Pro bono design: The best or worst thing ever?

Ive been on both the giving and receiving end of free work as Im sure most of us have.?? I started this business working with nonprofits and I was asked the Free Question more than enough times, and I have given away work many, many times. Some of the best work weve done has been pro-bono, but I definitely dont make a habit of it. I think people expect graphic designers, especially ones that do work for nonprofits, to be OK with doing free work, (Ive done it so I cant say Im totally adverse to it) but you know, designers have to eat and pay rent too. Most of us are pretty good at what we do and I dont know any other profession that is expected to do so much for free, on trade or at a discount.

Here is my all-time favorite video about this:

The Vendor-Client relationship from tethtoril on Vimeo.

In my experience pro-bono projects only works when a few conditions are met:

1. There is one person on the Client side who plays the role of The Filter and Decider.

  1. Typical design process, paid or not, goes like this:
  2. The client gives some direction*
  3. The designer makes a few concepts
  4. The client gives some feedback*
  5. The designer refines to one concept and makes a final
  6. The designer preps files for web and print then sends it away.
  7. Donesies.

*Here is where the process could fall apart- If the Client contact is just forwarding everyones comments to the designer, the designer isnt going to know what to prioritize. We know we cant please everyone all the time, that would just be insane.

The designer needs clear and precise feedback. Instead of, This isnt it, but Ill know it when I see it,?? or Can you make it punchier try to give specific comments like, We want an Art Deco look or Were big fans of text on top of a photo, can you do one concept that uses that? Youre going to save loads of time and heartache this way.

2. The job has lines drawn around it.

The design process works best with clear expectations and lots of information up front. We use a Creative or Project Brief. A Creative Brief includes not only specs for the job, but also gives the volunteer designer an idea of how much time she is committing to the project.

Things that would be included in a Creative Brief:

  • Descriptive Project name
  • Project Description and Scope
  • Objective
  • Audience
  • Special Requests
  • Assets
  • Timeline
  • Expected Hours
  • Existing or Comparison Samples
  • Style and Tone
  • How Well Measure Success
  • Printing or Tech Details
  • Contacts
  • Additional Notes

3. The designer has full creative control.

Hey, its free work and design can get really expensive. If I asked a friend to design an invitation for LimeRed for free, I would set her up with my Creative Brief, but really, she would have complete creative control. Shes doing me a huge favor so I need to completely trust her and hand over the reigns.

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