There aren’t many nonprofit logos that become part of the cultural zeitgeist. Fun consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Nike are associated with color palettes, fonts, and shapes that are instantly recognizable. But nonprofits have rarely been known for their shareable and eye-catching designs.

Until the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality.

Founded in 1980, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) developed its iconic logo in 1995. Its design was initiated by then Executive Director Elizabeth Birch, who was an attorney for Apple.

HRC logo
HRC's iconic logo

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“She understood the importance of design coming from the Apple community and the tech world in San Francisco,” said Robert Villaflor, Senior Design Director for the HRC. “And she really wanted to bring that kind of approach and thoughtfulness to the HRC.”

Birch enlisted the help of marketing and design firm Stone Yamashita to help create a unified, visual brand for the organization. Among 10 variations, the simple yellow equal sign inside of a blue square was the winner. It was soon placed on the nonprofit’s letterheads, made into stickers, and used at pride celebrations.

The logo has since made the transition into the digital age and endured various iterations, becoming a symbol not just for the HRC but for the LGBTQ equality movement as a whole.

“I think that's really a testament to the strength of that really simple mark,” Villaflor said. “It really has such a universal appeal; it’s highly adaptable and recognizable and that absolutely has helped.”

But that’s just the beginning of the HRC’s design story.

Here are four ways the nonprofit uses design and branding to share its message with the world.

A bold logo gone viral

Villaflor first joined the HRC partly because of its logo. He was hired as the company’s first art director in 2006, and has been there for 11 years.

“When I joined, it was because of that strong brand,” he said. “I was really interested in this organization that had an iconic logo, and I immediately set out to systematize the internal processes and try to give ourselves an even firmer identity.”

Contrary to what he’d learned in design school, that didn’t mean protecting and preserving an untouchable brand. It actually meant giving himself permission to create variations of the brand icon, and empowering supporters to create their own.

“That just broke all of the design lessons I learned in school: You don't mess with the logo,” he said. “It was eye-opening.”

Most notably, a red variation the HRC logo went viral across Facebook in 2013.

The nonprofit was planning for a rally in Washington D.C. as the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in two marriage equality cases. They were working in coalition with other groups, and all agreed to use red — for love — as a branding color for event signage and T-shirts.

“And kind of on a whim, our Marketing Director at the time said that we should do something on our Facebook page,” Villaflor said.

The HRC changed its Facebook profile photo to the red logo and asked others to followed suit.

“And then our servers crashed.”

HRC Red Logo
Red version of the HRC logo

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Red Circle Icon Community Non-Profit Logo
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According to Facebook, 3 million people shared the logo, 800 variations were made, and the social network saw a 120% increase in profile photo updates.

“It was this really powerful moment in the marriage debate,” Villaflor said. “It brought this attention to our work. We didn’t even expect it to be that big, and were just amazed at how that really took off.”

Celebrities, brands, and politicians also jumped on board. And Facebook users even created their own versions of the red logo.

“It was just that idea of opening yourself and letting your supporters really engage with you in this direct way,” Villaflor said. “That was a really powerful lesson.”

It wasn’t just about the design, however. It was about spreading this message of equality and inclusivity.

“It got people to realize that people they knew, people in their Facebook communities, were OK with with the LGBTQ community,” Villaflor said. “It wasn't something that they may have ever talked about or expressed before, but when they would see family members or friends (sharing this logo), it had this ripple effect. It was really incredible.”

In fact, it reminded Villaflor of one of the logo’s first uses: as a sticker.

“When it launched in the mid-90s, LGBTQ issues weren't as socially acceptable. There were members of the community that weren’t out and it was dangerous for them to be identified. For a while, it became this sort of secret symbol for the community. If you saw a blue and yellow equal sticker on your car or in the window of your house, it signified a kind of connection.”

As the logo transitioned into the digital age and LGBTQ support became more mainstream, the icon went from being an intimate symbol of support to a badge of pride that can be shared with the masses online.

“For nonprofits, that's really important,” Villaflor said. “It’s not like there's a product. It's not like there’s something you can point to directly, and this really gives it this presence and realness.”

Social media as a rapid response tool

Social media is an integral part of HRC’s daily operation. It allows the nonprofit to instantly reach its audience as well as politicians, who are often the subjects of its messaging.

That’s why the HRC uses social media as a rapid response tool. For example, they recently created graphics announcing that courts blocked President Trump’s ban on transgender troops. It received over 3,500 retweets and 12,400 likes.

HRC Twitter post
Twitter post shared by HRC

“We immediately generated images that we could share across our social media platforms for millions of followers. Those images then take on a life of their own as people share amongst their networks.”

These social graphics are critical tools that allow the HRC to mobilize its community and move the needle in real time.

“We can get a rally going in Alabama in the same day and have impact on legislation or elections of anti-LGBTQ candidates.”

For instance, the HRC uses specific templates for graphics about anti-LGBTQ political candidates. These treatments have heavy shading and a black, red, and white color palette, conveying a menacing look.

“We have stylistic templates that we used to be able to generate the images immediately,” Villaflor said. “All of the messaging gets vetted through the Communications Director and comes through our digital team, who we work directly with to create a specific image.”

Take this graphic calling for the suspension of Roy Moore, the anti-LGBTQ Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Roy Moore
HRC blog post banner

The HRC also recently reported violence about LGBTQ community members in Chechnya. By sharing graphics and information on social media, they were able to mobilize a group of people to the Chechnyan embassy with rally signs.

Eyes on Chechnya
Twitter post shared by HRC

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Most notably, the HRC is the company behind the “Make America Gay Again” hat, a witty response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat. It may not be a social graphic, but it did generate a great deal of press. It even made an appearance in the long-awaited premiere of NBC’s Will & Grace reboot! And it can purchased online at shop.hrc.org.
Make America Gay Again
'Make America Gay Again' hat by HRC

“That was a nice example of subversive design,” Villaflor said. “I just love being able to react like that, and being in an organization that's open to these ideas. It was a lot of fun.”

Award-winning data reports

The HRC doesn’t just garner support for LGBTQ communities and start movements to battle relevant issues. The nonprofit also conducts its own research. This is part of its Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRCF) arm, which works to “increase understanding and encourage the adoption of LGBTQ-inclusive policies and practices.”

In an effort to educate people about LGBTQ issues, the foundation produces a number of reports, including the Healthcare Equality Index, Corporate Equality Index, and Municipal Equality Index. They look at how favorable conditions are to LGBTQ community members in each sector.

In the Corporate Equality Index, for example, the HRC looked at the hiring practices of Fortune 500 companies, and ranked them by how LGBTQ-friendly they are.

“We recognized early on that corporate America was much further ahead of political America,” Villaflor said. “They understood that in order to hire the best and the brightest, it was within their interest to adopt these strong, LGBTQ-friendly workplaces.”

Still, the challenge was figuring out how to convey all of this information in an engaging way.

That’s where design came in. Villaflor and his team uses graphics, crisp typography, and pops of color to improve the readability of these reports.

“The reports are so data-heavy,” Villaflor said. “And our foundation really understood the value of design and started working closely with my team to have them be more accessible and user-friendly.”

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Pastel Geometric Annual Report

In fact, the reports are so well-crafted that they’ve garnered design awards. For its 2016 Annual Report, the HRC worked with a D.C.-based design team called Design Army. And the report was a D&AD Annual Reports Graphite Pencil Awards Winner.

“Annual reports are a forgettable item that rarely grabs the attention of donors,” Design Army wrote. “We used one color, custom typography and pacing to create impact and present the data in as direct a way as possible ... compelling the HRC’s 1.5 million members to join the fight for equal rights.”

HRC annual report
HRC 2016 Annual Report

This type of success also helps the HRC’s designers garner support from leadership teams and executives.

“At nonprofits, budgets are limited, and it costs money and time to enter these competitions, and there are no guarantees,” Villaflor said. “And when they see our annual report in the same competition as Vanity Fair and TIME and these other big commercial publications, it’s easy for them to connect the value and get behind it.”

Groundbreaking grassroots campaigns

Going forward, the HRC will continue to use design to fuel groundbreaking campaigns.

Most recently, the nonprofit launched HRC Rising, a $26 million grassroots campaign, and the company’s largest to date. The initiative comes as a response to the 2016 election, which revealed that many states are still far behind in understanding LGBTQ rights and inclusivity.

As the website states, the campaign is meant to “accelerate progress in states from coast-to-coast, resist the politics of hate, fight anti-LGBTQ legislation, and fuel pro-equality candidates and initiatives.”

HRC Rising
HRC Rising blog banner

The HRC will mobilize its supporters and partner with local communities to engage in events nationwide. They’ll also recruit at least 20 new full-time staff members to help organize and run these programs.

“We’ve got to accelerate the pace of progress toward full equality and secure protections for LGBTQ people in states and communities across the country,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “That’s why we’re going on offense with the largest grassroots expansion in HRC’s 37-year history.”

It’ll be a massive undertaking, but it will be aided by a strong design team.

“By growing our membership as much as possible in these states, we can affect these local races and prepare for the Midterm Elections next year, and then the Presidential Election in 2020,” Villaflor said. “I’ll be brought in along with the digital team and video team. I'll start crafting an identity for the campaign, and we’ll work with communications to design a cohesive framework and message.”

Just like all of the HRC’s work, it has the potential to influence global politics and culture — especially with support from millions of advocates and a bold and recognizable brand to guide the way.

Amanda Walgrove is a freelance copywriter based in Los Angeles. She has written for Facebook, A&E Networks, Advertising Week, Entrepreneur, and Variety, among others. She likes to write comedy, too: amandawalgrovecomedy.com