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Diving Deep into Design for Good
Cui bono?

by Matthew Porter

To the design community’s legion of hopeful humanitarians—the environmentally aware, the politically engaged, the socially motivated and all who wish their creative labor might work some change in the world—AIGA President Doug Powell offers a Latin lesson.

Pro bono does not mean for free.

It means for good, and with Design for Good, AIGA’s movement “to ignite, accelerate and amplify design-driven social change,” Powell seeks to reinvent creative do-goodism. Launched with fanfare in 2011, Design for Good is on a mission to uproot the old notion of pro bono—earnest copy, drab art, disorganized delivery, free everything—and plant a new vision in its place: one of artists and innovators deploying their legendary creativity to inspire projects that change the way businesses and people interact with the world. The mission calls for wit, heart, idealism and an invoice.

If that sounds to you like the way ordinary, not-so-pro-bono design works, then that’s because it should, says Greg Galle of Future Partners, who insists that professionals should not give away their talent. “I reject the Mother Teresa model of social justice as the de facto model for professionals who want to do good and do work that has real social impact,” he says. “Any economic model that is creating value at the expense of one of its contributors is fragile and ultimately unsustainable.”

Unsustainable models may be plenty free, but they’re not much good.

For John Bielenberg, Galle’s partner at Future Partners, the virtues that make for success, and cash, in commercial projects—planning, pragmatism and professionalism—are the only way to achieve meaningful social impact in the pro bono space. “When people ask how they can ‘change the world,’” Bielenberg says, “I tell them to stop thinking that way and find ways to move the needle forward. Pick up some trash along the side of the road by your office, for heaven’s sake.”

Galle draws a distinction between what he calls “scarce-value” organizations and “abundant-value” organizations. “Scarce-value organizations succeed at the expense of others, essentially stealing benefits from some parties while pushing costs onto others,” he explains. “This is the nonprofit whose financial model is dependent on professionals donating their services, or providing them at below-cost rates.”

© Mark Andresen

It is also the tradition in nonprofits. Design for Good seeks to be an alternative: an abundant-value organization. “While they do not abandon their shareholders, they also strive to create value for the communities that they depend on for resources, the communities that they sell to, society as a whole, the environment and future generations,” adds Galle.

The mission is to bring the full force of human ingenuity to the most daunting social challenges. “Everyone involved in imagining, building, delivering, maintaining and improving ingenious solutions to those challenges should be well rewarded,” he says.

One pioneer of such solutions (and a familiar name at AIGA sustainability and social gain events) is Gaby Brink, who started her business, Tomorrow Partners, in 2007. She has seen a change in thinking in the six years since. “Back then, the conversation was about making incremental changes to be more ‘green,’ but today we talk about creating business models,” she says. The new goal is to “help companies thrive by creating value for stakeholders up and down the supply chain—including the environment, the most important stakeholder of them all.”

Online at Living Principles and Change Observer, or in the albums of conferences like Compostmodern or GAIN, you will see many leading members of the design community hugging and smiling under the big green umbrella of “social value.” But while signing on to the agenda is as easy as clicking an up-pointing thumb, transforming your humanitarian endorsements into real results is like eating the proverbial elephant: the only way to do it is one bite at a time.

For Gaby Brink, that means designers-for-good have to do what just-plain-good designers do: stake out territory, declare goals, fill gaps. “There’s a proliferation of designers in this space seeking opportunities to create things of value,” she says. “But this also means more people have developed expertise in the social-value space and clients and partner organizations are improving their capacity to find people and services that best suit their needs. There’s enough to go around for everyone.”

Because not everyone is as deeply invested or as knowledgeable as Brink, Design for Good’s website provides a forum where members can share their ideas and find resources—making innovation more democratic, information on social literacy more readily available and bites of the social-value elephant more bite-sized. As represented online, Design for Good is hurly-burly, raucous with ideas (most good) and stuffed with resources (most reputable). Its pages are filling with case studies and links. AIGA President Doug Powell measures Design for Good’s success in the astonishing rate at which its call has been answered: more than half of AIGA chapters—35 of 67—have initiated Design for Good programs. The Latin lesson is sinking in. Porter
Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.