Remember these words: Your nonprofit’s logo is not your story.
If you Google “nonprofit logos,” you’ll see some common themes. Hands. Globes. Holding hands around a globe. Hearts. I get how this happened. Many nonprofit leaders really want to take every opportunity to help you understand that they are helping people. They want that to be clear. They want to use every tool, including their logo, to tell their story.
In my experience working with nonprofit clients, I’ve learned how much people want to be able to have one icon or image that shows the whole who, what, why all at once. It makes sense. They want to make a quick, accurate impression. I’ve also learned why this approach can be problematic, so I want to help folks rethink this perspective.
Here’s where you can get stuck in focusing on your logo as representing your story:
1. Risk of overcomplicating your nonprofit’s logo
Think about a movie poster. If you’re walking down the street and you pass a cinema with a poster advertising a new film, you’re probably not going to look at the poster and know exactly what the movie is about. But if it’s well-designed, your curiosity will be sparked. You might go home and look up the trailer online, or take out your phone and Google the film title.
A logo is like a film poster—it’s a teaser to spark curiosity so folks will want to learn more about the company or organization. I think of a logo as a gatekeeper that helps the audience decide if they want to learn more. That’s why I really encourage folks to have simple, eye-catching logos because you don’t want that gatekeeper to be confusing or overwhelming in a way that pushes people away.
Once a logo has sparked curiosity, it’s important to serve the role of creating familiarity so that over time, people remember and associate your mark with your organization. If the logo is too complicated, it loses its memorability. The simplicity of the McDonald’s golden arches is a great example of what’s called the “highway test”. When folks speed down the highway at 60 miles an hour, the quick glimpse they get of the McDonald’s logo is recognizable and memorable. You know you can pull over to get a quick bite to eat.
2. Telling your whole story with your nonprofit’s logo is not necessary.
I love reminding people that your logo is not the only visual element of your brand. It truly doesn’t need to do all the work! A logo is only one part of your brand, it’s not the whole shebang. You also have colors, fonts, language and photography to help people understand what you do. A logo doesn’t need to carry the burden of communicating everything and telling the whole story.
The goal of a logo is to spark an emotion. So you want to make sure it’s an accurate emotion. If you design modular furniture, a logo featuring Victorian script and flowers is going to be misleading. That movie poster we talked about? Well, it’s not going to tell you what the movie is about, but it’ll probably give you an idea of the genre. If you look at the poster for “Poltergeist,” you’re pretty sure it’s not a comedy. And if you scare easily, you’re probably not going to go look up the trailer.
What you don’t want to do is fall into “Kramer vs. Kramer” territory. If you look at that poster, you think you’re in for some lighthearted, sentimental family fare, not a drama about a bitter custody battle. Great movie, bad poster.
3. You lose flexibility when you try to make the logo too specific.
As a nonprofit leader, you want to be able to have the flexibility to adapt and shift your offerings and organization model as needed to serve your audience without having to constantly change your logo. Like what if your dream is to open a cat cafe with candlemaking workshops and open mic nights? So you commission a logo featuring a guitar, some cats, a couple of candles, and a table with coffee cups. But it turns out that candles and cat hair are not a good combo so you have to rethink your strategy AND now you need a new logo because you don’t want to be misleading. The broader and more open-ended the visual, the better.
Let’s go back to McDonald’s. We’ll share some fries. Their first logo, in 1940, read, “McDonald’s Famous Barbeque.” We know that’s not what they serve now, so we can guess that they had to revise their logo in 1948 to read, “McDonald’s Famous Hamburgers” and feature a hamburger-like mascot character. Still, that didn’t solve the issue because their menu has expanded, shifted and adapted over the years to feature all sorts of different items including cultural variations accommodating locations worldwide. Their golden arches, introduced in 1960, have held steady as the company’s icon for so long because they offer flexibility for the menu to shift while the core brand visual can stay the same.
Your nonprofit logo is not your story, but it’s part of your story, often the first part people see. Put another way, your logo is your pickup line, but it’s not the witty repartee that’s going to get you someone’s number, and it’s certainly not the first date itself. Let your logo reflect you, your brand, and the right people will connect with it and want to know more about you. You never know where a relationship might go.