What's in a sign? Maybe the success of your business

NONPROFITS INC

June 14, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Here goes one of my pet peeves about nonprofit organizations. Signs. Plain, simple signs. Or, as the public relations types refer to them, signage.

Why is it that nonprofits are so far behind the rest of corporate America regarding signage? This past week, I played the 147th rendition of the "I Dare You To Find Me" game. In this game, the rules are known only by the nonprofit agency, whose employees are sworn to secrecy. The game goes like this.

Say you want to meet with an executive of a nonprofit organization, as I did recently. You arrange the meeting, get directions to the agency and perhaps hope the agency will show you the good works it performs. Yeah, but that's only your agenda. Here's what happens on the other end of the line.

As soon as you hang up, your contact rushes out to his colleagues and tells them another sucker is on the way. When you arrive, they're all standing by the window, watching you drive right past the building eight times. With each pass, you are doing your part for the American Chiropractic Association, contorting your neck into grotesque positions, trying to find the 2-by-3-inch sign that identifies the agency. Meantime, I have this image of the nonprofit staff guffawing behind the window.

By the time you arrive, late, rumpled and mean-spirited -- and this game invariably gets played when it is 95 degrees above or below zero -- the executive seizes the psychological high ground, making you feel like a dirt ball for not being able to find the hiding place.

Signs are important in a visual age. I'm not as impressed by fancy signs as with signs that tell me what I need to know, at precisely the time I need to know it.

For more than a year, I regularly passed the driveway to a client's building because the location sign was so small, hidden among signs for other businesses and was unrelated to the agency logo.

But location signs are only one part of the signage picture. How about lobby or waiting-room signs? Is your receptionist NTC interrupted by clients asking directions to the bathroom? Think of the performance gains you would accrue by posting reader-friendly signs.

And I can't tell you how many times I've waited in a nonprofit's front office and been assaulted by signs that read like the Ten Commandments of how not to set the tone for your agency.

"We do not cash checks, from anyone, in whatever amount, for any reason," said one sign pasted to the counter in front of the agency receptionist. That sign's even more irritating companion read: "Please do not complain to the receptionist. All complaints must be in writing." Naturally, there was no paper or pencil anywhere. I remember speaking with a colleague who designed the signage for an entire campus of state agencies. His helpful pointers were well-taken at the time and deserve mention here.

Signs are often the first impression a visitor gets of your agency. Are your location signs easy to read, even from a distance? Are your signs consistent with the image you wish to convey? Is your logo on all your signs a bold signature that tells people you are proud of each of your messages? Do your signs anticipate a visitor's next need? For example, if the driveway curves, your directional signs should precede the turn, thereby lowering the visitor's anxiety.

Is there a mix of signs that help, reward and thank visitors (lots of these), as well as admonish them (very few of these, please)? Are usage areas and all doors clearly marked, so people do not have to walk a mile or open every door to find what they are looking for? Do your signs encourage involvement with your most valuable asset, your people? One of my favorite signs was a simple hand-lettered piece that greeted all visitors to a medium-size nonprofit agency: "Hi, I'm YOUR receptionist. Go ahead, ask me anything!" It was signed by the receptionist on duty.

Have professionals and objective, first-time visitors evaluate your signage. Employees are not good choices to evaluate signage. Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it does decrease sensitivity to appropriate signage.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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