Good cause and effect

Richard Clayton looks at the importance of branding and design for charities and other organisations trying to reach out to disadvantaged young people

Never work with children or animals, as hammy old actors like to say. But designers don’t always have the luxury of choice.

It’s hard enough designing for kids in conventional settings like schools and supermarkets – tastes are unpredictable and trends move fast; the Dad-at-the-disco scenario is a clear and present danger for try-hards. But what about when you need to communicate with young people from problematic backgrounds, perhaps involving homelessness, drugs or social exclusion?

Digit has just completed a website – – aimed at tackling youth crime, while Nottingham-based Purple Circle is helping the Learning and Skills Council engage ‘hard to reach’ 16to 19-year-olds with few formal qualifications (DW 22 May). This week, Sea Design unveils its identity for The Connection at St Martins, a charity that works with homeless people of all ages but especially the young (see News).

How do you strike the right note with this audience without being patronising or, worse, alienating them completely? And how do you get serious messages across without sounding glib or affected?

Honesty is the best policy, according to Sea Design director Bryan Edmondson. ‘It’s tone-of-voice really. There’s no point trying to be youthful; just be dead honest. Don’t clothe the organisation as something it’s not.’

When it comes to explaining the nitty-gritty – the details of which may be missed if young people ‘switch off’ – Sea is being ‘very factual’. Copywriter Howard Fletcher has been hired to replicate in words the directness of Sea’s typography.

‘We’re creating postcards that will be used as calling cards by charity staff,’ says Edmondson. ‘These can then be left with kids or outreach workers, giving a clear account of [TCSM’s] work. Also, the marque always appears with a strapline and we’ve developed up to ten for different situations.’

Compelling visuals are also vital, especially where literacy standards are poor. ‘You need to talk to them [through] pictures,’ Edmondson says. ‘All the literature we’re designing [for TCSM] is a visually led presentation of who the charity aims to help, what they do and at what time of year.’

TCSM has a link with Arsenal FC, which offers football training – this gets good billing in Sea’s work. Reportage-style photography by Michael Heffernan has also been commissioned. ‘Mike’s so good at making people feel at ease and he just keeps shooting,’ Edmondson adds, ‘That’s why he gets such edgy images.’

Aspirations may be similar between the better-off and the disadvantaged, says Digit design director Nick Cristea, but the latter are more cynical. ‘Their understanding of the realities of life are much sharper,’ he says. ‘They are acutely aware of the vast gap between life sold in the media and life as it really is.’

The Digit team took care not to overestimate its knowledge of the target audience by staging extensive workshops. Regular feedback was used to ensure the tone of the design was credible.

Digit art director Simon Sankarayya explains, ‘We managed to establish a look-and-feel from early on because the kids were very consistent and direct in their feedback. They wanted a design that had a “handmade” quality to it, which they could relate to – a design which they could appreciate for its “effort” over a high-gloss, aspirational solution.’

Illustrator Emile Adams created characters to guide visitors around the website. They operate as impartial conduits for information and as figures the kids can identify with. Equally, though, it’s vital to show a positive image, something to inspire a charity’s clients.

Digit avoided ‘conventional branding’ and Mark Griffiths, a freelance writing consultant formerly at Interbrand, agrees with that strategy. ‘[Branding] falls down when charities perceive consultants are treating them the same as they would a commercial entity,’ he says. ‘With every charity [client], I’ve had to prove myself as a human being first and a consultant second.’

Griffiths worked on Interbrand’s identity for Broadway, another homeless charity with a significant youth audience among its generally holistic ‘street to home’ approach (DW 8 May). To prevent branding seeming ‘hollow’, he believes it must be made relevant to people’s lives – ‘as with any form of marketing to anyone’.

The pressures of fundraising mean the focus of branding projects often isn’t those the charity is trying to help, Edmondson says. He notes ‘the biggest audience by far’ is corporate sponsors.

Telling individual stories is one way to ensure the true stakeholders are the focus of design work, rather than accessories to it. ‘[Design and branding] can mean reducing [a charity’s] often complex messages to their most basic levels,’ says Griffiths.

He adds that ‘involvement or inclusivity’ functions at several levels – from trustees via supporters to end-beneficiaries. But convincing a charity’s employees of the value of branding is paramount, particularly when the word ‘values’ as used by consultants ‘doesn’t carry the same depth of meaning as it does in charities’.

Design groups regularly have to ‘show charities where boundaries lie’ in terms of what is ‘off-brand’ as well as what is ‘on-brand’, Griffiths says. ‘This means pushing them to their limits and helping them see how their audiences view their messages.’

This applies in most cases, but especially so with young people. And the lesson is? Keep it real – don’t parachute in design with good intentions and no sense of where you’re landing.

Latest articles