9 Things to Know About Pro Bono
By Joe Marianek
Issue 1 Spring | Summer 2009
“Pro bono” derives from a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.” This term has often come to be misinterpreted as “volunteerism” or “free work” because of its broad use across various practices such as law, medicine, marketing and design. Pro bono work can be multifarious, depending on your field.
Here are nine things a designer should know about pro bono.
1. It is Good Exercise
A pro bono job can be a welcome relief from the tedious and unglamorous responsibilities of day-to-day design, as it can give you the opportunity to become reacquainted with the more cerebral, formal and enjoyable workout of design.
In the real world, the daily activities of any busy, practicing designer include a minimal amount of core design skills; if one is working on an eight month project with various stages of deliverables, the “ah ha” moment when you have a design idea is only a small part of the work that is done. The rest is usually a slew of emails involving chit-chat about timelines, budgets and implementation that can make us feel farther away from the good stuff—solving visual communication problems with form and content.
Just like a good physical exercise regimen, the activity of design presents increasingly difficult challenges, which need to be accomplished in order to progress. Design is an activity that we can get rusty at and many practicing designers become “out of shape.” Some medicate this with a cocktail of design annuals and how-to books, others go to every design conference that comes around and some just casually mine through clever portfolio websites or FFFFOUND.com for cool work. Whatever the inspiration, pro bono work is a great way to get back on the creative track.
2. It is a Great Chance to Demonstrate Integrity
Nihilists don’t make great designers; they don’t even make so-so ones. People who don’t give a sh*t about other people or things are both boring and dangerous. As professionals, we are hired to engage in topics that are not of our own choosing and require an immersion in others’ business problems and needs. The force of will required to seek out a need and offer services only comes by way of an engaged, curious and compassionate person.
Many people wrongly assume that a pro bono project will not be a lot of work; they think it will be a quick job that will help someone else, just like helping an elderly woman cross the street or mowing a sick neighbor’s lawn. In reality, a pro bono job may require as much work as one with a six figure budget. You have to be in it for the long haul with the pro bono client as with any other, and your integrity will follow with the full execution of the work.
3. The Reward is Greater than an Award
Designers sometimes drop the pro bono bomb in a social or competitive atmosphere when they are seeking an extraordinary blessing and recognition. And, not surprisingly, the reaction is a well deserved “what fun…that’s so cool that you do this…how do you find time…etc.” But in reality, the end goal for pro bono should not be as extra fodder for your conversation or resumé, it should be to bring personal and professional satisfaction to you, your collaborators and the client.
4. Money is Never The Issue
In my experience, many designers use the phrase “pro bono” to describe services that were provided for “free” and at the designers “expense” as though the charitable work was an annoyance. The fact of the matter is that pro bono work is provided as a public service for those who cannot afford normal fees, either for free or at severely discounted fees. Regardless, it is the reciprocal benefit of service, which is exchanged, not money. The definition of pro bono work is not “for no money,” it is “for good”—this is an important thing to keep in mind when doing this type of job.
5. Seek a Client Who Wants Change
As is true with any other client relationship, while working for a pro bono client, you will be at your best when you are able to provide change that is both useful to them and beautiful to you, as the designer. Before you begin designing, it’s imperative that you fully understand the change that the organization needs to achieve; input from primary stakeholders within the organization is critical, as they will eventually either support or reject a design proposal.
6. Obtain a Solid Brief
A good brief manages the expectations of both the designer and client and can help form an agreement, which will govern the process of the project. Either the designer or the client can assemble this brief. Surprisingly, once you’re engaged in a pro bono capacity, a client can become needier, and sometimes even greedier, than a paying client. Non-profits and certain institutions that “do good,” can at times, expect the world to naturally reciprocate because of their own benevolent nature. A good brief will expose the challenges at hand, which are reasonable tasks for the designer to solve in the course of the project. Scope creep and misunderstandings can occur without a good brief and open communication.
7. Educate the Client
While the client may suggest what they think they need, how the design project should run, and how long it should take, it’s imperative that you as the design professional convey exactly what you will be able to achieve. Also, in terms of process, the client should understand exactly what work you’ll be presenting and what criteria to judge the work on. To do this, they must be educated in the design process, especially if it’s their first time hiring a designer. In the future, they may have an opportunity to purchase design and will be better collaborators for the next round.
8. Make Sure the Work is Useful and Used
While conceiving of and executing a good identity, print collateral or website may be a generous donation in its own right, others must work with the artifact that you’ve designed after you finish. People will need to print more business cards, update the website or even just find the right logo to enlarge for a big banner. The chances are that the client is already stretched thin and will not have a wealth of experience implementing design, so it’s likely that your design will be implemented by other volunteers or designers in the future. Because of this, a guideline document is essential for establishing and creating a useful record of the design deliverables. Ideally, this document will include protocols for discussing, managing and implementing the design down the road. Moreover, a guideline document helps put a “finish” on the work at the successful completion of the pro bono project.
9. Feel Great About What You’ve Done
Satisfaction will come in knowing you’ve made a difference for the client’s cause without letting ulterior motives drive the work. Ideally, the benefit is personal and professional in that it will inform work you create for paying clients. The client will be satisfied and you will see the results of your work in its purest application. A good pro bono project is win-win for all. Pentagram partner Michael Bierut summarized it best, when he said, “The best pro bono work gives you a chance to exercise your skills on behalf of something you truly believe in…at their best, pro bono projects remind us what design is really for: to improve peoples’ lives and, in some small way, to make the work a better place.”
About the Author:
A graphic designer and teacher, Joe works at Pentagram Design. He teaches courses at the School of Visual Arts on typography and identity design.
Case studies for the above pro bono projects can be found at identityworks.com where Tony Spaeth, an identity consultant, runs an identity design web site. On the site, Spaeth presents case studies about institutional rebranding, including a section the highlights pro bono projects.