Co.Design

Five Myths About Pro Bono Design

The author of The Power of Pro Bono debunks the common assumptions about this virtuous work, starting with the meaning of the term.

Earlier this year, Co.Design published a provocative, sometimes comical, and overall insightful infographic by Jessica Hische, “Designers, Should You Work for Free?” The dizzyingly intricate flowchart immediately went viral among designers, as it perfectly encapsulated the ambivalence and frustration so many feel about being repeatedly asked to do friends a solid without any compensation, at best, and without any consideration as to how much time and energy good design actually takes, at worst. It also used a common catchphrase that often gets bandied about in the design world (and beyond): pro bono.

The problem is that the pro bono is used without much context and, too often, without real accuracy. That’s a shame, since pro bono design is one of the ways practitioners can have a more powerful impact on their communities and abroad. Pro bono shouldn’t be viewed as troublesome work that one performs for free but rather an opportunity to channel one’s skills into a rewarding project that stands to benefit a whole host of people, even you, the designer.

In order to hone the definition of pro bono, I thought I’d explain what it isn’t. Here, I debunk the five big myths about pro bono design.

Myth #1: Pro bono design means free design.

Contrary to popular perception, pro bono doesn’t mean for free. Its literal Latin translation is “for good,” shorthand for pro bono publico, “for the good of the public.” (The accurate Latin phrase for “free” is gratis.) All that said, pro bono work usually involves professionals reducing or entirely waiving their fees, hence the confusion, but the focus remains on work for the public good.

Of course, it’s worth asking: What constitutes “good,” much less “the public good”? The 501(c)(3) designation conferred on nonprofits is but one reliable baseline to determine worthy pro bono beneficiaries, even if not all nonprofits are equally in need; some boast huge endowments and can easily afford to pay designers. Most nonprofits, however, would never otherwise have access to professional design services, making pro bono appropriate--and even essential. For some, it may just be a cause or social issue that resonates with them. Ultimately, designers get to make the call.

Myth #2: Pro bono design produces sub-par results.

A funny thing happened when I published my book, The Power of Pro Bono. Thumbing through the pages, people would frequently exclaim, “Well, these don’t look like pro bono projects!” as if there was an aesthetic quality they expect of pro bono design projects to lack. In fact, pro bono projects have won, and will no doubt continue to win, many of the same awards that professional designers and firms vie for each year.

The only thing worse than such an expectation of sub-par design is the frequent suggestion or implication in the social sector itself that nonprofits can’t or shouldn’t look good. It’s a worry that I hear from even the most sophisticated of nonprofits--to the effect of ”Funders will think we don’t need their support if we look too good.” It’s hard to imagine any other setting--a library, museum, or even an office building -- that would conjure up the same fear.

Myth #3: Pro bono clients aren’t as sophisticated as paying clients.

There’s a saying that the only thing more important than good designers are good clients. For fee-generating and pro bono clients alike, it can be an entirely new or even a once-in-a-lifetime experience to undertake a design project, so designers are understandably cautious about the clients they take on. In designers’ eyes, pro bono clients have an additional liability: they’re perceived as somehow less sophisticated than “regular” clients.

Some architects have gone so far as to suggest that they should be indemnified by pro bono clients, since they’re reducing or waiving their fees. They fail to recognize that their professional standard of care as well as their liability insurance are assets they bring to the table. The point is largely moot, at least among architects, as the biggest insurance companies have clear provisions for pro bono work. They base their premiums on fees, so when there are little or no fees, there’s little or no cost for coverage.

Myth #4: Pro bono clients should take what they can get.

There’s a perception that nonprofits should be happy with student labor, donated office space, furniture, and even old, outdated computers. In some cases, such donations fill a crucial void and go to good use. In other cases, they cause more headaches than they’re worth and hinder organizations.

It raises the question: Shouldn’t nonprofit headquarters that are providing crucial social services to populations in deep need be well-outfitted spaces? It wouldn’t cross our minds to suggest that any other type of business be equipped with inevitably rickety Ikea furniture and mismatched castoffs.

Myth #5: Pro bono work only benefits the clients.

The benefit to clients, communities, and the public aside, the payoffs of such pro bono projects are not insignificant for designers and firms. One well-known architect I interviewed said, “Pro bono projects influence the culture of our office; there’s no way you can put a value on it.” Other architects and designers speak with enthusiasm about the very real and invaluable benefits of their pro bono service.

For some, it’s a creative outlet that’s distinct from their day-to-day work. For others, in boom times and slow times alike, pro bono projects help with recruitment and retention of employees. Still, for others, it’s a sense of purpose and fulfillment that easily outweighs the investment. To that end, the venerable Paula Scher of Pentagram once told me: “My pro bono projects are my favorite projects.”

[Top image by Pineapple 9995]

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4 Comments

  • Matt G. Leger

    Great story! I would only add to the paragraph about Myth #5 that for designers just starting out, pro bono work can also be a foot in the door to paying work. It can help build out your portfolio and chip away at the "no experience/no job-no job/no experience" vicious cycle that all newbies face (I did, my first year out of college, partly because I hadn't had the sense to join any internship programs or professional organizations during college). If you give it the same effort and creativity you would a paying job, you may be surprised how quickly it gets noticed by someone who can actually cut you a check.

  • Alicia Liebel

    Excellent writing and distillation to help debunk the work that designers do as well as highlighting the valuable services they create!

  • eyeBrand

    Great post.  While we have paying clients, some of our best work has been pro-bono.  Our work with churches has been rewarding beyond what we would have received if we were paid.  The good news is that we have found that we have more creativity because clients are aware that they are not paying for our work.  They are less "involved" in the creative process as they don't want to feel like they are taking advantage of a good thing. 

    Then as payment, they are usually more abt to recommend us to others as a way to pay us back.