Intro to Graphic Design Hacks for Nonprofits

This is part one of our Graphic Design Hacks for Nonprofits blog recap. Read part two to learn how to use Microsoft Office to create beautiful graphics!

When people have limited resources, they need to become resourceful and creative. No one knows that better than the folks who work at scrappy nonprofits that can’t afford state-of-the-art design software (or aren’t eligible for our Adobe donations program) or do not have admin privileges to download and install open-source programs on their computers.

This blog posts summarizes the key design concepts covered in our event, Graphic Design Hacks for Nonprofits, that can be used to improve your graphic design skills. You can view a copy of the presentation on SlideShare or watch the event recording on our YouTube channel.

Note: All the graphics you see in this blog have been made in Microsoft PowerPoint (yes, it is possible!).

Common Graphic Design Myths

Before we dive in, we want to address a couple of common misconceptions that often prevent nonprofits from investing in good graphic design:

#1 - Graphic design must be done by a pro. While it is ideal to hire a professional, this doesn’t mean your nonprofit can’t get by without one. Anyone can create beautiful graphics when you’re equipped with the right tools and know which basic principles to apply!

#2 - Graphic design is not important. Graphic design can make all the difference in convincing a donor to fund your mission activities or getting people to attend your event. Good design can make your content digestible, helps people to understand and remember your message, and builds your brand persona.

5 design principles and techniques that will improve your designs

There are many principles and elements of design that are taught and mastered by artists. While it is important for a professional designer to understand all of these concepts, it’s not necessary for you or your staff to learn everything. Here, we handpicked a few principles and techniques that anyone can use to dramatically improve their designs:

Understand the concept of “Line”

Line is the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece. It directs the flow of content.
When creating a design, you need to understand how people’s eyes will move through the content and intentionally plan for it. You can direct how people read your piece (ie. from left to right or vice versa) by being strategic in where you place pictures, text and even which colours you use.

For example, look at below picture on the left.  To view this image as a whole, your eyes jump from one tree to another. Now look at the image on the right. It’s practically identical except for the addition of a light path.

This path actually serves as a visual path for your eyes, so when you view this image as a whole, your eyes are guided from one tree to the other.

Understand the concept of “Space”

Space is the area taken up by or in between objects (positive and negative). Positive space is defined as the space occupied by the main object/subject and negative space are the areas in between the main object/subject. For example, the below image on the left has more positive space and the image on the right has more negative space.

Space defines where your eyes can rest. This means if you emphasize on having little to no negative space (therefore having a lot of positive space), the design will feel busy and crowded since the viewer’s eyes are constantly looking at the piece to find a place where it can rest.  On the other hand, having plenty of negative space (therefore limited positive space) has a calming and focusing effect, as the viewers eyes have plenty of room to rest and concentrate on the subject.

Understand the concept of “Harmony”

Harmony can be subjective, but it’s defined as the visually satisfying effect of combining similar, related elements together. Colour palettes, font choices and consistency are factors to harmony.

The best way we can illustrate harmony is with an example. The two images below have the exact same subject matter, copy, uses the same mix of typefaces (sans-serif and serif) and uses similar colours (variations of green and brown). However, image on the left is less harmonious than the image on the right.

The image on left uses green and brown hues in the copy and background colour that have cold undertones, whereas the subject (the tree) uses green and brown hues that have warm undertones. The typeface usage are also inconsistent: the verb and article are sans-serif, but the noun is serif. Since the noun and the verb are the focus of the sentence, using two different typefaces makes the copy look imbalanced.

Depending on your design goals, you may intentionally design for discord rather than harmony (e.g., harmonious designs convey positive emotions whereas discord appears unsettling). While there isn’t a right or wrong approach, you should be aware of the concept of harmony and how it can help or hurt your goal.


The process of adjusting the spacing between each character. Not all font faces are kerned the same and in a well-kerned font, the spaces are visually similar.

Same font and font size, but kerned differently.

A well-kerned font has spacing that is visually consistent from letter to letter. Since not all letters take up the same amount of space, you may choose to kern one character/letter at a time instead of uniformly kerning all of them.

Graphic Design Tip: You can kern in Word by navigating to Font > Advanced > Character Spacing

Line height/spacing

The spacing before and after a line of text. It can be set for each line of text, or before and/or after a line break meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have to be uniform across all text in a page. Adjusting line spacing will provide you with more precise line breaks, as opposed to just hiting your Enter key. To demonstrate this, see the images below. Both paragraphs use the same font, fontsize and line breaks, however the image on the right utilizes a customized linespace before and after its line breaks.


Putting these principles into practice

Now that you’re familiar with the a few design principles and techniques, here is a practical application of how you can utilize these techniques to improve your designs.

Poster - Before

Let’s start by evaluating this poster by a Canadian charity (don't worry, we've removed the organization's name from the poster) using the five principles and techniques:


Our eyes are drawn to the gears first, not the title of the conference.

The negative space (white background) is interspersed with the positive space, making it hard for the eyes to focus on the content

Design is not harmonious (five different font faces, no obvious colour palette)

Kerning and Line Spacing
Not adjusted


Poster - After

By just applying the five principles and design techniques, we can improve on the poster's design (note: we are not doing a complete overhaul of design concept - merely an improved version of the first poster).

Refocused the flow of information by putting the title of the conference in a more central location

Lessened the number of gears and used a different colour for the negative space (so it’s easier for the eyes to focus on the gears/information)

Picked two font faces and three colours to use consistently throughout the design

Kerning and Line Spacing
Has been adjusted to fit better within the gears




Now that you're equipped with these five principles and design techniques, let's move onto the tips and tricks on how to use day-to-day Office programs to create your graphic design elements.

More Resources

Image editors:

  • Canva (web-based)
  • Pixlr (web-based)
  • GIMP (download and installation required)

Resources for public domain (CC0) photos and images:

Other free resources

  • FontSquirrel for customized font
  • If you have Photoshop, Freebiesbug provides free PSD templates and images
  • If you have Illustrator, Pixel77 provides free AI templates and images

Event Recording

Graphic Design Hacks Presentation slides

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