Producing Effective Graphics and Materials

In the early days of computers, predictions about a “paperless” office and society were commonplace. But while it’s true that the amount of digital memory in use has skyrocketed, the use of paper still continues to increase. Whether it is in the form of regular mail, printed emails, press kits, brochures, reports or news releases, printed matter still is part of the overall outreach strategy of effective nonprofits. You should have electronic versions of key publications for emailing or posting on your Web site and  plan to design publications for printing on paper and on-line.

Many of the basic principles of graphic design apply to print and web, but there are guidelines for print that don’t apply to the Web. And as long as people have a paper mailbox, the look and feel of printed matter can still speak volumes about your organization.

Communicating electronically does entail some special considerations, including the choice of format for your documents. For example, common formats for Web posting and e-mailing are HTML and PDF. Be careful which you choose, and where possible, offer both options.

Why offer both? For one, when you are communicating with journalists, HTML is almost always preferable, for the simple reason that it is far easier to cut and paste from HTML. The exceptional cases where a PDF might be better include situations where the layout of the pages is paramount. So if you are posting or e-mailing a document that is meant to be printed, with specific elements meant to appear on specific pages and an audience limited to non-journalists, a PDF might be okay. For instance, if you have prepared an elaborate newsletter with strong graphic elements for your members or your funders, you might choose PDF. But if you think that same newsletter would be of interest to a reporter, prepare an HTML version for them, or skip the PDF altogether.

Also, note that for some users, PDF’s can take along time to download. This might include audiences in developing nations with slower Internet access. Conversely, some of your more technologically advanced audiences might rely on “Web feed” services like RSS (Real Simple Syndication), which are used in connection with blogs and other regularly updated content like podcasts. RSS eliminates the need for a user to browse to a Web site every time to get new content, hence the “feed” aspect. And RSS feeds don’t pick up PDFs.

It’s better to e-mail a journalist a hyperlink to your carefully laid-out documents and Web pages than to use any kind of attachment, ever.

Choosing a Look

Generally speaking, an arts organization would want Web graphics and printed materials that reflect a well-developed aesthetic sense. A group fighting childhood disease would want to offer a hopeful, colorful appearance, although not humorous or flippant. Certain colors and causes have also become associated. All these principles apply to Web and printed graphics equally, but there are print-only rules that reflect the differences between print and in the internet. Web sites don’t concern themselves with paper stock, or the size of the printed object. But the return address on your envelope, the look of your logo, and the layout of your press release all send signals about your organization. A confusing, slipshod press release on plain typing paper can give the impression that the source is fly-by-night and unreliable. On the other hand, high-gloss, four-color materials that look too expensive can also send the wrong messages.

For example, an environmental group distributing kits that cannot be recycled invites criticism. The press kit that comes from an antipoverty group should not look like one prepared for a major corporation. Generally speaking, printed materials prepared for nonprofits and public agencies should be well designed but not glossy.


You can get just the “look” you want by combining desktop publishing and some professional advice.

Using the Design Studio and Print Shop on Your Desk

As in so many other fields, computers have brought about remarkable changes in graphic design and publishing. Decades ago, the process was based on photographic technology. Today, digital desktop publishing is the standard.

As processing speeds have increased, so has the ability to create, edit, and display images of all kinds. Desktop publishing packages offer a range of templates and computerized “coaches” or “wizards” that can take even a beginner step-by-step through the process of laying out a flyer, newsletter, brochure, report, or other document.

Recently, the availability of moderately priced scanners and digital cameras has taken PC users to even greater heights in designing and assembling sophisticated documents. All the equipment fits on an average desktop. With optical character recognition (scanning) software, it is possible to transform hard copies of existing documents into digital files for editing or redesign. The World Wide Web has opened a vast range of possibilities for small publishers. Today’s computer software packages anticipate the need for publishing on the World Wide Web by integrating print, on-screen, and overhead presentations.

Making Decisions Before Contacting a Graphic Designer

At some point in this process, you will probably want to involve a professional graphic designer. Many talented young designers may have been trained in the technical aspects of print production, but might have done relatively little of it compared to their work on sites. Be sure to ask for samples of both print and internet design if yours is like most organizations that rely on both print material and the internet to reach your various audiences.

Also, be ready to discuss ownership issues with top-notch designers, especially in big cities. Some of the best will provide a basic design for a set fee, but charge more if you intend to revise their work in future publications and postings. And the cost differential can be 30 percent or more.

Before you schedule any time interviewing potential designers, give serious thought to the following issues:

  • Know your audiences. If your funders include large numbers of academics and other professionals, you may want a greater emphasis on text than if you’re trying to reach the general public. And remember that some fonts are easier on older eyes ” “cutting edge” typography doesn’t cut it if your best supporters cannot read your text.
  • Know the tone you want to convey. Should it be dignified and traditional, jazzy and hip, or streamlined, modern, and informal? Clip out or save materials you like and show them to your designer.
  • Have a sense of appropriate colors. Putting orange with black works for Halloween and not much else. Pastels convey a softer feeling. Some blues are tranquil; others are electric.
  • Develop a time line. Plan to have the process take at least three to six weeks from start to finish. Last-minute rush jobs cost more money and usually do not work as well as designs created in a calmer atmosphere.
  • Have a reasonable budget. Determine well in advance if you have several hundred or several thousand dollars to spend. Do not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If you have a limited budget, think about asking a top-quality designer to consider working pro bono, for a nonprofit rate or at a lower rate than for big corporations. If you have no budget, then rely on the templates in your word processing program.

Here are some less expensive graphic design options:

  • Designers or advertising professionals who are members of your organization.
  • Local advertising agencies that will take on your account as a public service.
  • Local colleges with art departments. College seniors or graduate students may be looking for projects with which to build their portfolios before leaving school.
  • Your professional printer. Some printers have in-house designers and provide graphic services as a part of a package deal.

Starting with the Basics

For starters, you will need graphics artwork for general stationery and news releases. This might mean a logo redesign and new color schemes.

Without a consistent look for all graphical applications, it’s easy to wind up with a hodge-podge of publications, letterheads, and designs. If this is the case in your organization, collect all written materials from across your various departments and divisions. Spread them across the table at the next meeting of your media team and try to reach a consensus on a consistent “look” for your organization. It should be recognizable in printed matter from across the room, and carry through onto every page your site. The cover of Time, for instance, is instantly recognizable for its distinctive red border, a design element that is echoed throughout

With consistency in mind, ask your graphic designer to do several rough design layouts, or review the appropriate templates from your software before selecting a final version. The design might include large text that says “News About …,” or you might place a typeset “News Release” across the top of your standard stationery. Use the same design for envelopes, stationery, and press kit folders. Spend extra time designing envelopes or mailing labels, using as much care as you would in direct mail appeals for fundraising.

Depending on your budget, other useful graphic elements could include the following:

  • Your logo or group name blown up and mounted on foam board for use on the front of the lectern during press conferences or televised meetings.
  • Digital files of your logo, for TV, as a background on talk shows, news segments, or public affairs programs. JPEG’s are a basic format that is adaptable for most applications. Be sure your logo is also available in a high-resolution format to prevent it from getting fuzzy when enlarged. That can make even the most professional logo seem like an amateur job. You should also consider having different versions of the logo available, for example, some that include your group’s tag line or motto, and some that do not;  different layouts that can be used to fit a wide horizontal space, a vertical space, or a small space depending on how and where it is being used.
  • Charts or graphs on major aspects of your main themes, principles, or points, sized to fit on easels for use during press briefings or conferences. Make sure the print is large enough to be readable from all corners of the room. Keep copy to a minimum. Reduce the graphs and make copies of them for insertion into press kits.
  • You should have a digital folder of good quality head shots and other photos of your officers and key staff. Many groups now include pictures along with staff bios on their sites to help visitors feel they know your group better, but individuals who prefer not have their pictures posted should be permitted to opt out.

Designing Printed Graphics: Tips

Think about the reader or viewer who is encountering your organization for the first time. What do your logo and printed materials say to that person, both visually and verbally? What will a reporter see upon opening your envelope or visiting your site for the first time? If you have close friends or relatives who are reporters, ask for their advice on what grabs their attention. They might be willing to show you graphics that they like so that you can see your competition firsthand.

Stay away from complex graphics that may be aesthetically pleasing to experts but incomprehensible to outsiders.

Do not use color for its own sake, and be sure to think about what a color graphic will look like if it is printed out. Think about using cross-hatching or other elements to distinguish data points, rather than using color alone. And don’t forget that white space is as important as text

Nonprofits relying on volunteer support will need strongprinted materials that can be handled and copied over and over again. Before deciding on a design, make four or five generations of your stationery to be sure the words are still legible.

Designing TV Graphics: Tips

When having charts designed for TV, try to use an artist with experience in broadcasting. High-gloss paper can cause serious problems; the camera can pick up glare. Also, certain designs will cause a rainbow “rippling” on TV. Some colors don’t work as well as others. You may want to ask artists working at local TV stations whether they do freelance work for outside groups.

Make it a regular habit to prepare and update digital files and video presentations of “evergreen” data (those with a long shelf life) for possible use by TV talk shows or in local news features. Just having that kind of information may make them more interested in your work. Beware of including too much information in any graphic, especially in presentation materials. Keep graphics as simple as possible, and do not put more than one chart on a page or slide.

When designing visuals for backdrops, remember that in 2008 and following, TV broadcasters and cable outlets will move to high definition signals. Big screen TVs typically will have an aspect ratio of 16:9. For visuals at a news conference, this change suggests that a board measuring 48 inches wide and 27 inches high (or other multiples of 16 and 9) will not only be readable from across the room but also fit onto the screen of most viewers.

Written Materials

Although most organizations increasing rely on e-mail to transmit information, you will still need certain basic printed materials for the media to use. Physically mailing a catchy postcard or succinct threefold brochure may be a good way to introduce yourself to reporters and editors who might not pay attention to an e-mail from an unknown organization.

News Advisories, Press Releases, and Tip Sheets: Simpler Is Better

In today’s busy newsroom, time is of the essence. Reporters do not have enough of it to read lengthy news releases or to plow through long reports. Keep your release as simple and straightforward as possible. You have less than ten seconds in which to capture their attention, so it is critical that your releases be well written and include a summary box, a picture with caption or a compelling pull quote to make your key points right up front.

Your written release may take one of several basic forms.

  • A media advisory is a specialized kind of release that offers only bare bones information: the who, what, where, when, and why of an event or news conference. At the top, list the contact person’s name, e-mail address, office phone number, and cell phone. For the date, put either “Use through …” or “Good until …” so reporters know when to toss it in the wastebasket. You might include a single sentence explaining the event, but don’t confuse an advisory with a full-blown release.
  • A press release is generally two to four pages, or 500 to 1,000 words. It is double-spaced and includes a headline and subhead. It should grab your reader’s attention and entice him or her to do a story. Write it so that smaller media, such as weekly papers or local radio stations, can print or air the information as a ready-made story, making only minor changes.
  • A media tip sheet can give reporters story ideas several weeks in advance of a release or event and can suggest local contacts and ideas for national stories. A “tip” sheet is just that”it shares a helpful hint or useful information in a sentence or two. Send along several tips in each release.

Final Tips

  • Combine professional help with in-house graphics.
  • Use cost-saving strategies.
  • Develop a standard press kit.
  • Create “evergreen” materials.
  • Package speeches and clips.