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Taking Care of Your Visual Brand: Part 2 – The Identity System

By Nick Pascuzzi

Avatar for Nick Pascuzzi

When it comes to how your nonprofit is seen in the world, your logo is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just one part of a much larger identity. In my last post, I spoke of how important it is to manage your organization’s logo, but underneath that logo a much larger, effective identity system should exist.


The Identity System

Let me dive into some terminology for a second. Your brand is how your organization is perceived in the nonprofit community. It’s what people feel when they think about your organization and its value. Your identity is what people see. It’s all of the visual elements that your organization uses to support the brand (your logo, website, brochures, social media graphics, etc.).

Then what’s an identity system? An identity system is a package of visual elements that exists along with guidelines dictating how they should be used out in the world. That package includes your logo, your colors, fonts, and imagery. Now take a moment to think: Does your nonprofit have an identity system? If you do, that’s great! But is it effective? If you’re one of the many nonprofits who don’t have an identity system with guidelines, you really should.

Why does your nonprofit need an Identity System?

It all comes back to your brand – how you’re perceived and the value you hold in the nonprofit community. An effective identity system (or lack thereof) will ultimately have an impact on your brand. All strong brands are backed by a strong identity system. Though these systems vary in levels of complexity, they provide the basic fundamentals of consistency that add a sense of credibility to your identity as well as helping you stand out from the crowd. Simply put – they make you look professional.

And it isn’t enough to just have a logo and some colors. Your system must be effective. An effective system is the result of a strategic vision that provides flexibility, harmony, and consistency across the entire visual identity.

Creating an Effective Identity System

Whether you’re planning on doing this internally or employing the efforts of your friendly nonprofit design agency, there are some things you need to know about creating an effective identity system:

Before you start, define your vision, voice, and strategy

Don’t dive straight into picking colors and moving pixels. Take the time to assess who you are as an organization. Who is your audience? How does your brand compare to similar nonprofits? What is your strategy? Answers to these questions drive the process of creating visual assets.

Be flexible. It’s ok to have alternate logos:

I know I know – In my last post I said to stick to one main logo. But I also mentioned having various logos for different applications and setting rules for consistent use. That’s where flexibility comes into play.

Flexibility is key to an effective identity system. Your nonprofit’s logo is going to be used in countless ways and being flexible with your design will allow you to meet the demands of different media and applications. Have versions of your logo with and without a wordmark. Have a white version. Have a black version. Be flexible, but not loose. It’s imperative to create guidelines that keep the flexibility contained (we’ll discuss this in a bit).


Some of the best identity systems have only a small handful of colors. Though every system is different, a good place to start is with two or three main colors. It’s also a good idea to have a palette of secondary colors that can be used in different applications. Some identity systems expand this palette even further by including lighter or darker tints of these colors.

When choosing colors, be sure to keep the fundamentals of color theory in mind. Not all colors go together and some can have negative connotations in specific circumstances, markets, or cultures.


Keep your typefaces limited to no more than 3. Have one typeface that can be used for headlines, a different one that can be used for text or body copy, and an alternate text that can be used for quotes or other purposes. Some brands permit the use of different styles for special events and promotions, which is fine, but be sure that’s contained to that specific application.

Other Visual Elements

I’ll touch on this a bit more in my next blog post, but be sure your icons are created in the same style and that your photos and videos have similar subject matter and are shot in similar ways.

Set Guidelines

No one likes rules, but without guidelines your system simply won’t work. It prevents misuse and keeps your nonprofit’s brand image intact.

Outline specific instances of what logos, colors, or fonts to use and when. How in depth you want to go depends on how much you want to protect your nonprofit’s brand. Brand guidelines can range from one-page instructions to complex books.

Once established, make sure your guidelines are clearly communicated with your team or any outside organizations that may be representing your nonprofit.

Monitor Use

You might find that your system could fall apart if it’s not policed. Reviewing outgoing material (and sometimes a simple internet search of your organization) may reveal discrepancies in how your visual elements are being used. It’s best to be proactive in these efforts. If you spot misuse, don’t let it slide. Kindly ask that the individuals use the proper procedures outlined in your brand guidelines.

While all of this may seem overwhelming and a lot of work (which it is), consider what’s at stake: The professionalism and perception of your nonprofit’s brand. Building and protecting the integrity of your identity takes much more strategy than creating a logo.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll touch on the other visual elements of your identity: Iconography, graphics, photos, and videos.