Conveying a complex message with simple graphics, part III

Graphic, icon, and logo design for social media are just some of the many things we do for clients here at Helios Media. One of the most difficult aspects of design lies in the task of distilling a complicated, multifaceted idea or message into a simple—or at least visually decipherable—graphic, icon or symbol.

In this series of posts, I’ll show you some simple steps that you can take to create better, simpler, more intuitive graphics. Whether in the form of a logo, icon, infographic or web graphic, there are a few core ideas that can help you discover your preferences for—or design for yourself—an image that works for you.

Part III: Embrace extreme simplicity

Say you have to come up with a graphic for a think tank, and their focus is philosophy. How the heck are you supposed to turn something as complex, varied and intellectually taxing as philosophy into a simple image? Your first thought is people. Maybe a bust of Plato or something? Now you’re thinking columns, togas, books, a monocle? Before you know it, you’re banging your head on your desk because philosophy could be anything. What are you supposed to do?

Just writing that paragraph was stressful for me, and I chose philosophy for a reason. So take a breath, relax, and I’ll provide you with a fun fact to calm you down. If you click the first link on any given Wikipedia page, the trail of links will always lead back to one article: philosophy. That officially makes it one hell of a complex subject. But the process of distilling and simplifying remains the same! As an example, here’s what comes to mind for me when I think “philosophy:”

  • Ideas
  • Religion
  • Struggle
  • Thinking
  • Changing cultures
  • Paradigm shifts
  • Questions

Which of these can be symbolized? Let’s break it down.

  •  Ideas? Can’t be visualized, they’re amorphous. We could go the lightbulb route, but you know better than that!
  • Religion? Full of booby-traps and clichés. Controversy should be avoided in this type of design if possible.
  • Struggle? Again, amorphous and clichéd.
  • Thinking? See struggle and ideas.
  • Changing cultures? Pretty hard to show this without a complex series of pictures involving human figures.
  • Paradigm shifts? This is a decent possibility, but hard to convey simply.
  • Questions? There are tons of ways to visualize a question. And really, there’s already an important symbol for it. One that everyone recognizes. One that i just used 8 times in the last paragraph. The question mark! It might be a tad cliché, but let’s explore this further.

There is a subtle difference between clichéd, overused imagery and the visceral, basic, deeply culturally-ingrained symbol. In thinking about the question mark I realized that it’s rarely used as a focal-point in a design. Possibly, it’s considered so basic that it’s often overlooked. Or people fear using it because it makes a design seem trite or outdated. But there are two undeniable facts about it that we can use to our advantage. First, nearly everyone who speaks a romance language (and some who don’t) knows what it means. And, most importantly, it’s damn simple. It’s a line and a dot. You can’t get simpler than that!

I’m not going to show an actual graphic, because I want you to think about it for yourself. What could you do with a question mark to make it special? How could you incorporate other themes of philosophy, or even some of the ones we disregarded above? Creating something simple and powerful is usually more difficult than creating something complicated. In the long run, however, it makes for much more impact and clarity in your designs and in your life.

Conveying a complex message with simple graphics, part II

Graphic, icon, and logo design for social media are just some of the many things we do for clients here at Helios Media. One of the most difficult aspects of design lies in the task of distilling a complicated, multifaceted idea or message into a simple—or at least visually decipherable—graphic, icon or symbol.

In this series of posts, I’ll show you some simple steps that you can take to create better, simpler, more intuitive graphics. Whether in the form of a logo, icon, infographic or web graphic, there are a few core ideas that can help you discover your preferences for—or design for yourself—an image that works for you.

Part II: Avoid cliches & anachronisms

Fig. 1

Fig. 1


The healthcare symbol (Fig. 1) from part I of this series isn’t just a good example for association and visualization, it’s a great example of an extremely common problem that occurs when you try to create a powerful, simple symbol; you sit down, put your thinking cap on, fire up Google, and then it happens. They’re all over, as far as your eyes can see. They’re…clichés. And they’re everywhere.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2


For example, the above (Fig. 2) is a graphic I made for the same project as the others in this post. The category this time was “Advanced Manufacturing.” I got started on the research right away, not knowing much about the field myself, and having little to associate with. As soon as i began my search, an endless stream of symbol-vomit was presented to me. Factory buildings, smoke stacks, gears & cogs, trucks, hard hats, etc. The problem with these are not only are they clichés—which aren’t inherently bad if you can find a creative way to portray them—they were also anachronisms. The classic symbol of a factory building is one from the industrial revolution. Trucks and hard hats are all well and fine, but not only does it portray a very non-advanced manufacturing era, it takes the subject and broadens it to encompass far too many professions and industries.

You probably already know what symbols and imagery are cliché. You have seen them a thousand and one times, on subway advertisements, crappy fliers and bad websites. Therefore, they’re fairly easy to avoid—just try to keep the “easy way out” scenario off the table when you’re researching your subject.

Anachronisms are a different matter. When you choose words, symbols and iconography for inspiration, carefully consider whether or not these things are still relevant in today's world. Just because something has been associated with a subject since the dawn of time (read: hardhats and trucks), it doesn’t mean that it’s still effective as a visual representative. For instance:

  • Computers. Most people use laptops these days, and computers are thinner and sleeker than ever. So using an old beige-era PC as a symbol for IT? It doesn’t work.

  • Time. How many people do you know who still own an analog, bell-adorned alarm clock? Or a grandfather clock with a pendulum? How many operating clock towers do you encounter on a daily basis? Though clocks and watches are still extremely pervasive in our world, there are better ways to show them that might make your design stand out.

  • Audio/Visual. Though many old-timey symbols for audio, film, etc. have become incorporated into modern computer icons, a great way to visualize these concepts creatively is to reject those out-dated symbols. Does music really look like a megaphone? Does film really look like a double-reel camera from the ‘40s? Does television really look like a square box with rabbit ears?

Keep asking yourself these questions with every project you have, and your result will probably be a more creative, more original, and more striking graphic.

Stay tuned for part III of our ongoing blog series, Conveying a complex message with simple graphics.

Conveying a complex message with simple graphics, part I

Graphic, icon, and logo design for social media are just some of the many things we do for clients here at Helios Media. One of the most difficult aspects of design lies in the task of distilling a complicated, multifaceted idea or message into a simple—or at least visually decipherable—graphic, icon or symbol.

In this series of posts, I’ll show you some simple steps that you can take to create better, simpler, more intuitive graphics. Whether in the form of a logo, icon, infographic or web graphic, there are a few core ideas that can help you discover your preferences for—or design for yourself—an image that works for you.

Part I: Associate and visualize

Sitting down with Illustrator or Photoshop and trying to tackle a graphic right away is a great way to wind up frustrated and over-caffeinated with very little progress made. Just as you might write an outline before a paper or article, or write a list before hitting the grocery store, the design process is always best when it starts with brainstorming and sketching. A lot of my process happens before a single line is drawn.

The key to this step? Association and visualization.

Simply put: what words, phrases, images and symbolism are socially, culturally, or historically associated with your concept? This doesn’t have to be hours of research, or dozens of books checked out from the library. A good way to start is by googling your concept. In the example below, I made a graphic for a “Tech” category (Fig. 1). The first thought that came to my head was “silicon chip.” I did some light googling to remind myself of how they looked, simplified the concept so that it could be understood with as little detail as possible, and made some sketches that would become the graphic.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1


Obviously this was a best-case scenario for me. Ideas don’t always come that easily. For the graphic below (Fig. 2), I had to think of a way to show the category of “Healthcare.” Obviously the equal-armed cross came to mind, but it seemed too cliché to me. After some research I came up with the core words and symbols that seemed to always be associated with healthcare: cross, heart, syringe, monitors, doctors, stethoscope, nurses. I narrowed it down to cross, heart, and monitors, as doctors, nurses and stethoscope would be difficult to portray without including a human figure. Syringes are scary and can have a negative connotation, so I eliminated that concept as well. Some sketches later, I decided to go with the heartbeat superimposed on the cross. Simple, effective, and clear.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2


Keep googling and thinking. No matter how confusing it can get, it’s never more difficult than when you attempt to go in cold

Stay tuned for part II of our ongoing blog series, Conveying a complex message with simple graphics.

Advertising on Social Media
for Non Profits


Facebook Advertising for Nonprofit Organizations

For nonprofits, social marketing can be difficult to break into, especially when it comes to dealing with Facebook advertising. Some numbers can tell us a lot about how nonprofits perform and what they pay for Facebook advertising.

Nonprofits by the numbers

According to the Salesforce Marketing Cloud report, in 2013, the average figures for non profits were:

  • CTR (click-through rate): 0.205% (vs. 0.171% US avg.)
  • CPC (cost-per-click): $0.19 (vs. $0.24 US avg.)
  • CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions): $0.52 (vs. $0.67 US avg.)

*Percentiles as compared to other industries

According to the same report in Q1 of 2015, they looked more like this:

  • CTR: 3.72% (vs. 0.84% US avg.)
  • CPC: $0.18 (vs. $0.39 US avg.)
  • CPM: $6.63 (vs. $3.30 US avg.)

But what does all this mean for your organization? Effective Facebook advertising for nonprofits basically boils down to four main areas: your advertising objectives, choosing the right bid type for your message, targeting your constituent audience effectively, and driving conversions with your ads.

Choosing the right objective

Facebook advertising offers several objectives to ads that you will be creating. They essentially allow you to narrow down the result of your ad, whether you want people to visit your page, go to your events, or click through to your website. Your objective can affect how much your ad impressions or clicks will cost you as well.

According to the Salesforce report, the Page Post Engagement objective, advertisers using the CPM bid type will see “relatively inexpensive impressions ($1.36) to an audience with a lower propensity to click on the ads, resulting in a higher CPC. With CPC bids, the cost per click is the lowest at $0.18, but the users are just clicking on the ad, not engaging with it in other ways.”

The M&R Social Media Benchmarks Report for 2015 shows a good breakdown of where companies are spending their money, which can give you a good picture of what to focus on for your advertising objectives. On average, companies spend their advertising budgets on:

  • Lead Generation Advertising: 38%
  • New Donor Acquisition: 31%
  • Paid Search Advertising: 23%
  • Existing Supporter Conversion: 4%
  • Branding: 4%

When creating a campaign, keep these objectives in mind.

Choosing the right bid type

Your bid type is linked to both your objective and your budget. Deciding how much to spend on advertising can be difficult, and a vast array of numbers and suggestions float freely in the blogosphere when searching for guidance on this issue. But let’s focus on the data. M&R found that “overall, nonprofits invested $0.04 in digital advertising for every dollar raised online.” Though the number can vary between $0.01 and $0.14 on the dollar depending on the industry, the study found that their top performing groups spent an average of $0.12 digital advertising for every dollar raised online in 2015.

With average non-profit figures of $0.18 CPC and $6.63 CPM, your budget can seriously limit your reach online. But choosing the correct bid type, in conjunction with an efficient objective, can drop your costs and increase your ads performance in a big way.

If you’re interested in an overall boost of your Facebook presence, bidding by CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions) would be the logical option. If your organization is more focused on driving traffic to your website, a CPC (cost-per-click) bid would be optimal. If you want ad recipients to buy or sign up for something on your website (usually called a conversion), bidding by CPA (cost-per-action) might make the most sense for you.

Facebook gives you a wide range of pricing options. You can choose to set a budget for a specific goal or a period of time, you can pay for clicks, presence or actual, measurable actions. Some suggest starting with a lower figure and adding more money to your budget as you measure the effectiveness of your ads. The general consensus, though, seems to be testing is key. Set a budget you’re comfortable with, find your audience, and test, test, test! The more specific and efficient you are with your ad reach, the less your campaigns will cost you.

Accurately targeting your audience

The next key to efficient and effective advertising is your audience. According to M&R, “digital advertising budgets are largely devoted to identifying, acquiring, and converting new donors, with lead generation and new donor acquisition together accounting for 69% of total investments.”

If you’re a nonprofit, you’ve got an advantage! Most nonprofits have existing email lists, and you can use this to target your audience and deliver your ads to people who will actually care about them, which is the best and easiest way to make your dollars count. M&R found in the same report that for every 1,000 email subscribers, the average organization has 355 Facebook fans, 132 Twitter followers, and 19 Instagram followers. Nonprofits with larger email lists spend about 13x more on digital advertising than those with smaller lists, but this cost lies in reaching far more people.

Regardless of its size, matching your email lists and donor files to Facebook profiles has several advantages. You can reach an audience of people that you already have a pre-existing relationship with, helping your organization with donor retention and reactivation. This in turn can have a big effect on cutting costs in advertising, as a refined and specific audience usually leads to more efficient ad spending.

Adding your lists will also give you more accurate access to your fans’ Facebook friends, giving you a very specific and low-cost audience to source new engagements and likes from. As one article puts it, “friends of friends are frequently the most cost effective likes to add on Facebook.”

Driving conversions with your ads

If you’re more focused on driving traffic to your website for the purpose of signing up for your newsletter, registering to volunteer, signing a petition or donating to your organization, your campaign objectives and ad set bid types should reflect it. But ad campaign set up doesn’t get you all the way to cost effective, efficient, high-conversion ads. Luckily, there are several things your organization can do to boost your ads’ effectiveness and conversion rates.

First, let’s lay out the stats. A “good conversion rate” is an elusive figure. The figure varies wildly by industry, and the median percentage is not necessarily a measure of what you should be aiming for. A WordStream study shows us that the bottom 25% of accounts on Facebook have a less than 1% conversion rate, which by all accounts is pretty grim.

The report also shows, however, that the overall average is 2.35%, the top 25% reached an average of 5.31%, and the top 10% an average of 11.45%. According to Formstack, nonprofits have one of the highest form conversion rates at 15% (4% higher than the overall average). Boiled down, this means that while a 5% conversion rate puts you in the 75th percentile of Facebook accounts, a rate of 10%-20% is perfectly attainable and although rare, not entirely unrealistic. That being said, if your organization is just starting out, try shooting for an average conversion rate of 10%.

So what affects your conversion rate? Some factors are similar to those for other ads. M&R found, unsurprisingly,that “higher spending on paid advertising was correlated with higher growth in the number of website visitors per month. Groups that spent more on advertising [have] more aggressive donor conversion strategies overall.”

Besides the factors that affect the ad effectiveness as a whole, conversions depend a lot on how appealing your ad is. Is your newsletter actually worth signing up for? Should people really donate to your cause? And, most importantly, does your ad attract and hold the attention of those it may appeal to? The 2015 Salesforce report showed that advertisers from nonprofits and other organizations had the most interesting and attractive creative for their ads, averaging the highest click-through rates for Q1 of 2015. So as a rule, try to turn your ad into a story worth following. The value of a well crafted narrative and a relatable image can’t be overstated. Make an effort to make your audience care! Another ethos-based strategy is to use your own pre-existing audience to your advantage. Facebook users’ preferences and actions online are susceptible to those of their friends and others in their social network. Simply seeing a friend’s name in an ad can lead to a higher conversion rate. Don’t miss an opportunity to work your target audience for new leads and higher conversions.

More technical factors apply as well. Formstack found that when looking for form conversions, “the type of form you use can make a difference. Contact forms, for example, only have a 3% conversion rate… [whereas] contests and surveys…convert at 28% and 21%, respectively. Event registrations convert at 11%, and participants are likely to be qualified leads.” Native links and videos (links to outside websites that you post inside the Facebook status window) will also receive preference over other ad types, part of Facebook’s complex system of visibility and ad efficiency.

Enough numbers! What’s all this mean?

As long as this report is, it distills down to a simple message; as a nonprofit, you’re not exempt from having a social media presence or the advertising budget and efforts that must accompany it if you want to achieve a reasonable degree of success and visibility. That being said, you don’t have to be a Fortune 500 company to do well on social media, and you don’t have to have an enormous endowment to make a killing with your social media advertisements!

If numbers and measures aren’t your thing, the key to cheap, efficient and effective advertising is the following threefold approach.

Be specific.

Find your target audience and pinpoint them to what might seem like an absurd degree. Set your objectives and your budgets for specific goals, and test them against one another. Your ad is a dart, not an atom bomb. Go for the soft spot!

Be creative.

You’re not trying to sell people cars. You’re not a cell carrier or a furniture warehouse, and your ads should reflect that. You have a mission statement and a cause, and if your ads are going to be successful, you need to find people who care and make them care even more. Craft a story. Weave a tale. Hook your audience and reel them in.

Be thorough.

We can’t say this enough. TEST! Test, test, test. Make an ad, then make another with a slight change. Make an ad and send it to a few different audiences. Try running your ads at different times of day, with different frequency, at different bid rates and types. Then test them against one another. The more you experiment, track, and measure, the cheaper and more efficient your ads will be.

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