Increase social impact through design: a toolkit for mission-driven organizations

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The Jet Fuel Series: A conversation with Ben Abraham, Senior Brand Manager at Storyblocks

The past year has been a great clarifier. We witnessed the emergence of new trends and the calcification of many others that have been developing for years, all forcing us to adapt, pivot, and rethink our work and personal lives. Many mission-driven organizations were pushed into unfamiliar, at times maybe even uncomfortable territory, particularly as it relates to remote culture.

One facet of mission-driven work that this shift toward predominantly digital ways of meeting, connecting, and delivering services has clarified is the need for a thoughtful design and brand identity. Translating a mission and values into a coherent aesthetic, identity, and voice – challenging enough under ordinary circumstances – has been an acute struggle for many small- and mid-sized organizations even prior to the pandemic. But as we are almost fully digital these days, the visual identity of a mission-driven venture is more important than ever.

In the mission-driven space, building a public-facing identity, or refreshing an existing one, is a matter that can no longer be delayed. Like any other business, one of the first tools mission-driven ventures use to interact with their audiences (beneficiaries, donors, funders, supporters etc.) is the way they present and talk about themselves. It’s admittedly something of a cliche to simply advise struggling organizations to think of a brand identity challenge as a massive opportunity. But the fact is that most social impact organizations have the bones of a distinct identity just by virtue of having a mission.

As a seasoned pro in the design and brand marketing space, Ben Abraham, shared with us: It’s not just a hollow platitude to say there’s immense opportunity for ventures with worthy missions when they think about building their public-facing identity. While the trepidation around the time, cost, and expertise needed is founded, there are many services, resources, and ideas organizations can tap to get going.

Ben has been our guide through some of those resources as well as the role that design ultimately has in advancing causes and driving social impact. At his day job, Ben has a leadership role in the stock media subscription service, Storyblocks. He is also deeply embedded in the design community in the Mid-Atlantic where he’s based, and around the world. He shared some points to keep in mind for doubling down on brand and aesthetic, as well as some ideas and inspiration for using design beyond brand identity.

Authenticity is your greatest asset

From Ben’s point of view, a brand’s vision and value proposition are paramount in establishing its identity. In theory, this is something that mission-driven ventures have more or less articulated already in the form of their mission. But Ben stresses that a successful value proposition boils down to authenticity that’s reflected in what you say and do, as well as how.

He referred to his Storyblocks role for a recent example. In the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder, they knew they wanted to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but in a way that showed they were actively calling for, and committing to change within their industry.

“We knew that we cared about Black lives and that we wanted to make a contribution, but we didn’t want it to be writing a check or just making a statement,” says Ben. “We thought about what we could do to help see diversity and representation amplified in our industry.” What came out of that was a campaign called Re:Stock, an expansion of Storyblocks’ existing imagery representing layered experiences of the BIPOC and LBGTQIA+ communities, and a concurrent call on the stock media industry to commit to amplifying diverse stock imagery on a corporate level.

“Everyone has an opportunity to show solidarity, and the solidarity that feels authentic comes from people who ladder it up to their organization’s programmatic thinking and ideals within their industry,” says Ben. To him, solidarity is linked to the vital notion of having a point of view, something that he thinks organizations often shy away from at their own peril.

“I know a lot of brands that don’t have a perspective and have a tendency to play it safe when they’re in the early stages of their growth,” says Ben. “Antiquated organizations oftentimes have a similar tendency. They are scared to embrace change because their customer mix might shift, but you often age out of your customer mix.”

To Ben, adopting a point of view to show solidarity in a way that reflects a brand’s values is vital to its ability to distinguish itself in the immediate term, and sustain itself in the long run.

Credit: Monica Rodman and Storyblocks

Increasing your impact through design

In addition to the impact design can have in helping your organization distinguish itself as a brand and put you on a path to sustainability, it also has massive potential to further your mission. The practicality and application of design and visualization may vary widely depending on the services you offer, the information you share, and who you communicate with.

That said, the permutations of roles design can play in the way you change lives are legion. And there’s not a single, definitive list that captures the broad strokes of where your work intersects with design. Nonetheless, to stimulate your thinking about the ways in which design can help the people you serve, we’ve asked Ben to highlight a few ideas.

  • Making complex data visually digestible

Researchers gather and analyze complex data. Once data is collected, marketers and designers can work alongside research teams to draw insights and depict insights in a way that’s accessible. As a specific example, recent interactive visualization from the New York Times has let readers estimate their “place in line” for the vaccine by answering a few simple questions.

  • Using design and visual storytelling to make narratives accessible

Accessibility means ensuring that users who may encounter difficulties on the web are able to properly engage with an online experience. During the COVID-era we had to move many convenings that were typically conducted in-person to fully online, which can present unique challenges. Accessibility in that context entails things like ensuring that online programs have live captioning services and that principles of inclusive design are followed when creating presentations and marketing materials.

  • Develop your visual design systems to appeal to a particular audience set

Be thoughtful about the mediums and channels you use to amplify your messages. Whether it’s printmaking, poetry, illustration, short-form narratives, murals, or spoken word, there are so many different ways to connect with an audience and amplify your values. When working with AIGA for the recent Designing for Activism event as part of DC Design Week, we highlighted exactly how art and design play a role in efforts to elevate marginalized voices.

  • Giving back to your community to show solidarity

Organizations should be thinking through these efforts and how they ultimately ladder into their brand’s ideals. Ask yourself: “How does the work that I am doing today contribute to building a better future for tomorrow?” Take the Design Continuum Fund as an example, this is a group that awards scholarships to local design-minded students to give them the resources and support to pursue an education in design.

Credit: Design Continuum Fund

Brand and identity services don’t have to be expensive

The design community is often the forerunner of functional and accessible experiences, and it’s an inherently collaborative and supportive field. That adds up to many options when it comes to building a visual identity from scratch—from automated do-it-yourself tools to discounted professional services to enlisting the assistance of volunteers.

“Software takes a lot of time to learn—to become a technical expert. And non-profits don’t always have time to get their hands dirty,” says Ben. “Yet, the digital age has made it a lot easier to customize and access information. Many of companies have pre-packaged solutions or templates that help make the creation of video and campaign creative more accessible.”

On the DIY side, Ben cites the Storyblocks Maker as an example of an accessible online service that makes it easy to create polished videos. And on the website development front, Ben notes that you can always start with a SquareSpace or Webflow template and pull inspiration from other websites through communities such as Awwwards while you build.

Credit: Storyblocks Maker

As far as low- and no-cost professional services go, Ben notes that the design space is flush with networks that connect designers to nonprofits. One place to start is the Design for Good resources listing provided by the American Institute for Graphic Arts.

Ben also cites Allyship and Action and United Designers as two platforms he’s learned a lot from. The latter of which includes channels geared toward those looking for professional help. “People are out there and want to talk to you,” says Ben. “There are a lot of designers, and there are plenty of people who work in the field who want to volunteer their time for causes they care about.”

Ben adds that emerging and established designers alike often welcome different opportunities to use their skills to raise the profile of important issues while gaining more exposure for their own work. And many early-career designers who are still students benefit from having case studies to share as they build their own portfolios—making colleges and universities a great channel for recruiting pro bono design support.

Credit: Logan Bingaman

Your journey with design

As Ben’s guidance has highlighted, design doesn’t just converge with a single moment in a venture’s life-cycle. We suspect many new mission-driven ventures reading may find themselves squarely in the initial phase of figuring out how to translate a mission into a brand with a discrete visual identity. Still others may be in a more advanced place of wanting to leverage design to get complex information in front of audiences, or revolutionize the way they deliver a vital service.

Wherever you’re at in your journey, it’s valuable to always think of design as a tool with a range of applications—large and small, complex and simple. And, just like any other part of your work, your mission is your true north when it comes to design. If you’re ever in doubt of where to start or go, always go back to the mission that distinguishes you in the larger ecosystem of impact and change.

Ben Abraham is Senior Brand Manager at Storyblocks, one of the leading platforms which aims to solve the problem of accessible, affordable stock for creatives and businesses and is the world’s first stock media subscription service offering video, audio, and images. Prior to joining Storyblocks in March of 2020, Ben was a Senior Creative Strategist at iStrategyLabs where he focused on marketing strategy and awareness building for brands in the social impact and food + beverage space. As a brand marketing and digital communications professional, Ben’s goal is “not only to sell products, but sell ideas, moments and experiences that improve the world we live in”.

The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.

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