Charitable works

Many charities are still a little wary of design. Clare Dowdy explains how a firm working relationship can be beneficial to both parties.

Tight budgets mean design is not a priority, or even on the agenda for many voluntary organisations. And yet with the continued squeeze on funding and the National Lottery taking a chunky slice of public money, design could be an effective tool in the battle for a higher profile. That was the conclusion of the Media Trust’s conference on design in the voluntary sector earlier this month (DW 7 November).

Many consultancies are keen to become involved in the sector, some on a voluntary basis, but they still come up against a certain amount of hostility.

“There is a culture of suspicion in the voluntary sector about designers. They don’t fully understand their role and impact,” says Spencer Landor partner Guilia Landor. “They tend to relegate design to the lowest level.” Her consultancy works regularly in the sector and is putting the finishing touches to a Global March campaign for Anti-Slavery International.

You can sense designers’ frustration in dealing with a sector which sometimes considers design as an add-on resource rather than a long-term service. But, many smaller charities still do not have the manpower to dedicate someone to overseeing design.

In these cases it is up to the consultancy to educate the client in the effectiveness of design – whether it is to increase donations or raise awareness. However, measuring an improvement in awareness may be a costly exercise in itself, and many charities would argue that they don’t have the money to spend on good design in the first place, even if costs are recuperated.

The tide is changing though, and the sense of competition has sharpened the voluntary sector. As Design Business Association chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill said at the Media Trust’s conference: “There is a competitive element: if you don’t do design, then someone else will.”

The sector is riddled with dilemmas and apparent inconsistencies. While charities want to raise their profiles and appear professional, they don’t want to look as though they have spent a small fortune promoting themselves.

This situation is exacerbated by the fragmented nature of many charities’ audiences. A business audience will need a professional approach, while the donor on the street expects a more grass roots image. Housing associations also suffer from a split personality, says Charlotte Desorgher, partner at The Grand Design.

Since the 1988 Housing Act which slashed government funding, the country’s 1000 active associations have had to approach banks and building societies to make up the shortfall. This has put pressure on the agencies to change their image to suit the new target audience, says Desorgher. “In the past, housing associations could look terribly worthy; now they have to look substantial, professional and efficient,” she adds.

This change in perception is replicated throughout the voluntary sector, she says, especially among organisations which are supported by central government.

And it is not only the outside world which has disparate views of an organisation. There is also “the problem of different people within organisations seeing its message differently”, said Nicholas Ind at the Media Trust conference.

His company, Ind Associates, is advising children’s charity HAPA on renaming.

In one respect designers can treat a tight budget as a creative challenge. And when you’re not being paid much, if anything, for your services, you can expect a freer rein than normal on a project. Many designers feel a loyalty to a charity client, paid or unpaid, which produces a strong commitment in the studio. “You feel you are putting something back into society,” says Jimmy Adams, senior designer at C&FD, which has designed the annual report for Westminster homeless charity The Passage.

Clearly designers do not get into the game for the money. Typically the total budget for a small housing association annual report would be about 7000. That will have to cover copywriting, design, layout, photography and the printing of about 1000 copies, says Desorgher.

This sort of spend puts obvious restrictions on the finished article. A lot of the literature is black and white or duotone. Many designers make the most of a client’s stock of existing photography. Using “real life” photos gives a document great impact and the product can look very strong. However, this approach could be accused of starting to look a bit samey.

A number of organisations are using design to great effect and have built up strong relationships with consultancies, but there is scope for more charities to exploit designers. Rowland-Hill hinted at a DBA concept, at embryonic stage, to bring together charities with designers who want to donate their services to the sector.

In the meantime, the education process continues and for groups like Moore Lowenhoff, The Partners, Spencer Landor, The Grand Design and MetaDesign building relationships with charities has paid off.

However, there are plenty of other voluntary organisations out there which would benefit from sound design advice.

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