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The Power of Visual Design for Associations
By William Wargo, Creative Director, SmithBucklin

First impressions matter even more than they used to in a world that is becoming increasingly fast-paced and time-crunched. This is why association boards should ensure that excellence in design is a high priority. After all, most associations’ marketplaces are crowded, so lots of organizations — and other forces — are competing for the attention of your members and other target audiences.

Why is Great Design Important?

This might surprise you, but a Princeton University study reported that it takes most people one-tenth of a second to form a lasting first impression. This is why design is so incredibly important.

And, increasingly, thanks to social media, mobile devices and digital technology, most would rather see information than read it. We are busy people, and we often do not have time to read through long articles or follow multiple steps on poorly designed websites. Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, said, “Processing print is not something that the human brain was built for, (but) Mother Nature has built into our brain the ability to see the visual world and interpret it.”

This is, in part, why social media channels such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are becoming primary sources of information. This also is why more websites are becoming visually oriented, with fewer words and more images. You do not have to be a design expert to recognize a website with bad design. You know it when you have to work too hard to find the information you are looking for; directions are not clear; important information is lost in the fine print; the site is not pleasing to the eye; or the experience creates a feeling of frustration or disappointment. If this happens to a member visiting an association’s website, the member could be less likely to enroll in training or renew his or her membership.

On the other hand, you can also easily identify good design. Regardless if it is in the print, digital or mobile medium, good design is visually attractive and easy to navigate. For example, if your website’s design is clean and fresh and your users can find information easily and take action quickly, it fosters a satisfying experience. It’s simple: design and functionality should be complementary.

As a board member, below are some critical aspects of design that you can directly contribute to or challenge your organization’s staff to strive for.

1. Define Your Brand

First and foremost, an association needs to clearly understand who it is, what it stands for and how it delivers value — the core concepts of branding for associations. These three questions are arguably the most challenging, important and provocative to explore. But they provide a disciplined and strategic approach to knowing your brand, which significantly impacts design.

The National Paper Trade Association (NPTA) is a good example of this aspect of design. In 2011, NPTA, which had previously served three distinct industry segments, made the difficult decision to focus on one: paper distributors. With a singular focus on one industry, the association updated its entire strategic plan (including its brand) to help its members advocate for the health of the paper distribution industry. NPTA extended that focus to its visual design elements. Its logo, website and marketing collateral were redesigned and are now all visual cues to remind members that NPTA is all about paper.

2. Have a Purpose

Do not change your association’s visual design just because you think it is time for a facelift. This recommendation even applies to sub-brands and key association assets such as publications and events. If you are going to redesign, make sure there is a strategic reason to support it.

The Print Services & Distribution Association (PSDA) did a study of its flagship magazine, Print Solutions. The board wondered if it was time for a facelift. It wisely decided against it, after a study showed that the magazine — in terms of editorial content and design — was highly respected. A new look would have been strictly for the sake of cosmetics. However, more recently, digital technologies have introduced new dynamics to the businesses of the PSDA membership base. To stay relevant, the board decided that, this time, a redesign was critical to retaining member value. PSDA changed its strategic approach for the publication and reintroduced it as PS Magazine — publication with a completely different, more modern look and feel. Additionally, PSDA offered members a companion digital publication called Beyond Print to continue to demonstrate how members were reinventing their businesses in the ever-changing print industry.

3. Keep It Simple

Apple, of course, sets a gold standard for design simplicity. Everything about its identity (including its logo, colors, fonts, graphics and messaging) reinforces the notion of simplicity that consumers love about its products. Visually, all of the elements are clean, fresh, light and attractive. There are more graphics and fewer words.

Fuel, a nonprofit organization of information and security experts and users of Palo Alto Networks technologies, also understands the impact of “less is more.” Fuel communicates its strategic priorities to its members with short, simple messaging and complements it with a clean and fresh visual scheme that includes solid colors, basic functional fonts and simple graphics. All of its design elements support and reinforce the core message and do not distract members. As a result, the visual design of all of Fuel’s marketing collateral is easy to read, view and comprehend.

You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Defining your brand, having a purposeful design and keeping your design simple can help your association stand apart from the noise and create a visual experience that supports strategic priorities. Furthermore, when strategy, brand and design are working in concert, your association is more likely to leave a lasting, positive impression with your audience.


  William Wargo has been working with associations for more than 21 years, increasing awareness in visual communication, graphic identity and branding. He currently is the creative director of SmithBucklin’s Marketing & Communication Services unit, where he heads a team of seven designers and creative professionals in all things design, including print, mobile and digital design; website and logo development; and video.



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SEPTEMBER 2015 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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