Friday, October 23, 2009

Four Amateur Design Mistakes

image via

Note: Tomorrow is International Day of Climate Action. Be part of the solution by getting the world's politicians ready to act on a Global Climate Treaty in December. Click on the banner on the right and attend an event tomorrow!

Usually I focus on social media or writing, since that is what I do, but I've also done my share of design work. This week, I've decided to address some problems that are common to small nonprofits when designing brochures and other outreach materials in-house.

You're Doing What, Now?

No question. If you have the budget for a professional designer for your brochure or other Marketing Communications/Outreach materials, then engage one. Working on design all day, everyday is what professionals are about. A good one will get to understand your nonprofit and give you the design you need to support and enhance your communication of your mission and the people it serves. Unless you're really, really, REALLY lucky, asking someone on staff to take care of it is asking someone who isn't trained and is already wearing at least one other hat, if not more. This means you will likely get not-as-good design and get it in twice the time. If you rush them, you won't even get not-as-good design. Especially if he or she hasn't the right tools, which (again) is likely in a budget-crunched small nonprofit. Face it - MS Publisher is not InDesign. Not even close.

My expert for this post is Cathy Moon of New Moon Design Group in Santa Cruz, CA. Cathy is a professional designer who has worked with many of the small businesses and nonprofits in our central coast area. She's the go-to designer for the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County's Open Studios Art Tour Catalog/Calendar each year and she has more than a few times had to ride to the rescue of materials suffering from bad design. She says small nonprofits need to look at design for these pitfalls:

Too Much Information
Keep the text simple and to the point. Sure, your nonprofit does a lot of good and can use a lot of help, but focus on the greatest benefits and needs. People will call or check out your website for details.
I'll second that. As much as I love text, remember that with marketing materials, text is another graphic element. It takes up space and it should work with the graphic elements, not crowd them. Say it clearly and as sparely as possible for the best result.

Poor Quality Images 
Even though you are a non-profit, people like eye-candy. It helps strengthen the integrity of your program if your images have a high-resolution and are well taken. Again, don't use too many; keep it simple to tell your story.
Too many times, I've seen small nonprofits try to use 96 dpi (dots per inch) for printed materials. That resolution is best for websites, not quality printing. If you can't get better resolution (at least 300 dpi, if not more), think about purchasing a few high-resolution stock images from iStock or another photographic stock vendor. For an event where you know you will need photos, consider renting a digital SLR camera or asking a photography-savvy volunteer to take some pictures for credit.

Buried or Unclear How-Can-I-Help?
Make it very clear how someone can easily make a quick donation or volunteer some time.
Indeed. It's a shame to make people who want to volunteer time or money to your nonprofit hunt all over the brochure or newsletter or find out how they can do it.

Poor Quality Printing
Just because you are a non-profit doesn't mean you can't afford professionally printed material. Nowadays there are many on-line print companies who can print beautiful, 4-color brochures, flyers and newsletters sometimes at the same cost as copies.
Although in-house copiers are miles beyond those old purple, nasty-smelling ditto machines of my youth, some materials really do require professional printing to deliver the most impact. As Cathy points out, there are a lot more printing options than there used to be and you're not restricted to brick-and-mortar print houses in your community. Although, if you're lucky enough to have a printer that thinks green and is community minded, then you're ahead of things. And remember, that using your copier for doing newsletters and invites and brochures, etc., is using it for purposes it wasn't designed to serve except in short quantities. Turning it into a substitute press will likely mean more maintenance and a shorter life for the machine, and that is probably not built into your budget.

The Last Word

Again, if you can, use a professional both for design and printing. And when you find your small nonprofit in the position of having to do the design work for materials, make sure you keep Cathy's advice in mind or even as part of your checklist. Better design means a better reception for your nonprofit's "brand;" a perception of a higher level of professionalism and stability. And these perceptions can mean better return on your design investment!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Climate Change - Who's Right Doesn't Matter (Blog Action Day 2009)

Blog Action Day 2009

I have a friend who, for a long time, would not concede that climate change was real. He gave the usual opinion that statistics can say whatever you want them to say. Now he agrees that climate change is real, but argues that it's a natural occurrence - it's happened before and will happen again - we'll just have to adjust.

In that sense, he's right; we will have to adjust, because at this point it's not likely that we can avoid all of the effects. 

Newton Said It

Remember learning that actions have equal and opposite reactions? Well, if you look at the world's ecological hotspots, you can see where the plant and animal kingdoms are telling us that there's a heck of a lot of stuff going on and the reactions are not good. And it's not just those exotic animals and plants you've never seen outside of a zoo or arboretum that will be affected - 

Welcome to the Future

Warmer temperatures will mean grape growing regions will have to move north. No more French wine, unless the French decide to invade England. And you may still take a tropical island vacation, but not in Indonesia, where their Environment Minister announced that as many as 2,000 islands could disappear under the waves. 

No more of the safe-to-eat wild salmon and no more lobster dinners. Think avocados and nuts are expensive now? Wait until there's a 20 to 40 percent drop in the yield because of global warming.

But it won't all be loss - you'll have a lot more mosquitoes and poison ivy. And feral cats, because the warmer temperatures are already extending their breeding season.

There may be less fish, but you'll have more stinging jellyfish closer to shore, which means you might not swim as much in the ocean, but since the giant squid are moving from the equator up even as far as Alaska now, you might want to give up ocean sports, anyway.

Maybe this still seems fairly trivial (if you don't count the multitudes of plants and animals who disappear or turn up in odd places because their habitats are gone), but while you're trying to figure out whether or not to pay $15 (or more) for a cup of coffee, other people's homes are drying up and blowing away or sinking into the ocean. Fresh water is becoming scarce and therefore so are food supplies, leading to wars, mass migrations, famine and a resurgence of diseases including malaria in places that formerly never had it.

Be Right - But Don't Be Dead Right

The data is in: global warming is happening. Maybe the way we've tucked into our natural resources as though they were an all you can eat buffet isn't the reason for it. But maybe it is. If it isn't, there isn't much we can do except try to adjust as best as possible and lay in plenty of freeze-dried ice cream, because the Survivalists aren't good at sharing. But if there's a chance we can reverse the trend by the actions that we take, then doesn't it just make good sense to try?

If my friend is right, he can say "I told you so." But if he isn't, and we can initiate change before our children and grandchildren become characters in a real-life version of  dystopian Mad Max, we can magnanimously take the high road, opting to say nothing and just continue to sip our French wine.

Take action now. Join me and the World Wildlife Federation in Acting for Our Future. Tell your elected officials you want climate change legislation. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell your Twitter followers and everyone on LinkedIn and Plaxo, Orkut and yes, even Myspace. Post it on Facebook. Write a blog post about it. Even if you never screw in another energy-saving lightbulb, you will know you did something important. 

If you don't want to, fine. I understand. No, not really. 

And if you're not writing, emailing, or phoning your senator to get climate legislation, then write NASA - tell them to stop bombing the moon, 'cause you might have to live there and bomb craters could affect the property values.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Social Media - You Will Obey...You Will Obey...

image via DefenseTech

This week I was involved in a minor flap with the Development Director at a private agency I used to work for. The for-profit for which I'm now a contractor put out a news release about something we were doing in tandem with the agency. It was my idea, and everyone agreed it was a win-win until the Development Director got a copy of the company's news release sent out via an online news distribution service through our PR agency.

Are You Kidding Me?

From the email tirade I got from the Development Director, you would have thought I was personally trying to sabotage their mission (I'll cover some of this in another post about partnerships). The Director then demanded that I re-work every instance of publicity to the Director's satisfaction.

My answer was "no."

Now, I'm not saying the company I work with could not have done better by the agency - it's always possible to do better - but even if it had wanted to meet the Director's demands, it was not possible.

When you're using electronic media to send out information, once it hits the ether, it's GONE. Like a leaf in a hurricane. Like The Flash. Like a rick-roll link. Gone, gone, gone.

In the totally print media days, one could ask for a correction if the facts were omitted or wrong. Or a retraction (for all the good that little notice does). You could argue the writer took the facts out of context and write a rebuttal.

We Control the Vertical - We Control the Horizontal

So, you might think that what I'm saying here is be vewy vewy careful when hunting media wabbits. And that's true; it has been since the days of cuneiform. But what I'm getting at here is that you can't control social media.

You can use it, influence it, excoriate it, react to it, and even try to manipulate and game it. But in the end, it's going to do what all those other people using it want to do, which may not be what you want. Just ask the Star Wars Kid about that.

These days, it's fairly easy to become worried about your "brand." Marketing experts (I use that term loosely) like to talk about that all the time - how you have to be "on brand" and "control your brand" and once you get invested in that idea, you can go a little crazy trying to control every instance of how your brand is presented. But here's the thing: once people start tweeting or Facebooking or otherwise using social media to talk about your nonprofit, control just slips through your fingers. Oh sure, sometimes as with the model who sued Google to find out who was libeling her anonymously on a Blogger blog, you can find someone to hold responsible, but that doesn't stop still more people from talking about what is going on between you and the person you're trying to get to stop talking about you. Get it?


The best you can do is try to understand the beast and you do that by participating and by representing yourself and your nonprofit in such a way that if people hear something bad about you, they'll know it's wrong. As for the rest, if you're there, they can ask you. 

Your Board of Directors can pass all the marketing plans it wants and create the strictest usage policy possible for your logo and your mission, including the exact wording that should be used, and it won't make a doodly squat bit of difference except in your own communications. Even grantees become forgetful or don't execute well. You going to withhold funding because they pixilated your logo on their postcard? And when they hit the social media ether with that, what will you say? Yeah, right.

Take a Time Out and Wax Your Board

In any case, overreacting when you feel slighted is a no-win. Understand that people are going to get it wrong sometimes and that it can't be helped. When you can, reach out with the right information and make contact. In social media, contact is what it's all about. As the saying goes, you can't control the ocean, but you can learn to surf.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ride the Wave - the Google Wave

I know a lot of you don't have time for (or interest in) keeping up with technology news, so I thought I'd take a moment to tell you about something that's got a lot of us geeks all a-Twitter (literally). It's called Google Wave (see the very looonnnggg (nearly 1.5 hrs), very tech-oriented video here).

The Short News

Google Wave looks to be a great tool for interaction and collaboration. Rather than communicating as by email or IM, where you wait for someone to finish typing and respond to them, you will be able to talk or edit within your browser almost concurrently. For example, If you create a Wave and drop a bunch of pictures into it, both you and the people you're conversing with can work to edit the titles of the photos almost at the same time.

Image via

You can bring other people into your conversation at any time and they don't necessarily have to be using Google Wave. If they need to catch up on what the conversation was before they came into it, they can click on the "playback" button to unwind the conversation from the beginning.

While in the Wave, you can drag and drop pictures, videos, diagrams, anything else you need to share. You can collaborate on documents and save the changes in revisions, if you want to.

Extensions, like those provided in FireFox, can be made to extract items and copy them to other applications - for example, filing programming "bug" reports by highlighting them in a Wave conversation. Other extensions can translate into other languages on the fly, determine spelling by context (to vs too vs two), create quick polls, reorganize data, and even export to a blog where comments can be captured live in either the blog or the Wave.

Sounds Great for Developers and Mouse Potatoes, But What About My Small Nonprofit?

How about being able to have quick and useful discussions that result in a document or plan of action without having to wait for someone to gather everything said and turn it into something more useful than conversation?

How about getting a quick poll about what step to take next?

How about being able to look up something online without leaving the conversation and then embed the link into the conversation so everyone can see it? Or dragging and dropping pics, video, maps or charts whenever they're needed and then being able to update them right in the conversation hours or days later so that anyone who refreshes the conversation can see the changes right there instead of having to have them sent out again via email?

There's even a way to have a caucus, including some participants and excluding others, without detection, so you could talk over the finer points of an online negotiation without worry.

Not Here Yet

These are just some of the things that Google Wave will be capable of. Most of the code will be released into the wild so that others can build their own version of Wave while still making it possible for everyone to still communicate, much as you can receive email from or send email to other people, regardless of how they get their email. But the best part of the code being available is that software developers will take it and do some interesting things with it - things that even Google doesn't anticipate and is looking forward to (much like the maps mashups that were developed when they released Google Maps).

Right now, the software is not in release and even developers need an invitation from Google. But keep your eyes open for developments on Google Wave. It may very well change the way you think about online communication and collaboration.

UPDATE (10-14):
If you're still unsure what Google Wave might help with, check out this article from LifeHacker with some use case scenarios. I think you'll be convinced.