A few weeks ago I attended the GAIN conference put on by AIGA in San Francisco, and heard a number of different speakers all make the same argument: design can be used as a form of innovation and social change. And while that is something every designer will nod his or her head to, the thought of doing good for free isn’t always a crowd pleaser, or even an option for that matter.
"Pro bono" is short for the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which means "for the public good". Typically it refers to work (usually, but not limited to, legal representation) that is performed without compensation for the good of society. But like the notion that freelance is not free, Pro bono should not necessarily mean 'done for free'.
Over the longer term, no good deed can be maintained without sustainable revenue systems in place. Pro bono - work for good - needs to find paths to sustainability in order to truly be effective.
One of my favorite case studies presented at GAIN of this notion is that of Emily Pillioton. Emily used the arts of teaching and architecture to create positive change in rural communities. This pilot program demonstrated that combining design with social work can clearly create social value. But it can also serve as a model to be followed and learned from.
What started as an effort that was practically pro bono - in the 'free' sense of the term - also had embedded in its core an opportunity to create a functioning business. Project H Design was already working on designing with humanitarian purpose but took a leap in a new direction heavily influenced by its success in Bertie County.
Earlier this month Project H Design started yet another project, in Oakland California. While their mission remains the same, to “Design, build, teach and transform” they now have a steady client and a newly focused business model. Above all, their number one priority is doing what they love, which is “H” Project-worthy work, or work for Humanity, Habitats, Health, Happiness, Hands. And moreover, it is their full time gig. A lesson to be learned and shared.
As Christopher Simmons put it at GAIN, the “future belongs to problem-seekers not problem-solvers.” And with problems come a chance, a chance to do good, bring design and creative attributes to the table to build sustainable solutions and do the business of good. Pro bono, though not necessarily for free.