Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Your Ugly Baby - Design & Your Small Nonprofit

image from

To some people, every baby is a cute baby.
I'm not one of those people. I have a low tolerance for ugly. Not quite as low as my tolerance for stupid, but gettin' there.

I just don't see why it's necessary to put these ugly things out. Seriously, after all the time and effort that goes into one of these things, you'd think the result would be better.

When I get one of these ugly babies, my first reaction is, "Oh no, you di-int!" My next reaction is to toss it - as far away from me as possible.

Okay, maybe my reaction is a little extreme, but some of these newsletters are so ugly they could get seasonal work in a haunted house.

What'd you think I was talking about?

In The Eye of the Beholder - Ouch!

One of the local nonprofits - music related - sends out a newsletter once a week, telling its subscribers where the music they like will be playing around town. It's in one narrow column, some parts left-justified, other portions centered, and the typeface varies between Times Roman and Arial as though the info was just dumped in the way it came into the mailbox. Links are generally displayed as the actual URL, such as: http://smallnonprofit/post-create=87812436695091. Nice, huh?

To be honest, I don't really know if it stays this way all through the newsletter, 'cause I've never made it that far. I stay subscribed because I keep thinking one of these days, I'll email them and suggest a bit of a make-over, using specific examples. I haven't done it yet, because - well, how do you tell someone their baby is ugly?

That River in Egypt

These are some reasons I've heard from people about why their newsletter doesn't look as good as it could:

  • We don't have time to worry about making things 'pretty' (the last word is said as though it contains something sour)
  • We don't have anyone on staff who understands graphics and type and can't afford to outsource the design, and anyway, we'd rather use the money for the program
  • The message is the most important thing
  • I think it looks great! (usually said by the person who did the work or someone who has to work with the person who did the work)
That's Right; You're Wrong!

I once worked with someone who thought "prettying up" a corporate newsletter was tantamount to dusting it with powder and shoving it to toddle out the door in ill-fitting diapers. She was certain that the people getting it didn't care any more about the crowded type or moire-distorted images than she did. And, I've worked with people who know they don't know anything about design or type and have just thrown up their hands, saying, "At least we got it out."

We all like our newsletters to look "professional" - that is, as though we know what the hell we're doing. Unprofessional is a newsletter that frustrates people, and frustrated people often turn away from that which frustrates them, which means your message is lost in transit.

Invest the Time

In the olden olden days before MailChimp or Constant Contact, you might have had to live with ugly design. When dinosaurs walked the earth, some of us had to spec type and use rubylith and text copy had to go to a typesetter and then be "laid out." But even if you're a very small nonprofit, there are now several online tools to help you make that newsletter look good, and no excuse not to use them. Templates are available to get you started and some come with typefaces already attached so that all that's necessary is to get in the text and pictures.

Those of us who were trained in graphic art and remain fixated on type and design know that's not all there is to it. And honestly, my feeling is that if you want your newsletter to shine, then you should invest some time in learning about design and type. You don't have to become an expert, but you can learn the basics from respected designers by starting with a Google search. As with anyone who's in love with what they do, many designers are generous with their knowledge and some even put together detailed tutorials to help the uninitiated. Schools, in particular, can provide online guidance.

I know you don't have a lot of spare time. Nobody does. But isn't having a clue better than hit and miss? Especially when you're trying to communicate a message that means a lot to you and to others?

Of course, it's up to you. It always is. It's your baby.
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