July 12, 2012

How to Make Sure Your Logo Tells Your Story

Your organization's logo offers the world a glimpse of who you are and what you do. It should not just be instantly recognizable but also offer a clear and compelling narrative that people will remember.

Too often, nonprofits attempt to do too much with a logo, or they use generic, ubiquitous, and clichéd visual motifs that ignore what makes a group special.

How many times have we seen a nonprofit using a logo with people holding hands? Or maybe the ever-popular abstract human-like figure.  Perhaps they were joined in a circle, or included the planet:

It is, of course, easy to understand the thinking behind these logos. Many nonprofits serve people and the planet. It makes sense to show people lifting each other up, holding hands, working together, and making progress as a community.

However, if your logo looks like everyone else's logo, you stop saying anything at all.  If all nonprofits see themselves as helping people and the planet, you don’t really communicate anything valuable by focusing on such a generic theme.

To communicate the right message, it's important to find the right designer–someone who takes the time to understand your organization’s core values and what makes you different. Then you can focus on creating a logo that truly captures your story. Here's what to keep in mind as you begin:

Overly complex logos can sometimes lead to funny misinterpretations.

This logo was designed in 1973 for the Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Youth Commission.

Comprehensive Health Care ... in the nude.

In contrast, below are some examples of logos that are simple and distinctive and that send a clear message.

Use shapes that have meaning.

If you are going to use multiple shapes, colors, etc., then know why you are doing what you’re doing. Every element counts, and you should be able to explain to anyone what each piece means.

Established in 1995 by Unicef, Voices of Youth is a global project that seeks to give young people a place not just to voice their opinions but also to learn about major social issues such as the environment, HIV and AIDS, and human rights. Its logo, shown below, is both inviting and youthful, giving the sense that such serious matters can be tackled and even remedied by young people.


Voices of Youth even created an icon series that plays off the speech bubble in a great use of design to tell a story and engage its audience. Here's the series that it uses throughout its Web site:

Personality matters.

Nostrand Park, a group that promotes arts and culture in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, was able to get a logo designed pro bono by Wire Media, a company that works with socially responsible businesses and many nonprofits. The logo is based on the concept of “intersections” and strives to reflect the vibrancy of the neighborhood, which is  composed mostly of people of Caribbean descent or people of the Hasidic Jewish faith.   As you can see below, a simple yet eclectic color pallet combined with custom typography, gives the group a personality that draws people to it.

Simplicity is key.

Think about logos you really love. Why do you love them? And think about those you don't like. Why do you remember them? Are they overly complex, too literal, too abstract, or do they strike your interest and leave you wanting more?

One, an advocacy group that seeks to curb poverty, struck the balance just right with its simple and bold logo. No complex color scheme or human figures. It’s serious but inviting. With the use of black and white that’s carried over to its Web site, I get the feeling that poverty can be tackled. All I have to do is take action.

You may think that a more literal logo (the ones with the globes, human figures, etc.) would better appeal to your constituencies. But remember that before you try to please your board of directors, lawyer, and staff members, you’re first catering to people who ultimately like beautiful things. When evaluating your logo or approaching the redesign process, here are a few key words that can help:

  • Simple
  • Has personality
  • Tells a story (but not a long one)
  • Every element carries meaning
  • Void of any unnecessary elements

Working with designers to achieve those goals is another story, of course. We'll tackle that in a later post. Meanwhile, let us know what nonprofit logos you like and why.

Matthew Scharpnick is the co-founder of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes.