appeal to a broad audience, and eye-catching design and graphics. Indeed, if there's a single takeaway from Designing for the Greater Good, it's that great graphic design can make all the difference in a nonprofit's ability to get the word (or image) out. What's more, the fact that virtually everyone recognizes that good design is not only a key component of success but also expensive usually works to a nonprofit's advantage.
Ironically, great design is not the first thing that comes to mind upon opening the book, the first part of which comprises thirty pages devoted to campaigns from the authors' portfolios. The rest of the book is organized by broad subject area — Family and Community, Animals, Health and Wellness, Human Rights, Environmental Awareness, Spirituality, and Arts and Culture — into sections, with "spotlights" interspersed throughout. Each spotlight includes information about the graphic designer of a particular campaign along with several illustrations from that campaign. That's the only text in the book and in most cases it gives the back story behind each campaign, including the difficulties encountered in implementing the campaign (impossible deadlines, skimpy budgets, etc.). The book would have been stronger, in this reviewer's opinion, had there been more of that and fewer pages of illustrations. Indeed, lacking more explanation, some of the examples presented in each section are, well, underwhelming. Yes, it is an eye-opener to see what can be accomplished in less than twenty-four hours with little or no money, but great graphic design isn't always the result.
That said, one of the best examples in the book is the Katrina poster project (p. 30-31) spotlighted in the "Family and Community" chapter. The story behind the campaign goes something like this: Leif Steiner and his colleagues at Moxie Sozo Design in Boulder, Colorado, were so moved by TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath that they decided to launch the Hurricane Poster Project to raise money for the victims. Over approximately two years, a hundred and eighty different posters were sold through the project's Web site, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross. Even today, five years on, you can feel the emotion that fueled the creation of the works shown, many of which are distinctly political. Indeed, the Katrina posters are all the more striking when compared to one of the least effective examples in the book, which just happens to be spotlighted in the same Family and Community chapter. Particular obstacles aside, the campaign for the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a tutoring center in a San Francisco neighborhood, tries but ultimately fails to convey a clear, compelling message (and that's even after I read the back story associated with the campaign).
But then the absence of any insight into what makes great design great is a weakness that runs throughout the book. We're simply asked to take the authors' word that these are the best cause-related campaigns from the nonprofit world. Similarly, there's no no explanation as to how or why the individual case studies were chosen or the thought process that informed the selection of collateral materials. Even a little of that would have gone a long way to making this a more useful book, particularly for the nonprofit executive or layperson with an interest in cause marketing.
Still, Designing for the Greater Good is a handsome book and a good reference tool for graphic designers looking for inspiration and/or new ideas from the world of cause-related design. Yes, that's a pretty narrow audience, and the book's usefulness beyond that audience is probably limited. More the irony, then, that one of the major themes of the book is the notion that the strongest cause-related and nonprofit campaigns are those built on a clear, concise slogan or tagline and graphic design that reinforces and amplifies that message. It's not an easy task to accomplish, and Designing for the Greater Good would have benefited if the authors had done more to follow their own advice.