An Award-Winning Designer Details Three Steps for Making an Impact

Apply to the Adobe Government Creativity Awards here.

Rafael Macho — a respected freelance designer for companies like Apple, Twitter, and IBM — rarely does work for free.

But once a year, he chooses a nonprofit to work with as a pro bono project.

“I like projects that are meaningful,” he said. “I used to work for a company who supported [USAID] International Women’s Day and the Army. I really loved working for those clients because it’s using motion graphics, illustration, and design for a purpose.”

How Rafael chose his 2017 nonprofit

Last year, Rafael saw a post online from a local nonprofit, STEAM:CODERS, that said they needed posters.

Rafael sat down with the founder, Raymond Ealy. They chatted about the mission, which is to teach underrepresented and underserved students the fundamentals of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) in preparation for academic and career opportunities.

Oftentimes, the schools they help don’t have enough money to afford quality computers — or they only have three or four computers for all the students to share.

This deeply resonated with Rafael, and he wanted to help. “I think it’s a great institution, bringing education to the unserved.”

“We need to restore the dream,” Raymond said. “A lot of these kids come out of environments where dreaming isn’t an option. We want them to dream, to think big.”

Step 1: Brainstorm the big idea

As the project began, Raymond shared his thoughts.

The problem was that most people didn’t know what STEAM stands for. While awareness of STEM education was growing, the A was still unknown (it stands for art).

To help build awareness, Raymond imagined a billboard that would hang near Pasadena, California, and educate people about STEAM. He wanted something “simple” and standard, with photos of the children, a title, and some text.

But Rafael imagined something different — something abstract that would help create a visual identity and intrigue people.

“I decided to create something that would give people just enough information to have them question what it was about,” Rafael said. “Usually, billboards say something in the fastest possible way to sell. I wanted to make people wonder, feel inspired, and visit the website.”

This design would grab the attention of local drivers and pedestrians and give them a baseline of understanding what STEAM is (and how it’s different from STEM).

At times, it can be difficult for a client to lend control and trust a designer with their visual brand. But experience is what they’re paying for, Rafael said. “I have 20 years of experience to have ideas.”

Step 2: Refine your vision

Rafael started doing research — from Pinterest to books.

“I was curious to see if other posters out there were created to get people inspired,” he said.

He also noted that many nonprofits struggle with creating a versatile design they can use again and again, on both online and offline channels.

So, he sketched concepts to demonstrate the full creative meaning of STEAM and met several times with Raymond to show his progress to ensure they were aligned.

Rafael worked off the foundation of the logo and colors (blue and red) from the STEAM:CODERS website. The challenge was in creating something new, while using elements of the organization’s current identity.

“It was a fine balance,” he said. “I was able to introduce a new typeface to replace the original font, Futura, in the logo. I wanted to contrast a bit with something more modern. STEAM seemed to be a more linear and geometric typeface that’s more condensed (not wide). So, we replaced it with the font Fabrikat.”

Through multiple revisions with the client to ensure the direction was right, Rafael was able to fine-tune the design.

The design converted better than anyone expected.

“When we first went up, everyone wanted to know what we did,” Raymond said. “We get a lot of inquiries from the billboard — two to three a week — wanting to learn what we do.” It also increased traffic to the organization’s social media channels.

“People asked, ‘Who did your billboard?’ We heard that all the time. [Rafael] is like a legend.”

On top of calls, the organization got nearly 60 emails — and tripled their website visits.

Grant activity (and grant awards) also picked up significantly.

Step 3: Over-deliver

Rafael volunteered to give more — beyond the billboard design — and used his new graphic assets to design merchandise and other branded mock-ups.

“People always ask for the t-shirts,” Raymond said. “And they comment on how much they love the logo.”

Since then, Rafael has been named a category finalist in the Adobe Government Creativity Awards for this project.

Tips for designers working with nonprofits

If you’re a designer considering working with a nonprofit, Rafael said, “Talk to them. See if they understand that paying will be beneficial to them, especially in managing deadlines.”

“And if there’s absolutely no money to give, you need to be clear to yourself and find good reasons that benefit you to do it. Does it help your portfolio? Does it give back to a mission you personally care about?”

For Rafael, he was able to bring a measurable impact to his community and to an organization he loved.

“I think a designer should feel empowered about what they do, never lowering rates unless it’s a project they really want to contribute to this world.”

Read more in our Creating Impact series.

Learn more about STEAM:CODERS and their mission.

Learn about the designer, Rafael Macho, the STEAM:CODERS project, and his other community-related projects: