Drift Happens

Drift Happens

Judy here. As 2019 draws to a close, I have a lot to celebrate. Honestly, every year of self-employment feels like a huge victory. I beat the odds and survived another year. It’s no small thing!

But this year was different. In some ways, it was the best year so far. I worked hard, worked a lot, blasted through my revenue goals and took a few weeks off in August. We welcomed new organizations to our client roster and expanded our relationships with current clients. We also started a monthly email newsletter. (Are you on the list? Sign up here.)

And yet, looking back on the projects I completed this year, I am hit with a somewhat unsettling realization. Despite the growth, this year has been the least creative. Ouch. 

Some of this is due to the type of projects that have been coming my way—projects that require a high level of skill but don’t bring deep creative challenges. 

In some ways, it’s both a sign of success and a pitfall of longevity. I’m fortunate to have been in business for over ten years (and self-employed for even longer). Being an independent designer is one of the great gifts of my life. Without exception, I like my clients and I’m happy to do the work, whatever it is. But the longer I’m in business, the more I tend to play it safe. Keep the machine running. Don’t rock the boat.

In the quest for security and stability, I find myself in a bit of mission drift. 

But I have a lot more to offer. 

As I close the studio for the holiday break, I have a lot to ponder. What is the work that I’m most passionate about doing? How can I put that work front and center? What is the balance of creativity and stability and how much risk am I comfortable with? What scares me the most and can I be more brave? 

Expect to see more personal projects in the coming year as I dig into my creative well so I can bring my very best to my client work.

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What do baby animals have to do with nonprofits?

What do baby animals have to do with nonprofits?

Not a thing, but that didn’t stop Vu Le (creator of the popular blog, Nonprofit AF) from incorporating baby animal pictures on every slide of his keynote presentation at the Arc of Innovation Conference. In between the baby animal photos, he shared generously about his experience and ideas for the challenges and opportunities of nonprofits.

We decided to share some of the insights we gained, and how those insights helped us see where design fits in the larger nonprofit landscape.

Nonprofits are obsessed with funding because nonprofit funding is often insecure and micro-managed. If you work for a nonprofit you must be scrappy, be efficient, be of service, and court donors and grants and any funding sources you can find. Build trust with the donors, build trust with the communities, build trust with coworkers, and don’t forget your self-care! As Le put it, “Nonprofits take care of what the public sector and private sector leave behind.”

Nonprofits are high-pressure businesses, more than any other business model. The expectation of doing more with less is greater with nonprofits than with any other type of organization. Having all of this in perspective makes it clear why organizations would be reluctant to invest in design. Good design can be seen as an “extra,” a way to perform, but something that doesn’t contribute to the impactful work of serving communities.

In managing so many sets of expectations and needs, what many people don’t realize is that design can really help you! We know that consistency builds trust, and visual brand consistency is part of this. Design is not a performance, it gives dimension to your message and cultivates credibility.

You should be able to work with a designer who can understand your organization, get the work done, and not add additional staff.

We see design as a vital part of the trust building process. Having printed materials that are consistently branded and thoughtfully designed can only improve your trust building efforts.

Your organization can have a compelling mission, be doing great work, and not get the attention it deserves merely because your brochure is confusing, the hierarchy is unclear, and people can’t easily make sense of it, so it’s discarded before the information is even considered. Design cannot compensate for a lack of strategy, but it can elevate the things that are already working.

Design plays a vital role in communicating effectively. Vu Le understood this with his baby animals. He broke a rule by adding images that were irrelevant to his talk. But breaking the rules can be just as effective as following them. Le added humor to the situation and relaxed the audience, which made us receptive to his messages.

Having materials that are clear and cohesive captivates your audience. A reader might not know why they find a brochure appealing, but they’ll understand the message at an emotional level.  At its best, design visually reinforces another message.

Amplifying an existing strategic message is where Union Design thrives, we love taking design to the next level.

Get in touch to see how we can help you!

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Meet Krysta Ann Williams

Meet Krysta Ann Williams

“I’m tired of working by myself. I need another person around to bounce ideas off of, get some movement.”

Those were Judy’s words during a summer 2017 meeting of small business owners. (Why not written in the first person? Because Judy isn’t writing this. I’m here to let you in on an open secret. It’s Krysta Williams, the marketing assistant & artist who has been writing these posts for the past year. Hi. Thanks for reading. Sorry for the trickery.)

“It would be so cool to work for someone like Judy!” I heard myself respond to Judy’s frustration in a way I didn’t expect. I wasn’t looking for a job, I hate marketing, and yet, something compelled me. So I decided to reach out.

I didn’t really know what I was offering, though. I’m curious, I like understanding how things work and I felt that I could help her. But when it came time to sit down and work, get things done, I was definitely intimidated. I wanted to do a good job, to show that I was worth the risk, and I wasn’t 100% sure what that looked like.

Judy’s approach seemed casual and I didn’t know if she had expectations she wasn’t communicating (scary!), or was truly open to seeing what I came up with (freeing!). Turns out, she trusted me to figure things out a little and had created space for imperfection and learning in the business. We both felt lucky that our working styles complement one another. I didn’t feel micromanaged, and she didn’t feel the need to hold my hand. Win-win!

Judy here. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what it would look like when Krysta joined me in the studio. I was looking for help with marketing and I hoped that she would be able to develop some of the writing and thinking that I had been doing into more polished blog posts. I needed to have these tasks off my plate so that I could focus on being a designer and putting some energy into growing the vision for this business. And I was ready for more collaboration. I wanted to bring some new energy and ideas into the studio. 

But I didn’t have a to-do list or a specific path laid out. I figured that the best thing was to let Krysta focus on the kind of work that she was most interested in doing. Krysta is smart and I trust her. So, I gave her some latitude to create her own job.

As she settled into her new role, we had many conversations about design, art, business and the challenges of growing a small design studio. Krysta dug into the blog, editing and finishing drafts of posts that I had written. She also initiated and wrote posts on her own, based on our conversations. It was a game changer for me to see the blog grow. So many of these ideas had been rattling around my head for years. As Krysta put them into a coherent format, I was able to see the body of knowledge that I had developed.

Seeing the blog grow helped me in two ways. First, I was able to relax a bit, knowing that the marketing end of things was being taken care of. I felt supported by the work she was doing. And I allowed myself the mental space to think about other aspects of the business. Second, I was better able to trust my own expertise. The blog posts showed me how much knowledge of strategy I had gained over the years, and solidified my stance that strategy must underpin any successful design.

We’ve been working together for a little over a year and it feels like we are just getting started. Does it really take a full year to get up to speed? In some ways, it sure does. And it is a smart investment for me. Krysta has learned a lot by observing the business through the ups and downs of the year. It has also given me some time to adjust to having the support of an assistant and learning how to balance giving direction and allowing space. 

We’ll be continuing this conversation and talking more about what’s next for Union Design. Stay tuned. Sign up for our postcard and email lists.

You can learn more about Krysta at krystaannwilliams.com.

About the photo (by Judy):

This portrait of Krysta in Lake Michigan is an extension of the daily sunrise photos I have been taking this year (see them here: instagram.com/judyhiggins). Documenting the lake and the sky every morning at sunrise has been healing for me and has filled up my creative well. By showing up for myself—and sharing my experience with others—my connection to nature and to art has deepened. As Krysta and I grow Union Design, I am also growing and challenging myself creatively, doing more personal work and bringing my point of view as an artist to my work at Union Design.



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The Union Method Round Up

The Union Method Round Up

If you’ve taken our advice on getting started with your annual report (even though you just finished), great job, you’ve given yourself some time to think strategically and thus be more active about your report for next year.

This week we’re helping you get into the strategic mindset by sharing some posts about our method and how it guides people through their project with ease and purpose.

Intention and intuition are vital values here at Union Design, so it should be no surprise that this is where our process is rooted. Design, like a business, is art and science. The highest goal is finding the intersection between form and function, continually assessing our efforts against our goals.

Becuase we want to see our efforts pay off, we have to get to the core of the problem we’re trying to solve. The dialogue starts there, what’s the specific problem? What are the tangible solutions that we can move forward right now?

Rooting our progress in our values is where the strategic magic happens. Next, we explore the depth and breadth of the project, taking what we understand about the specific problem we’re solving, and then aiming to understand the people we’re trying to help.

After digging deep to get a fresh perspective, we take a look at what already exists and evaluate it in an audit. Once an audit is complete, we move forward with the current project with our strategy, goals, and audience all in mind.

We’re always happy to talk with people during their planning process, the sooner a designer can get involved in the process, the more thorough their understanding of the project is, and the better the final product will be.






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Just finished your annual report? Start working on your annual report!

Just finished your annual report? Start working on your annual report!

If you’ve just come to the end of the giant undertaking of finishing your annual report, take a moment to celebrate!

Get some ice cream, go for a walk in the summer air, enjoy the day! Then don’t think about your next annual report until approximately 2 months into 2019…

NO! Just kidding! Don’t do that. You should take time to celebrate what you’ve accomplished for this year, but

Now is the best time to start thinking about your next annual report!

Even if you just make a few notes about what could be better next time, the process is still fresh in your head and future you will really be impressed.

We’ve got you covered with a roundup of our blog posts specifically about knocking your annual report out of the park (summer is for baseball metaphors).

Sometimes it’s nice to start thinking visually – it activates a different part of your brain and gives ideas space to form in a way words don’t (at least that’s true for us, maybe why we’re designers). Check out this post for some soothing visuals and learn how they can be effective. Let’s get visual. 

The last thing anyone wants is to put all of their hard work and energy into something that doesn’t make an impact — check out this post to Make sure your annual report gets read.

Helping your audience understand your organization is about telling them a story, and to tell a good story, you need a theme.  How to choose a theme for your annual report

If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll come to obstacles and get frustrated. Being connected to your purpose helps carry you through the rough spots. How to take your annual report from a meaningless obligation to an impactful tool. 

Thanks for reading! Feel free to get in touch if we can be of further assistance.



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Union Strategy : The Design Audit

Union Strategy : The Design Audit

Projects that call for re-branding or repositioning begin with a communications audit. There are two components to this: a design audit and a competitive audit. A design audit is a review of all pieces of designed materials (both print and online) currently in use by your organization. (A more comprehensive examination can include an evaluation of written materials.) A competitive audit is a review of the documents produced by your competitors and peers.

Today we are going to focus on how a design audit can help you make your marketing more effective. Before you begin, review your branding or strategic planning documents. Then write down your organization’s top challenges and goals.  Having this information at the front of your mind will help you approach the design audit with a more strategic perspective. (Can you tell we’re huge fans of strategy?!)

Step One: Gather and Evaluate

Gather all the materials in one place where you can see everything at once, whether on a large bulletin board, spread out on a table. Print out online documents so they can be seen with print materials. Note your first impressions. Look for patterns, inconsistencies, and notice anything that stands out to you. Write it all down; after you have collected these initial thoughts, dig a little deeper. Be sure to evaluate the materials based on your strategic objectives and your audience, not your personal preference.

Step Two: Set Objectives

After assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your current spread of materials, identify the areas where you can take action. Some projects, such as a new website, might be too big to take on right away. If that’s the case, break it down into smaller steps and determine what you can do right now. For more significant projects, set objectives and put together a plan for how to get there.

Step Three: Document It

Summarize your observations in a brief report (no more than 1-2 pages).  Capture your insights and ideas so you can include them in the next communications plan.

Step Four: Move Forward

The only thing worse than ignoring strategy outright is spending so much time strategizing that nothing gets done. Sometimes our greatest obstacles come from grappling with our real-world limitations – doing what we can with what we have is always infinitely better than lamenting what is absent. Also, when understanding the gaps in our resources, we can be empowered to fill those gaps.

If this doesn’t sound like work you want to do on your own, give us a call! We’d love to help!


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Are there any circumstances in which you wouldn’t want to update your materials?

Just like a home can build value over time, so can design.

I like to think of someone who still has an AOL email address in 2018. For a period, you might have wondered why that person wasn’t changing with the trends, but after a certain point, the address has become part of their brand consistency.

Another excellent example of this is Craigslist. Craigslist is still using the same UX as they did when the website launched over twenty years ago. Most companies have succumbed to the pressure to update, but Craigslist has remained consistent, they provide an inexpensive local platform to connect people with resources and opportunities they might need.

What is valuable both for an email or a website that remains consistent is that people already know what it is and how it works. These things become part of the reliability of the brand. The design is timeless. Though there are trends, if your design is based on a solid strategy and has been tested, don’t update just because you feel the pressure to be more trendy. The potential to create something timeless when an organization invests in laying a strategic foundation is part of the payoff of doing the hard work upfront.



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Resonance is about what makes sense to who, so getting your materials in front of your potential audience can be a great way to understand what is working and make tweaks.

Beyond the specific design elements, a strong logo furthers positive associations with your organization. Do you feel that the logo accurately represents the organization? Do you like it? Are you proud of it? Does the logo —and the broader brand system— trigger positive emotions for your audience?

Undertaking this type of analysis of your materials and assets puts you in a great position to make more strategic and practical design decisions.

Often things can get framed as “right” or “wrong,” but, many things are either well understood or poorly understood. If your logo and branding materials are poorly received, that doesn’t have to mean a failure of your organization. It does mean you need to make some tweaks that allow your message to be understood.

Resonance is about connection, and connection takes effort. If you are committed to your mission, this kind of effort is always a worthwhile investment. In the non-profit world, many organizations serve people who might come from a different racial, class, educational, gender, ability, or religious background, and have to make sure their work is resonating with the people they want to help — sometimes this is uncomfortable. Don’t let that discomfort stop you from finding a real and genuine connection with your audience — the success of your work depends on it!

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The word “competition” can bring up very binary responses. Some think “win, superior, survival of the fittest!” Others might muse, “unnecessarily aggressive, scarcity mentality.”

Whatever your attitude about competition, knowing where your non-profit fits in the competitive landscape, and having the design that supports your position, is vital to getting the attention you need to rally support and achieve your mission.

Consider how your branding and identity materials fit among your peers. Gather logos and examples from all organizations in your niche. Looking at your peers and competition from a high level can show you what you (and your competitors) have not addressed. While taking a broad view might seem intimidating, strategizing with a clear understanding of the landscape will help you solidify your position.

But if we tend to understand what is familiar, then what makes design both fresh and easily understood? If your logo looks out of place when viewed side-by-side with your peers, you should take a more in-depth look. Do any materials stand out as particularly well- or poorly- designed? Seeing your articles in context with other organizations can bring any design issues into focus.

Also, consider what you might like about brands and organizations outside of your niche. Comparing across different sectors can also emphasize what works and what doesn’t.

Competition does not have to be a threat: especially in the non-profit sector, where everyone aims to help. Your competitors can also be your peers, your community, and your support system. Comparing yourself to other organizations can highlight your weaknesses, but there is also an opportunity to reveal your strengths.

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Strategy is simple.

Strategy is simple.

A strategy is just having a reason for doing something. It’s a hypothesis about what you think will be the next right decision based on what you’re trying to accomplish.

The desire to make strategic decisions is simple, actually making strategic decisions is much trickier.  Even though you make a decision for a reason, that does not mean you will be successful. We hope a strategic approach will take us closer to the success we’re seeking, but a strategy is not a guarantee.

Being strategic requires holding many views of a situation at once. There is a broad view that surveys all that is happening now, a detailed look that assesses how the pieces are adding up to the whole, and a vision for the ideal future you’re working to create. Making strategic decisions is a matter of comparing the ideal to the now and figuring out how to improve the details that are falling short.

Easier said than done!

You can get at strategy through digging into big questions, but you can also consider the overall values of your organization. Sometimes making a sound strategic decision is just finding out where your principals are out of alignment with your actions. A strategy is always about being intentional and seeing the big picture. Often people get uncomfortable and uncertain when thinking about the big picture questions, and just move forward to get over the discomfort of the unknown.

A strategy is about creating the future by being intentional; this is why a strategic plan is so critical to design. Designers create something from nothing.

If we are to be successful in our endeavors, we need to know what purpose our design serves in the first place.








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