Strategic branding is critical for your nonprofit to build trust among your supporters and get the word out about your services. When your brand is consistent and strong, you can increase your organization’s visibility in your community and move your audience to action.

What Are Brand Guidelines?

Brand guidelines expand on the decisions you have made with the design of your logo. They walk through how to use your logo, your brand colors, typefaces, and often include other assets of your design library. The most crucial reason to build brand guidelines is to have consistency across your brand. With the increased use of design templates using platforms like Canva, it is now even more important to establish your brand guidelines to help you navigate using the best template for your brand.

1) Logo

Your logo is the most essential component of your brand. While it is essential to have a unique and recognizable logo that communicates what you do to your stakeholders, how you use that logo is what will bring success. Even if you hire the most talented designer to create your dream logo, without proper brand guidelines, your logo will not be given the opportunity to shine.

The first element to consider is your logo usage. You may have several variations of your logo that are used for different purposes. For example, you may have a very horizontal logo with both an icon and text you use for your website’s header, and a version that is just the icon you only use for social media where space is limited.

In your guidelines, you will want to show all of your logo variations and describe the intended usage of each. Another common addition to this portion of your guide is a section on how NOT to use your logo. An example would be showing your logo in colors that are not part of your guidelines. Be sure to include an explanation as to why changing the colors of your logo would dilute your brand.

2) Personality

A necessary, but often forgotten, element of brand guidelines are descriptive words that help set the tone for your brand. What you are looking for here is a list of three to six adjectives that effectively describe your organization. Try to avoid using synonyms since you only have a handful of words to represent all that you are. These words can then be added to your guidelines, and don’t forget to add them in one of your brand fonts! As you move forward through each element of your brand guidelines, continue to return to these words to confirm that all of your other design decisions reflect this brand personality. This will help you avoid relying on personal preference and instead force you to always go back to deciding what is best for the brand.

3) Color

Limiting how many colors you use in your visual communications is key. While some international brands may include all of the colors of the rainbow, I recommend small to midsize companies focus on a maximum of six colors.

Within these six colors, you want to be sure to include light and dark colors that work together. Make sure there is enough contrast across your selected palette so you always have options that allow your text to be legible, especially for folks with vision impairments. You can test this online; simply search online for “color contrast checker” and input the colors you plan to use to see how they are rated.

You can also select which of your colors will be your primary brand colors, and which will be used more selectively. One easy way to visually show this in your brand guidelines is to make different-sized color swatches to signify the balance of colors. For those who are not color-challenged, color will be one of the first visual signifiers of your brand, making the consistent use of colors very important.

4) Typography

Font choice can be very challenging. The most effortless place to start is with the typeface(s) used in your logo. If your logo incorporates more than one typeface, you may be able to stick with just those two type families. If your logo has just one typeface, you will want to find another type family that both pairs nicely with your logo typeface and can fill a gap that your logo typeface isn’t able to accomplish.

For example, if your logo typeface is a script, you’ll want to select a san-serif typeface that works well as body copy. There are a plethora of online resources to find type pairs. Type pairs are two typefaces that complement each other and will allow you to build a solid typographic hierarchy. You can look up online “type pairings” to find various resources with suggested pairings. You will want to be sure you have a typeface that works nicely as a headline and another for body text.

Once you have your typefaces selected, document how to use these in your brand guidelines. You should include descriptive copy that explains both which typeface to use for headlines and which to use for body copy. You also want to include any style decisions. Style decisions include specific characteristics such as all caps, bold, color, or letter spacing.

5) Design Library

Your design collateral will often include additional design elements that can be collected and stored in your design library. This library may include graphics like illustrations, icons, patterns, and/or photography. If your brand is utilizing illustrations, you will want to select a defined illustrative style. This is often achieved by using a collection of illustrations created by the same artist. Illustrators work to develop a consistent style of illustration, so you can often find a collection created by one artist. Be sure that the illustrations also utilize your brand colors.

Many brands also build a library of icons to be used for many purposes, from your website to marketing. Your icons should also be visually consistent. To achieve this, you want to curate your icons so they are stylized in the same way. For example, are all of the corners in the icons rounded? Do all of your icons have an outline instead of solid shapes? Another approach to building on-brand icons is having your icons match the style of your logo. For example, if your logo is in a circle, perhaps all of your icons are also in a circle.

6) Patterns

Patterns can be used across many forms of visual communications and help your stakeholders quickly recognize your brand. Sometimes patterns use icons or typography, others repeat your logo, and some are simple patterns like stripes or polka dots. As with everything within your brand guidelines, these patterns should utilize your brand colors. You can also define how to apply your patterns. Do you want patterns to be used behind large typography? Are patterns used with a label that goes on top of them? Be sure to show examples in your guidelines of how patterns are applied to your brand.

7) Photography

It is almost guaranteed that your brand will utilize photography. There is also a good chance these photographs come from many different photographers. Whether you are finding stock photography online to use, hiring a photographer for a specific event or photo need, or curating photography provided by folks who may not be professional photographers, there are tips to keep these photos consistent and on-brand.

One easy way to do this is by colorizing your photography. This may mean making all of your images black and white, making them all of a duotone of two colors, or perhaps you decided your brand uses very desaturated photography. Whatever you choose, colorizing your photos will bring a sense of uniformity to your photos.

You should also create guidelines that explore how your brand approaches both the stylistic feel of photos and a suggestion for how you crop images. Stylistic decisions could include finding more journalistic photos or perhaps looking for images that project a calmness with a lot of open space. Cropping could mean that whenever possible you avoid having the subject of a photograph be exactly in the middle of an image, or it may be that you decide to do very close-up crops, eliminating extra information that isn’t needed in an image. Be sure to include examples in this section of both the original images and the edited images so others can follow your guide.

Formatting Your Brand Guidelines

After you have compiled all of your content, you will build the documentation for your brand guidelines. Look at this step as creating your first design collateral utilizing your brand guidelines. The entire document should follow your own brand, use the correct fonts, colors, and assets from your design library. Once complete, you will have not only a document that shares information on your brand to all stakeholders, it will also serve as an example of how to apply your brand guidelines.

With the right design and consistent branding, your nonprofit can stand out in a sea of thousands of other organizations – to both prospective supporters and people who could benefit from your services. This free Design Guide is full of practical, DIY design tips specifically for nonprofits.

About the Author

Abby Guido is a design expert at DonorPerfect and an educator at Temple University. She offers expert tips to nonprofit organizations about the importance of branding and good design.