Eight Principles for Effective ‘Design’

8 Designing Principles.

While we’re talking about nonprofit Designers and design, let me share something that I found helpful.

Check out the following eight principles for effective design from product designer Taras Bakesevych. 

What’s exciting to me is that these principles apply to more than just the “graphical layout and style” of a piece of fundraising – they apply to how you “design” your entire fundraising program. 

Here’s the summary:

  • Empathy: Good design is rooted in an understanding of your audience.
  • Layout: Guide the eye effortlessly across the landscape.
  • Essentialism: Simplicity and purpose above everything else.
  • Guidance: Design should lead us somewhere.
  • Aesthetics: Communicate a feeling.
  • Novelty: “True art lies in balancing novelty with familiarity.”
  • Consistency: Don’t be confusing; build trust.
  • Engagement: Good design is like a good conversation.

Here are a few examples of applying these principles to how a nonprofit designs its fundraising program:

  • A fundraising program has empathy for donors by using language that donors understand, and design that resonates with donors.
  • A fundraising program focuses on the essentials by keeping it simple for donors, and doesn’t try to teach and tell donors everything about the organization and its approach.
  • A fundraising program is engaging by sending out surveys, and asking questions of major donors to discover their passions and interests.

You get the idea.

The whole post is interesting.  Taras gives examples for each principle.  It’s long, but I can guarantee you’ll quickly find something that could be applied to your fundraising program – whether graphically (#9 is “create a clear focal point”) or structurally (#17 is “craft engaging user onboarding”).

In my job, I get to “look under the hood” of a lot of different fundraising programs.  The fundraising programs that are reliably growing tend to be built on all eight of these principles.

How to Succeed as a Designer at a Nonprofit

Graphic designer.

Someone recently asked me what advice I’d give to Designers working at and for nonprofits. 

I gave some “big picture” advice – which I’m told was helpful – so I’m sharing it here with you…

Know that different design contexts have different design requirements

One of the things that happens at nonprofits is that they come up with a design approach and they apply that approach regardless of context

For instance, say one of the colors in your logo/brand is a beautiful light green.  In an Annual Report, you can use that green as the color for a headline or a small block of text to make the page more visually interesting.  But in direct mail you should never use a light color for text because it’s so hard to read for older donors, and in direct response fundraising readability is directly correlated with fundraising results

As a Designer, you’ll be more helpful to your organization (and your beneficiaries or cause) if your design is effective for each particular context than if your design is perfectly consistent across all the contexts you have to design for.  

You keep your organization’s design accessible for your donors

The person who wants you to fit a 550-word letter on one page does not know that the resulting “wall of text” won’t be read by anyone but their Mom.  The young person who wants the reply card form to be super-tiny does not know that a 75-year-old donor with a touch of arthritis will never be able to write their credit card number in a space that small. 

It is the Designer’s job to think about these things on behalf of your donors to make it easier for them to understand and support your organization.

And if you keep your organization’s work more accessible, your organization will raise more money.

Be a partner to the writer

The best design in the world cannot compensate for lousy copy.  So if the letter you’re asked to design doesn’t have a good offer, or takes too long to get to the point, or sounds like a Ph.D. dissertation, say something

Speaking as a copywriter, I’ve had hundreds of ideas that sounded great in my head but just didn’t work on the page.  The most helpful Designers told me so, and helped me see why.

Note to anyone working with a Designer: if you don’t treat the Designer as a partner, and give their feedback real consideration, you won’t get to work with that Designer for long.

Design for donors, not yourself

The most effective Designers always keep in mind that the primary audience for their design work has different preferences and needs than the Designer does.

This is hard to do. 

For instance, most Designers at nonprofits are at least 20 years younger than the core audience for their work: the average age of a donor in the U.S. is their late 60’s, and I’d guess that most Designers at nonprofits are younger than 40. 

For a Designer, this means that your donors are more likely to emotionally resonate with a different design approach than you are.  Real life example: most donors at most organizations are more likely to respond to a letter that looks like a telegram than they are to a letter that looks like the cool titles on a hot new Netflix show.

Design for your audience.

Be your own advocate & Ask questions

OK, this is two pieces of advice, but they are related.

The tough thing about working in the nonprofit world, especially at smaller nonprofits, is that there’s little training for Designers.  So in most cases, you are responsible for your own growth.

The best thing you can do to help your mission and your career is to learn about the nuts and bolts of fundraising.  You will have to ask for time and budget to buy books, to take classes, to go to a conference. 

And you can ask questions that your organization likely hasn’t asked before, like “what kind of design will resonate best with our donors?” and “How should our look and copy vary from context to context?”

Ask an experienced nonprofit Designer or Creative Director to be a mentor, whether it’s just for one coffee or it’s monthly for years.  This profession is full of generous people.  Sitting here writing this, I can think of nine people who helped me over the years, and I don’t ever remember being turned down.

If you advocate for yourself, and you’re curious, you’ll cause your organization to raise more money.  Designers who do this are worth their weight in gold. 

What’s your job?

I’ll end with a picture from the cover of my favorite book on design, Type & Layout

The designers who are communicating are gifts to their organization and beneficiaries, and will always have their plates full of interesting work.

TOP 10 list of design mistakes I see in direct response over and over again

John Lepp is a fundraiser you should pay attention to. And he has a blog you should subscribe to.

His bio says he’s a long-time marketer, designer, and ranter. All those things are true.

John gets righteously fired up about the design of your fundraising. And here’s a fantastic guest post from him on the design mistakes we all make (I’m guilty of #3).

I’m proud to point out that I’ve been a student of direct response and direct marketing for more than 20 years. That’s a lot of ideas, testing, concepts, tactics, tricks, tips, nerd knowledge, and history packed into this tiny brain of mine.

As a designer and communicator, I understand my job is to make sure something gets:
– seen
– understood
– acted upon
– results

My job isn’t to make something pretty. My job is to make sure something works. That’s what a designer does.

I go through my mother-in-law’s (your donor) mail quite regularly and see the same “design” errors over and over again. And knowing how much we all love a SOLID TOP 10 list, here’s my TOP 10 list of design mistakes I see in direct response over and over again.

1. Too much clutter in pursuit of “interesting” design
Through the years, I’ve heard that my design solution is too boring, too plain, or too simple. I’ve been told to make it more interesting, to SEXIFY it, to add, you know, something to make it “STAND OUT” – mostly uttered by people who have no idea what good and effective design is.

I see a lot of mail that is WAY over-designed.

In testing, I’ve seen over and over that, a simple, larger envelope with just a logo and return address will beat almost ANYTHING else.

A letter that looks like a personal letter from you to me is far more effective and gets better results.

At the end of the day, THE BEST, THE MOST EFFECTIVE direct response looks like a personal piece of communication from you to me.

Leave the Starbursts to the candy manufacturer.

2. A total lack of understanding of what makes an effective tagline or image on your outer envelope
A great and effective tagline can be one or maybe a couple of different things. It should provoke the donor to take action (hopefully by opening the envelope, obviously). It can ask a provocative question, it can make the pack seem mysterious, it can be the phrase from a commonly known song, or it can tell the donor that there’s something unique inside just for them.

Tagline writing is an art form. Even the absolute best direct response folks know at the end of the day it had better be perfect, or you might be better off sending an envelope without one altogether (to my point above).

Using a perfect image can instantly stop your donor in their tracks and get them to consider and open your pack. Images with great eye contact and large enough to be seen from a distance are a great starting point.

Abstract images or photos with a hundred people in them printed at 1.5”x 1.5” are not great starting points.

3. Using a white #10 envelope
As I’ve already covered, in testing, almost ANYTHING other than a white #10 envelope will win in testing. Why? Because 75-90% of the mail your donor gets arrives in a white #10 envelope. No rocket science needed here, folks. Just the knowledge that there are visual things you can do to stand out from the crowd.

4. Direct response that looks too design-y or computer manufactured
The best design tool I ever held in my hand was an HP Pencil. Sharpened and ready for action. The pencil, like my hand, are imperfect. The smudges, the changes in character size, the squiggles, the changes in density all tell you that a human wrote or created this thing.

When you go to your mailbox at the end of the day – what do you look at first?

Everything in our world is perfect. Everything lines up, everything looks good, and everything is glossy. These days, the more your work isn’t that, the more noticeable it is.

Designers who don’t know what they’re doing go out of their way to make everything look perfect, but that doesn’t equate into effective.

5. Using tiny, left-justified, sans serif type
In your letters, newsletters, magazines, and brochures!

But hey! At least it adheres to your soul-destroying graphic standards produced by a commercial design study that wouldn’t know a donor even if they walked up and asked to give you some money to make it all go away.

Look around. Almost everyone over the age of 40 has some type of visual impairment. There is a reason why there’s a large print version of Readers Digest.

Not a single direct mail letter we send out is printed at anything less than a 14-point indented serif font. Our donors thank us by reading it and responding to it.

Ask your designer what their favorite typeface is. If they respond: COURIER – hire them. They likely know what they’re doing. (If you don’t know why this is the correct answer, just ask me.)

6. Reversed out type
Sure it looks pretty. But as you’ve figured out by now, a lot of donors find reversed out type extremely difficult to read. JUST DON’T DO IT. All type should be 100% black on 100% white, which will result in 100% readability.

7. A total lack of understanding on how donors are reading your letter
Ask your designer who Siegfried Vögele is. I’ll wait…

Ok, there’s this book called the Handbook of Direct Mail (I’ll make you a deal on my copy), written by a fellow named Siegfried Vögele back in 1984. In German. But there are English versions! I haven’t read it cover to cover, but I’ve read enough to understand the concept of eye movement.

The Coles Notes version of this is, your donor looks at their name and address at the top, their eye falls down and to the right as they scan the letter, turn it over, and read the P.S.

Some donors, right then, decide to give or not to give.

So let your ‘P.S.’ hating Executive Director know why you need one that clearly states what you’re asking your donor for.

Then, you have the skimmers.

They look at their name and address, and as their eyes fall down and to the right, they linger on things that arrest the eyes. Emphasis of any kind. Bolding, underlining, hand-drawn stars, larger type, etc.

I always ensure that if this is all that the donor reads, they will know what I’m asking them for and that I recognize them for being someone who does good things (in other words, anywhere the magical “YOU” is utilized.).

The first rule of design is: READ THE LETTER FIRST! Everything should be designed around that.

8. Using those crappy little boxes on the donor reply form for credit card numbers
When you consider that close to 40% of people have arthritis, (higher the older you go up), forcing donors to somehow squiggle their handwriting into those tiny little boxes on their reply is almost downright cruelty.

You’re literally hurting your donors.

And a lot just won’t bother. So you won’t get the gift.

Those little boxes sure look neat and tidy, but they are a visual and physical hell to certain donors.

Hey, the more you know…

So – nicely tell your designers – just a simple line with about 0.5” space at least above it will be great, thanks.

9. A total lack of understanding of good typography principles and practices
When I first started, I worked with this amazing English art director named Richard. With a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, he would snatch the loupe out of my hand and implore and show me how I needed to get right up close to the type to UNDERSTAND IT! Look at the characteristics, the nuances, the swoops, and empty spaces. Is it angry or hopeful? Is it showing off and chest-thumping or understated and shy? Female or male or something else altogether? How much leading (no, not ‘letting’) does it properly need? How and why do you baseline type? What types of face go together? What makes a font a classic?

I see appeals that use six different sorts of typefaces, even on the outer envelope. I see random bolding, underlining, or switches in face that make absolutely zero sense.

What I see are designers who are eagerly trying to “design” but obviously have no idea (back to point 5) why “Courier,” to most really good direct response designers, is easily the MOST beautiful font in the world. (Again, if you’re still scratching your head, just holler.)
And lastly,

10. Random formatting, placement of design elements, boxes, circles, swooshes, and blobs
Yes, I know who you are.

And yes, I know why you’re doing it.

I think we overcomplicate things when we actually don’t really know what we are doing. This doesn’t go just for design – I see it over and over again in our sector.

The more we over-design (or overcomplicate) something, it only does one thing – it decreases the likelihood of someone taking the action you want them to take because it’s just too much.

Every single design element you or your designer add to something must be very carefully considered. Will adding it increase the response rate or decrease it?

If the answer is “I don’t know” – then either test it or leave it.

And if your designer really knows their stuff, they will know. Or just ask me.

It’s Time to Get Ugly and Improve Your Fundraising Results

As consumers, it’s fair to say that we’re attracted to good design.

Whether it’s on a billboard, in a magazine, or a sales brochure, marketers have figured out that an alluring graphic design can inspire emotions to increase the likelihood of us buying their product.

Believe it or not, the same is true of fundraising. Only it’s a little different.

Marketers, if they’re doing a good job, will design and write to a target audience – the people they want to buy something. Have you ever wondered why all the candy and sugary cereal is placed on the lower shelves at your grocery store? Because kids are the target audience.

For us fundraisers, our target audience is generally a little older and less into sugar. To be specific, you should be designing your donor communication for a female, around 69-years-old. Let’s call her Judy.

And for Judy, ugly works.

Yes, you read that correctly. What a younger audience sees as ugly, works for an audience of baby boomers and arguably, Generation Xers.

But before I go on, let me clarify what I mean by ugly. It’s basically the opposite of the kind of slick marketing we’re all used to. Jeff Brooks, best-selling author and fundraiser, says, “Ugly works. Tacky works. Corny, embarrassing, and messy all work. In print, or in digital.”


I’ve had long and at times robust discussions with graphic designers about what the outer envelope and letterhead of an appeal should look like. You may have experienced pushback yourself, perhaps from a board member, field staff, or someone influential in your organization.

If that’s the case, then my suggestion is to stick with what works. Remember, we’re not marketers trying to reach an audience of 20- or 30-somethings, or trying to win a design award. We’re fundraisers, trying to get Judy to open our mail and (hopefully) write a check.

Take your upcoming Christmas appeal, for example — red and green holly, nativity scenes, twinkling stars, angels with big white wings, candles, Christmas trees, and gaudy decorations — for Judy, this screams Christmas.

This kind of design will motivate her to respond, rather than gold-leaf lettering or a sheet of vellum in your packages. Of course, our advice would be to test this theory rigorously at your nonprofit – but in our experience, this approach consistently rings true.

And don’t be afraid to mirror this kind of thinking across all of your donor communications. If your donor file is large enough, splitting your list down the middle and testing content or design can be a great way to learn more about what your donors respond to.

Here are a few more ugly design ideas for you to consider …

Instead of sending out a crisp, professionally designed thank you card to a new donor – something glossy that looks mass produced and impersonal – consider a handwritten note from your Executive Director. To you, this may look ugly. But to your target donor, this is beautiful.

Or instead of an expensive full-color, overprint outer envelope, try sending your donors a plain, white #10 – no teaser, no image. To you, this is super ugly. But it will work.

My advice is that it doesn’t matter if your colleagues, board members, or field staff like your fundraising design. It only matters if Judy does.