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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.

VALUE FOR DOLLARFor 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.”

ONE BITE AT A TIMEOnline 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.

DIG…As with Wikipedia, the users of Design for Good’s site are its creators, editors and police. If you have a story to tell, put it up. If you see trouble, flag it and alert the responsive contact line at AIGA. Or you can simply enjoy a leisurely perusal of this site full of wonders.

The site has people. You will meet the persistent and lightly combed Mark Dudlik, who led the Phoenix Design Summit. Or you can visit the New England hedgehog-hugger Lindsey Ruane, whose Critter Calendar “to benefit animals in need” is a pastiche of overwrought, overexposed cute animal calendars.

The site has politics. In the story of a “community-sourced exhibit” at the El Paso Museum of History, you’ll learn how a team of designers turned themselves into curators of cultural memory: Neighborhoods and Shared Memories/Nuestros Vecindarios y sus Memorias is a fully bilingual exhibit of local residents’ diverse cultural stories and remembrances, keyed to works by local artists. Elsewhere, in national politics, the case study on Make Congress Work! tells the tale of a nonpartisan public information campaign aimed at breaking political gridlock in twelve steps—and how it infiltrated the Capitol and cable TV on a shoestring.

And the site has back-to-the-wall heroics. Since working affordably and in response to social problems can mean working fast, it’s fitting that several impressive cases feature projects realized with amazing speed. The Wild Fire Tees project, for instance, conceived and launched in under 48 hours, raised $600,000 for victims of the 2012 Colorado wildfires—just by selling batches of one-off T-shirts by volunteer designers.

Dig in and learn. From Los Angeles to Boston, and from whimsy to disaster, you’ll find ideas at work for good all over the map.

CONNECTING AND CELEBRATINGThe site not only showcases success, but also creates connections. Those who have contributed stories to the site are also eager to help others get started. For Doug Grimmett, Atlanta AIGA 2013 Fellow and a founding member of Good Thinking Atlanta, the forging of new professional connections is as central to the new pro bono paradigm as the demise of the donation model.

“I want the idea of social benefit to be two-way,” Grimmett says. “At our nonprofit, pro bono equals quid pro quo. If you want design to get real social results, your designers need a real motive. Does it have to be money? No. But it does have to be more than a warm fuzzy feeling.”

The premise of Good Thinking is to supply that motive—and spread it around. The creative Atlantans from firms around the city who volunteer their talents gain new friendships and see their work honored and promoted. The organizations served by Good Thinking gain the benefit of “free” creative. But those organizations are requested to ask their benefactors to become sponsors of Good Thinking services at a 90 percent discount.

“We view this as a new means of investing in the common good,” explains Grimmett. “It’s not a donation—it’s a mutual investment. We invest our time in these nonprofits, and we make it smart for foundations and other sponsors to invest their money in our time. Their investment in us allows us to help their pet nonprofits, but it also helps us help others who lack the means to even attract sponsors. Is this a sustainable model? We will see.”

I found a clear and inspiring answer to Grimmett’s question in the story of COMMON, an incubator and promoter of new ideas in social innovation launched by Bielenberg, Alex Bogusky, Ana Bogusky and Rob Schuham in January 2011. COMMON’s senior officer Mark Eckhardt explains COMMON as an ecosystem of people who are aligned based on shared values, with a mission of accelerating positive social innovation by launching businesses and celebrating the new generation of social entrepreneurs.

COMMON believes the “celebrating” part is crucial. “John, Rob and Alex have often expressed that the social responsibility space was too drab, severe and joyless, and I agree,” says Eckhardt. Whereas Galle and Powell reject the tradition of charity work as a giveaway, Eckhardt rejects the idea of the do-gooder as an anonymous benefactor. In Eckhardt’s view, social good and professional glory should go hand-in-hand. He says he wants “to make social entrepreneurs rock stars.”

He may get his wish. And it will be good. But it won’t be free. ca
Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.
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