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Design for Non-Designers: Crafting a Brand Narrative

Graphic DesignMultimedia & Design

This month, we are very excited to be introducing a brand new series titled Design for Non-Designers! Over the next several weeks, we will be looking at a wide range of design tools, complete with tutorials and tips, to elevate your nonprofit’s story and reach. To get us started, today we will be exploring the foundational elements of good design and how they work in action to craft a brand narrative.

The Elements of Good Design

Good design is unmistakably intuitive, captivating, and compelling. It is also deceptively simple: the more impactful a good design is, the more work usually goes behind the scenes to streamline its presentation. In fact, this is arguably where the magic of good design lies: taking complex ideas and turning them into accessible and evocative calls to action.

The rise of digital communication has made design more important than ever for nonprofits, which is why having a solid grasp of what makes good design work is so important. But you do not need a big budget or full-time dedicated staff to be able to appreciate its foundations. Understanding the basics of what makes good designs work can take you a long way, helping you to communicate your vision and collaborate with experts more seamlessly.

As any design theory will explain, there are several elements and principles of design that help engage an audience and make visuals stand out (elements are the basic units that you use to form visual structure and messages, and principles are how you use the elements of design to create a cohesive piece). Thinking about your needs while keeping these elements in mind will help you make decisions about how to execute concepts and the intended goal for your final output.

While the number of elements and principles will differ depending on your school of thought (some say there are seven principles, others ten), we recommend starting with these eight elements of design:

  • Line: Defined as a point moving in space, the element of line is also the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece. It directs the flow of content.
  • Colour: The practice of combining hue (red, blue, yellow, etc.), saturation (brightness and dullness) and values (black and white), to achieve a desired visual impact. This element encompasses all aspects of colour theory: colour harmony, contrasts and schemes.
  • Shape: A two-dimensional area that is defined or implied by a type of boundary (i.e. can be a difference in colour, line or texture). Generally there are two types of shapes: geometric/mechanical (drawn using a ruler or compass) or organic/irregular (resembling shapes found in nature).
  • Texture:The physical and visual qualities of a surface. Physical, or tactile/actual texture, can be perceived by touch (i.e. tree bark), and visual, or implied texture, is perceived by sight (i.e. photo of a tree bark)
  • Typography: How text is arranged in the design, including typeface, font, spacing, size and weight.
  • Scale (aka size): The size of the elements in relation to one another.
  • Balance: The state of visual tension and equilibrium, this principle describes each element as having a visual weight (i.e., how much attention it draws in the design) and that a successful composition should give an appearance of properly distributed elements, whether it be symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial or mosaic.
  • Harmony: How well the elements of design work together. When all elements of design are in agreement, visual unity (aka harmony) is achieved. No individual part of the design is more important than the other, and nothing is superfluous.

Familiarizing yourself with these eight elements and principles will help you brainstorm concepts that communicate a strong message and find the right visuals to support it. For example: what colour palette will you be working with? Will you go for saturated colours or use any shades or filters in your schemes? Will you go for harmony or contrast? Will your lines be vertical, horizontal, diagonal or curved? Will you use more than one font?

Good design is ultimately a combination of many incremental decisions and a process of elimination. To gain a better sense of how to incorporate these elements into the creative process, this free tutorial by Canva walks you through 20 principles of design to help you learn more about what they are and how they work together. For a more in-depth exploration, their graphic design basics course offers 12 self-paced modules to learn how to ‘design to communicate’, while you can find the full Introduction to the Elements and Principles of Design on the Adobe Education Exchange platform.

Image Credit: Canva, find the full infographic here.

Building a Brand Narrative

Another reason why design is an important asset for nonprofits is because of the role it plays in defining a strong brand identity. While it is common to think of branding as the exclusive territory of commercial enterprises, in truth it is an element of great importance for building familiarity, trust, connection, and loyalty among nonprofit audiences and members.

Branding is what will give meaning and personality to your organization. It also contributes to continuity of message and mission cohesiveness, helping to create memorable experiences and lending legitimacy to campaigns and other calls to action.

In essence, branding is what helps your nonprofit tell its story. Elements like logos, colour schemes, and web design are reflections and extensions of your core mission, values, and goals. If you nonprofit is looking to define its brand identity or is looking to spruce up its existing one, consider the following guiding questions:

  • What are the top 10 keywords that best capture the spirit of your practice and approach? The goal is be as succinct and descriptive as possible – if this were a wordcloud, what would be the most accurate, evocative, and pragmatic words you’d use to describe what your mission and work is all about?
  • What are the 5 key messages you'd like to see coming out of your brand narrative? In other words, what would you like to be really clear about what you do? If you were to think of the Who, What, Where, When, and Why, how would these answers be woven into your key messages?
  • Can you name the top 3 drivers that inspire your work and the reasons why you do it? Do you see the work that you do fitting into a broader goal? How would your work answer the 'so what/why does this matters' questions?
  • What makes you unique as an organization? What about you do you want to make sure jumps out from the narrative? Are there any specific skills, qualifications or aspects of your mission that you know make you uniquely positioned to advance your mission?
  • Do you prefer a more conversational style of communication, or something more professional-sounding, in the third person?
  • What organizations do you look up to? What do you like about their brand narratives and designs?

For additional guidance on creating (or revamping) your brand, this questionnaire by Column Five has lots of helpful prompts to guide your process.

Creating a Brand Guide

With answers to these questions refined, you’re in a great place to put together your brand guide, also known as a style guide. This is a document that will help you translate your vision into actionable and scalable design elements to accompany all your communications. In other words, once you’ve identified your core keywords and message(s), a brand guide will help you produce visuals to match them. It will also ensure that you maintain consistency across all outputs you produce––whether that’s a newsletter, blog post, letterhead, presentation deck, or more. It will also help you create new outputs more easily if you decide to branch out to other media like Instagram stories or Facebook ads.

Bonus: a brand guide will save you lots of time and will ensure that almost anyone can execute new designs because it will act as a reference and resource hub for your entire organization and its collaborators.

What To Include in Your Brand Guide

A big part of the branding process essentially boils down to creating a universal visual language for your nonprofit. To achieve this, you’ll need to define the parameters of core elements such as:

  • Logo
  • Colour palette
  • Typography (aka fonts)
  • Web design
  • Photography, Video and/or Illustration, if any
  • Icons and/or data visualization

Depending on your mission and your needs, your brand guide may include other elements (for example, packaging, envelope design, etc.) The point is to make sure that your guide includes everything you need to make sure that your identity translates cohesively across any medium you choose to engage with.

Image Credit: Brand Identity Guidelines by Logo Training Channel

Tips for a Strong Brand Guide

Pick a colour palette and stick with it!

Use the logo as your foundation and build from there. Be sure to provide RGB, CMYK and hex colour values for each colour in your chosen palette, to ensure your brand colours appear consistent across all media (e.g., print, web, video). It’s ok to offer a few additional colour combinations for your logo and other communications, but make sure you do not deviate from your primary and secondary colour schemes. It will affect recognizability and trust in the long run, so deviating from your palette may confuse your audience.

Pro Tip: You can use platforms like Adobe Color or Coolors to generate palettes or find ready-made colour schemes to draw inspiration from.

Show your personality through fonts:

Typographic elements are a big part of how your brand identity and style are conveyed to others. Think about your preferred style of communication (conversational vs formal) and pick a font that reflects your unique personality and needs. They will help your message be more memorable. Here too it’s important to be consistent. You will likely have more than one typeface in your brand guide, so reserve a specific use to each typeface (e.g., logo, header, etc.) and stick to it. Using too many fonts, or using your fonts inconsistently, will look less professional and will hurt your presentation.

Pro Tip: If you don’t know where to look to find the perfect font for your nonprofit, check out font libraries like Adobe Fonts, Google Fonts, or DaFont to get started.

Define how your logo will be used:

Your brand guide is the place to dictate when and how your logo should be used––where it should be placed, what variations are acceptable, and what uses to avoid.

Pro Tip: Tutorials and templates abound online! You can download this free e-book by Tubik Magazine devoted to strategies and creative stages of efficient logo design and successful branding. To get started designing your own logo, check out this free tutorial by Adobe Creative Cloud!

Think about web elements

With the majority of communication happening on digital platforms these days, it’s important to think about your online persona. How will your brand identity inform your online presence on social media, websites, and other channels? In addition to visual elements, are there any particular words or taglines that should always appear on these pages?

Pro Tip: Check out Adobe’s 8 Basic Design Principles to Help You Create Better Graphics to learn about what other design elements will make your web graphics stand out.


For more on how to craft your own brand guide, this two-part tutorial by Adobe Creative Cloud walks you through the process of creating the brand identity for an ice cream Shop. You can also consult these step-by-step guides by 99designs and Tubik studio for a written breakdown. And, of course, don’t forget to check out TechSoup Canada’s catalogue offerings to access valuable tools to support and enhance your design journey, including many Adobe products! We’ll be diving into some of those next week, so stay tuned for part 2 of our series!