In March of 2010, Nikhil Arora was finishing his degree in Political Science and Business at UC Berkeley, getting ready to start a career in corporate America. Passionate about making a difference, but without a clear path to make a career out of his interests, he decided to pursue a more traditional path—that was until an unusual school project sent his ambitions in a very different direction.
When we sat down with Nikhil, he told us: “We came about this idea of growing mushrooms from coffee grounds just a few months before graduating. [My partner] Alex Velez and I were sitting in class and heard a professor bring the idea up. We had no background in food, agriculture, or mushrooms. I was actually going into consulting, and he was going into investment banking, but in the back of our minds, we had this passion for education and sustainability.”
The pair began sustainably growing mushrooms from recycled coffee grounds in a bucket in Alex’s fraternity kitchen. They brought an early batch over to the iconic Chez Panisse restaurant at a time when its owner, renowned Chef Alice Waters, was cooking. She sauteed a few mushrooms and declared them delicious. Bolstered by this positive reaction, Nikhil and Alex met with similar feedback from Whole Foods, and soon received a $5,000 grant from UC Berekeley’s Chancellor. “It all happened really fast,” Nikhil remembers. “The next thing you know, we went from banking and consulting to full-time mushroom farming.” Their company, Back to the Roots, has been growing ever since. The founders have been featured on ABC and BBC, and have spoken at events like TEDx Presidio. Each week, Back to the Roots recycles 20,000 pounds of coffee grounds that would otherwise go to the landfill.
Few things have been as important to the organization’s growth as great design. “Design is so important. You could have the best product ever invented, but if people don’t get what it is in two or three seconds, no one will pick it up,” says Nikhil. “Since we started to invest in design, we’ve seen a huge difference in sales. If we were to start another company, we would get started on design from day one.”
At my company, Elefint Designs, we believe great design is an essential component to the success of nonprofits and socially responsible businesses. Great design means more than nice collateral materials and clever logos; it’s about telling a compelling story in a clear and consistent way. Yes, that story must be told through beautiful materials, but those materials must emerge from a strong brand. Your brand is how your partners, customers, funders, and employees experience you at every turn. Your brand is what you do as much as what you say. It’s the collective perception of who you are, and it’s always subject to change.
Just as Apple has demonstrated the overwhelming advantage of a powerful brand by creating products people love and by offering consistently delightful experiences from their website to their retail stores, the social sector is starting to show that it too can harness the power of great design. From its inception, the organization charity: water set out to do things differently. It innovates through simple and profound ideas, such as its 100% model, which funnels all donations to direct services. It created a powerful story from day one and used beautiful design to consistently communicate it. The results have been dramatic, and they are not alone in their success. In recent years, organizations like Teach for America, Kiva, and Tom’s Shoes have also articulated brilliant narratives that have led to innovative, scalable organizations.
Put simply, design matters. Corporate America is waking up to the fact that people have less tolerance for products and experiences that are not meeting their needs. On the other hand, organizations that craft powerful stories, delight customers, and communicate values with strong brands and great design are seeing incredible returns. The work of the social sector matters too much to miss the growing importance of great design.
While achieving great design isn’t easy, there are some simple steps that can get you going in the right direction. In my next post I will share some tips, and pose some important questions that will help you focus on creating a strong brand with great design.