June 23, 2011

Making Smart Design Central to Nonprofits

Elefint Designs, an organization that helps nonprofits and businesses create innovative designs, worked with designer Brooks Hassig to make this infographic for The Art of Living Foundation.

When most people in the nonprofit world refer to design, they mean the process behind creating a Web site or logo.

But to Matthew Scharpnick, chief strategy officer at Elefint Designs, a company in San Francisco that works primarily with nonprofits and businesses focused on the social good, design is central to how nonprofits communicate and serve people.

Nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America have made design a central part of their operations—and they have grown considerably as a result, he says.

Habitat for Humanity, for example, has designed a program that makes it easy for volunteers who are interested in taking part in daylong service projects.

“Habitat has a clearly defined and well articulated mission that anyone can understand—we build homes for people—and has made it easy for anyone to participate in a project that has immediate and tangible results,” Mr. Scharpnick says. “Habitat has managed to elevate itself to a category of service in many people’s minds.”

And it has done so using design that extends throughout its operations.

“If nonprofits can embrace all aspects of design, from branding and strategy to visual and user experience, they can build strong brands that quickly convey their values in a meaningful and compelling way,” he says.

What can nonprofits learn from businesses like Apple and Virgin America, which make design part of everything they do? And what are your favorite examples of nonprofit groups that have made design central to what they do?

In the coming weeks, we’d like to start a conversation about how nonprofit groups can embrace smart design.

To help get things going, Mr. Scharpnick has offered to donate his services to help a Chronicle reader develop an informational graphic that highlights his or her organization’s work.

To qualify for this contest, please share your favorite example of a nonprofit that understands design, and include your thoughts about how that organization is putting design to use. You can post your example in the comments field below.

Mr. Scharpnick will select the most interesting and creative answer as the winner of the free graphic.