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9 Lessons from charity: water for Church Design & Communications

9 Lessons from charity: water for Church Design & Communications


charity: water is a non-profit organization that provides clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. The organization was founded in 2006 and has helped fund 13,641 projects in 22 countries, benefiting over 4.6 million people. As of December 8, 2014, it has raised over $155 million. [ref] If you’ve been a part of the unSeminary community for a while, you’ll know that I’m passionate about the global clean water crisis. charity: water is leading the way in bringing millions of people into the cause and they’re doing it through radical transparency, innovative communications and laser-focus. However, they aren’t just tackling the clean water cause — they are inspiring widespread change in the entire non-profit world.

Last week my team from Liquid Church had the opportunity to sit down with some of the team from charity: water and talk about what they’ve been learning. We were honored that Mike Smith, Senior Designer, took so much time to help us understand his ideas about design and communications. Here is a summary of some of the lessons that I extracted from our time together.

  • Concept is King // Before you start designing anything, clearly understand the overall concept. Spend 80% of your time talking about what the piece is all about. What are we trying to say? How will it make people feel? Always come back to the concept … it starts and finishes there.
  • Leave Time to Mess Up // You can’t rush good design and marketing. Sometimes projects wonder off track or need to be scrapped and you have to start over. This is a part of the process … it’s inherent in what we’re trying to do.
  • Your First Idea is Rarely the Best Idea // Listen closely to this one: Intuition is important in design and communications but it can often have an over-weighted importance. When your “gut feeling” about what would work becomes “pig-headed ignorance,” communications clarity suffers. Let your first ideas get the ball rolling but don’t stop there.
  • Don’t Be Afraid of Failure // Everyone says this one, but few leaders can point to times when they did something risky that failed. Mike shared a story of a major initiative that totally flopped … the pain was so real, he didn’t even want to show us images from it. That’s inspiring. What are you doing at your church that has the potential to totally blow up in your face?
  • Design with Passion // Fight for the best ideas. Have an opinion about what “good design” is. Argue about what serves the concept the best. Don’t settle. Is there healthy disagreement among the people working on your design and communications stuff? There should be.
  • Easy Can Be Mistaken for Lazy // Ouch, this one hurts. Good stuff takes a lot of hard work. It takes late nights and commitment to push through. The messages we’re communicating aren’t always simple or straightforward. It’s our job to put in the hard work to bring clarity and understanding for people.
  • Design Moves Fast … Keep Up // Is flat design still all the rage? Are long shadows the hip thing? Do people still use Comic Sans? Design tastes are constantly evolving. We can’t ignore this reality, but how do we keep on top of ever-changing tastes? We need to systematize our exploration of creative ideas. Expose yourself to new ideas on a regular basis.
  • Copy Writing Matters More than You Can Imagine // This was one of my biggest takeaways from our time with charity: water. Their design process starts with great writing. They put together written content that defines the feel and mood they are attempting to capture. The idea of starting with words before moving to images is a powerful one. Words can be common ground for us to agree on what we’re attempting to say with a communications piece.
  • Go the Hard Way, It Feels Better in the End // The overall theme of the conversation was that good design done well is hard work. It takes a lot of conversations, disagreements, focus and energy. In the end, the concept pushes the cause forward. Serving a growing church can be difficult at times and it’s a good reminder that there really isn’t a shortcut to connecting with our culture!

If you don’t follow charity: water and the good work they are doing … you should. As a bonus, it’s an opportunity to expose yourself to great marketing and communications. Here are a few places to connect with them:

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