Designing for the nonprofit world is both inspiring and complex. It's paramount that the design community recognize its role as communicators—on many different levels. Whether projects are grand for humanitarian programs that aim to make our world a better place, or at the grassroots level for local communities and schools, or for organizations that enrich our lives, such as the arts, theaters, museums and festivals, all fall within the parameters of this feature.
For the designer, these are the kinds of projects that can offer more creative freedom and important balance with work from the private sector, which often comes with increased client restrictions. And it is a balancing act. Because today, it's not economically feasible that all work be pro bono. It is a conscious choice, a commitment. While many designers claim that work for the nonprofit sector gives them the creative charge they often crave, making an impact remains the primary objective—no matter the cause.
Public good is a general term and leaves room for interpretation, as you'll see in the following projects, which range from annual reports and brochures to posters and invitations. This is the first time we've focused on pro-bono work in one article, and the response has been significant. In fact, we were inundated with design for the public good, and narrowing it down to just 23 projects was no easy task. What was considered a niche has permeated throughout the design community, from established professionals to newcomers.
One designer who's made issue-driven design a priority in his career is Jurek Wajdowicz, cofounder and creative director of Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios in New York. His passion for intelligent design is evident in his work and in his words. Perhaps having started as a designer in Poland, then a Communist country, and immigrating to New York twenty years ago to work for Herb Lubalin & Co. contributes to Wajdowicz's intense involvement in real-world issues. With more than half of the work being in the nonprofit sector, it is clearly a driving force for the studio and has attracted international clients including The Rockefeller Foundation, Médecins Sans Frontières, United Nations and the International Rescue Committee.
What keeps Jurek Wajdowicz inspired in the complicated world of design for the public good? "I love it when our design work makes an intelligible impact in the 'real' world. It happened to us several thrilling times: from creating posters for Freedom House which were smuggled via Hong Kong to China after the Tiananmen Square confrontation in Beijing, to the memorable fund-raising annual reports we created with Sebastião Salgado for UNIFEM (United Nation Development Fund for Women) in the early '90s that touched the lives of many people.
"In one sentence: I continue to do design for the public good to try to present the truth, to capture the soul and to preserve integrity."
Such a noble endeavor does not come without its share of frustration, Wajdowicz is quick to point out. "Not known for daring design in the first place, in most human-issues publications there has been a tendency to think you can do mediocre design because everyone knows how important the issues are," he says, "and we strongly disagree." Wajdowicz and senior art director/principal Lisa LaRochelle believe that good design is a powerful ingredient in an organization's message. "It's an incredible challenge to create something intelligible and memorable—something that good design should be," he adds.
"Too often there is the fear of not upsetting anybody, anytime and anyplace. Blinding fear of not wishing to offend the boards or donors, who are sometimes brainwashed by political-correctness, often leads to the tendency of playing it safe and choosing those banal cliché solutions. It makes it even more painful when combined with historically very limited budgets," Wajdowicz says.
The budget is very much a factor for the nonprofit sector, especially during these economically trying times. As funding has decreased for many meaningful programs, the socially-conscious creative community must take on greater responsibility in order to make a difference.
A cheering section does exist for committed designers. Recognizing that design does matter, Sappi helps designers make an impact through its Ideas That Matter program (www.itm.sappi.com). Since 1999, this program has awarded $1 million annually to support causes that are important to the design community. Encouragement and recognition in the form of monetary support help designers' ideas become a reality in print (Sappi is a paper company, after all). Grant applications are reviewed by an independent panel of graphic designers and representatives from leading philanthropic organizations. It's just one way Sappi is helping to connect inspired designers to real-world issues.
Grant applications, philanthropic institutions—such impressive enterprises are enough to put some designers off, especially when working at the grassroots level. But according to U.K. designer Jim Richardson, "If everybody does something small, then that adds up and makes a difference." And Jim should know. Last November, he launched Building Letters (www.building-letters.org), a charity font collection by leading type designers to help fund the construction of two orphanages for HIV-positive children in Africa. By January 1, 2004, he'd already raised the initial $10,000 needed to build the orphanages, additional funds collected are going towards a school building project in Kenya. "Originally it was going to be a Christmas dingbat with each character designed by a different designer, but with some encouragement from Richard Kelger at P22 Type Foundry and Max Kisman at Holland Fonts, the project grew to a collection of 38 fonts, a Christmas dingbat, a magazine and three posters," says Richardson.
"All the 38 designers involved gave their time and work for free, and the designers who have bought the Building Letters pack have given money to help us reach our target in an incredibly short time."
It's incumbent upon the design community to communicate real-world issues for all of us. Though it's not always an easy path. Our daily schedules don't leave much room for pro-bono projects. So why do designers do it? Jurek Wajdowicz says, "Because I still remember the words [Czech Republic President] Václav Havel spoke at his visit in New York years ago comparing at the time, the lives of many thinking people in Eastern Europe to those in the U.S.: 'Over there nothing goes and everything matters...over here everything goes and nothing matters.'
"And in the scheme of greater design, our actions as designers and conscientious citizens do matter. I don't want to be jaded and skeptical and believe, repeating after Joseph Stalin, that 'those who cast the votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything.' This year's voting election should be the best pro bono publico design project for all of us." ca