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Pro-bono or No-bono
By Mr. Tharp.

Pro-bono is a term that has been ubiquitously popping up in design circles and journals for the past umpteen years. I first heard its reference to our profession in 1978 when it was used to describe work a colleague was doing without compensation. Most designers don’t like to admit that they do free work, but somehow this Latin term seems to legitimize the process. It was originally used in the legal profession for services donated to charitable causes. In the last couple of years, in addition to paying work, my studio created an identity system for a long running film festival, we designed posters and signage for a design conference that just happens to be in Park City (Utah), we developed the identity program (with Primo Angeli) for San Francisco’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, and designed the call-for-entries for The 34th Annual West Coast Show, and all without pay.

But was any of this high visibility work really pro-bono per se? Many designers who do this kind of work know why they do it and know the benefits of doing it. The late great Paul Rand, the well-paid designer of logos for ABC, IBM, and UPS, did his fair share of pro-bono work before arriving at the pearly gates. He said, “The reward for pro-bono work is not always just in heaven. Pro-bono designs do not have to undergo the rigors of marketing and research. And pro-bono jobs are generally more interesting and challenging than run-of-the-mill business assignments which are often driven by time-worn traditions and prejudices.” The trade-off of doing work for little or no pay is that we hope to be given a considerable amount of creative autonomy. What more could a graphic designer ask for here on earth?

From a business standpoint doing high visibility work can get the attention of potential clients who have big bucks to shell out for those juicy business assignments. But shouldn’t we ask ourselves if it’s really pro-bono work we’re doing? Pro-bono is derivative of a Latin term meaning for the public good. But recently in our profession it is being used as a catch phrase to describe any work done without financial compensation. I’ll admit to relying on this term as a descriptor for the non paying work my studio does for the occasional San Francisco ballet company, San Jose film festival, or for the Los Gatos Museum Association. We get personal satisfaction from doing this work, it gains us public exposure, and we manage to win a few design awards along the way.

Aside from the reasons Paul Rand acknowledged, why do we do pro-bono work and is it really for the public good? Or is it just free work for special interest groups and not-for-profit organizations. Why don’t we just leave off that 9pt. Credit line at the bottom of the poster? Shouldn’t the gratification of doing truly socially redeeming work be enough? If we’re looking for a Latin term to qualify donated time that isn’t really for the public good wouldn’t “pro-gratis” be a better term? On second thought maybe we should stick with “pro-bono.” Besides, most of us graphic designers won’t be seeing Mr. Rand anyway.

Mr. Tharp runs a four-person thirty-something year old design firm somewhere near San Francisco. For the last three years he has donated his time as the designated Design Umpire for San Francisco’s bid for the Olympic Games. He also heads up www.tdctjhtbipc.org.

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ARCHIVE ID 1827 FILED UNDER Business Articles (Admin use only)
PUBLISHED ON Feb.13.2004 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
bryony’s comment is:

If we look up “pro bono” in the diccionary, we can find this:

pro bono: Done without compensation for the public good.

From the Latin (pro bono publico): pr, for + bon, ablative of bonum, the good. For the (public) good.

From a business standpoint doing high visibility work can get the attention of potential clients who have big bucks to shell out for those juicy business assignments. But shouldn’t we ask ourselves if it’s really pro-bono work we’re doing? Pro-bono is derivative of a Latin term meaning for the public good. But recently in our profession it is being used as a catch phrase to describe any work done without financial compensation.

I belive it is a very important to cleary separate non-paid work in that which helps others, and that which helps me/my place of business. Jobs done for the public good, without compensation for the design(er) are and should be labeled as pro bono, while projects done due to the interest of the designer in order to benefit himself should be labeled differently. “Pro-gratis” is one way of labeling it.

Most designers don’t like to admit that they do free work, but somehow this Latin term seems to legitimize the process.

It is one thing to work without compensation, but the weight that “pro bono” carries, makes things legit, giving us the justification we need to hear so as not to miss the check at the end of the project. It seems to me to be a covering of sorts, thinking that if we don’t immediately see the meaning behind choosing to work on a certain project, other won’t see it either and all shall we well. We work “pro bono”, and this is an honorable thing, is it not?

On Feb.16.2004 at 09:53 AM
Armin’s comment is:

An interesting issue that Mr. Tharp touches on and is no surprise is: When is pro-bono more beneficial for design firms rather than the client?

Pro-bono designs do not have to undergo the rigors of marketing and research.

Wouldn't Pro-bono work benefit from the same rigors of marketing and research? I guess my question is why do we take on pro-bon clients: Because it's easier? Because we get the mythical creative autonomy? Simply 'cause it feels nice (which is a very acceptable reason)?

> Most designers don’t like to admit that they do free work, but somehow this Latin term seems to legitimize the process.

Hey, anything to save face!

On Feb.17.2004 at 10:35 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

When is pro-bono more beneficial for design firms rather than the client?

Should it be? I suppose it should be a 50/50 proposition. The client gets much needed marketing/design materials and the designers gets a good portfolio piece to use to gain some paid work and enhance their profile. Not ignored is the contribution to the social good, which enhances society as a whole. When designers take on pro-bono projects, it does not give them limitless authority to dictate every last detail. There is still a client who has needs that must be met.

I've only done a pro-bono project once, and it was while employed, which meant that I was still getting paid but my employer was not. The project took an incredible length of time to complete because of the complexity of navigating through a 30+ member committee that had to approve my designs. Regardless, there was no pressure on me to simply mail it in or to hurry it along. We did the work necessary and did, I think, a pretty good job. All I know is that they were extremely thrilled and that made my day (and still does).

On Feb.17.2004 at 12:32 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

A couple of thoughts to add:

Pro-bono work does not necessarily mean that the client you are working with will not do research. If they can ask a design firm to do work "gratis" (I like that term, B) then they can (and do) ask research firms to do gratis research.

Also, it is a bit unrealistic to think that doing work for free allows you full creative freedom. It doesn't. You still have to please your client, and/or a board and possibly the audience (see my first point). In fact, in several cases over the years I can tell you that doing pro-bono work was just as interactive with the client as paid work. Sometimes even more so!

I guess what I am trying to say here is that I think it is tough to take on a pro-bono project and assume that you will "get" something tangible from it, whether it be creative freedom or awards or anything else. I think the only thing you can rely on is the joy or pride or satisfaction that you will get from doing something to help someone else out, and that your pro-bono work probably wouldn't have gotten done otherwise.

On Feb.17.2004 at 01:00 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Most clients who need work done for free are also less able to know what design can/cannot or should/shouldn’t do for them. A designer is highly unlikely to say “I want to win some awards and don’t know how to do that with my paying clients so I’ll think about cool design rather than your needs.” That is, however, what seems to happen much of the time. It seems like an ethical imperative to me that if you’re really doing something pro bono then you should do bono.

As to doing free work for your own reasons—why not? The same arguments apply against that as apply against lowball prices or spec work. One trouble with all of these is that the designer often doesn’t end up with what he wanted in the first place. My advice to anyone doing free work to get award-winning samples is to make sure you have a contract that states that, in exchange for your free work, the “charity” will pay for the quality of printing you want and give you the number of samples you need.

On Feb.20.2004 at 05:27 PM
chukee’s comment is:

Our studio has recently adopted a "no more free work" policy, which applies to clients both charitable and not.

Our experience is that those who aren't paying for work have little respect for the amount of time spent on a project - after all, what is another hour if it is free? Changes by disorganized commitee? "Why not - if we are donating more of our time, surely the designers can do the same!" It isn't impossible to have a good pro-bono relationship, but I have found that there is a lot more client education required than when time equals client money.

If we do find an under-funded project of interest to us, we try to create a way for the client to "pay" that will place a value on our time in the client's eyes, ie. trade or a sliding scale rate based on client finances.

Second, we have found that our personal need to contribute good to the world is better served by taking the direct approach - ie. one of us is now a mentor for a children's charity, another is donating time to recruiting new mentors for the same charity. Not that donating design is bad, but sometimes it is good to get out from behind the monitor.

On Feb.25.2004 at 05:48 PM
Mr. Tharp’s comment is:

You are so right Gunnar. We just completed the “pro gratis” poster and promotional materials design for the fifth year for one of the top ten film festivals in the world. The theme “Don’t Blink” was used on the poster in 300 point type. We were not given the opportunity to perform a press check so the “ ’t “ and “ B ” plugged in the printing of the poster. It now reads “Don Link”, leaving us nothing to enter in those design competitions you to refer to or for our portfolio. Next year our contract will state that advance payment of a $8,000 fee will be refunded “in full” once acceptable samples are provided to our studio.

On Apr.04.2004 at 02:15 PM
James Hooper’s comment is:

Pro-bono work can play an important role in a designers career. Although one does not get paid for it, you can have a great opportunity for working on a project that benefits a non-profit organization and helps out the community. Most designers are looking at the bigger picture with pro-bono work. Nobody likes to work hard and not get paid a dime. What we all are hoping for is to get some recognition. What better way to get your name out there than helping out a musuem or ballet or any other organization that's non-profit.

If Paul Rand has done plenty of pro-bono work in his time, we as graphic designers, should also consider taking advantage of accepting more interesting and challenging assignments as Paul Rand stated. Mr Rand did something right. We should consider following his example. I believe that pro-bono is good for every designer to try at least once, if given the opportunity.

With the need for more meaningful design, this is a perfect opportunity. You are helping out an institution free of charge that has a good purpose. So there shouldn't be a question of the two. Although designers mainly do free work for exposure, and hoping to land more clients, it is the best opportunity to show the world what kind of work you are capable of and how you solve design problems successfully. There is no question, if it is really pro-bono or no-bono. Even if your intentions are to bring in potential business by exposing you and your work, you are still providing a free service. Which is considered pro-bono work.

On Apr.10.2004 at 07:48 PM
Mr. Tharp’s comment is:

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and do pro-bono work you won't want to miss this.

Design Matters

Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004

San Jose Museum of Art

San Jose, California

The True Value of Pro-Bono Work

This panel of three graphic designers, each of whose work has had an impact on their personal lives and truly made a difference in the world, will be moderated by design critic and copywriter, Nancy Bernard. In-depth presentations of their work created for the public good will be followed by a discussion and Q&A session. This moving and thought-provoking evening promises to highlight the importance of what we, as designers, do.

Michael Osborne’s involvement with a group in Malawi, Africa brought

much-appreciated AIDS awareness to a country where the AIDS situation is catastrophic. Michael is Creative Director of the San Francisco-based graphic design firm, MOD/Michael Osborne Design. Michael also designed the 2002 and 2004 Love stamps for the United States Postal Service.

Pat Samata, an internationally recognized and honored designer, is also President of Evan’s Life Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children in the Chicago area. Pat is a principal in the award-winning design firm SamataMason and was honored as “Woman of the Year” by Chicago’s Women in Design.

Mr. Tharp, of Tharp Did It, a Los Gatos-based design studio, was the designated “Design Umpire” for San Francisco’s Bid for the 2012 Olympic Games for three years. In this pro-bono capacity the shared passion and teamwork of those he worked with brought tremendous mutual satisfaction and state-wide support, all in the Olympic Spirit.

contact [email protected] for more information

On Aug.23.2004 at 09:38 PM
Mike Jupp’s comment is:

I stumbled on Mr. Tharp's article while looking for a list of Latin phrases (to settle a pub quiz argument!)

OK, let's get this out of the way first!....I'm one of the best cartoon illustrators in the World! www.mikejupp.co.uk

I've been a FREELANCE Cartoon illustrator, designer, copywriter and author all my life! I have created 2 long running TV series, and my Jigsaw Puzzle designs sell very successfully Worldwide!....BUT! (and this is why Mr. T's article shone out like a laser beam at midnight) however good a bloody artist you are, if you're freelance...the World and his wife considers what you do as a hobby!

"An artist eh?...yeah but what's your real job?"

I do the occassional 'Pro GRATIS' work for 2 reasons. A,I don't like turning folk down as (in my mind)..Artistic talent is a gift..and you don't sell gifts.

B,'Spratts catch Mackerels'..if it looks like the work may lead on to a long term relationship, give 'em the first one for free..They don't expect it! I know it's a gamble, but if you've done a good job?.. You'll get more work as everyone remembers an eccentric.

C, half the time, folk haven't a clue what is involved in taking an idea to a finished job? I sometimes get the distinct impression that when you tell them the price, they think you're lying or that you have visions of grandeur. My usual reply in that case is, "Oh bollocks, I'll do it for a pint of (hard)cider and a cigar!"...This is why I now am as poor as a Cathedral rodent...but happy, as my ticket to Heaven is getting closer to being punched!

The real reason I an indebted to Mr. T for his article, is that I can show various non-Art folk(including my wife!) that it's not just me that does stuff for nothing!!!

Finally, if you really want to earn money..forget Art & Design...be a plumber!

Cheers from England!

Mike Jupp

On Sep.04.2004 at 05:38 AM
Tyson Craig’s comment is:

I am rather new to the design field, and it is quite nice to hear the pros and cons of "pro bono" before I get started, as I am sure I will inevitably end up doing some myself.

I am quite unsure that doing work for free will actually give me full creative freedom...after all, people in an organization care about that organization, and they don't want some over designed flier/poster/or what-have-you that has nothing to do for their group.

One question I have: How far out of hand can pro bono work get? I'm sure it varies from group to group, but some experiences from others related here would be greatly appreciated.

I feel like research for pro bono work is probably just as important as paid work...your reputation gets out as a slacker one way or the other. I tend to believe that word always gets around whether you think it will or not, so putting in your best effort would be necessary...which could be difficult depending on how out of hand the job gets (for free).

I really like the aforementioned comment about signing a contract to specify that the receiver's of the work will agree to print the final product in an agreeable method...don't want to sound like I'm overly concerned about reputation, but if you are going to be an artist...pride in your work is essential.

On Sep.26.2004 at 02:57 PM
shaun’s comment is:

I imagine pro-bono work only gets as out of hand as one lets it. Obviously, your paid work has to come first, you have to support yourself. But pro-bono works well

to get your name out there, just remember where your bread and butter comes from. The lesson being, just take what you can handle.

On Oct.18.2004 at 09:55 PM
Alec Millard’s comment is:

It seems that there are two different ways that people think about pro bono work. The first type are more concerned with the benefits to themselves (visibility, portfolio piece etc.). My question to the people who think this way is “if you are only thinking about benefits to yourself, is it really pro bono work?” The definition of pro bono is work done without compensation, for the public good. So if your worried about whether or not something will benefit you, you really aren’t thinking about helping others and aren’t doing pro bono work.

The other way people approach pro bono work is the way that it should be approached, selflessly. These are the people who see a job that needs to be done for a cause that they agree with and jump right in. These designers know the benefits of doing pro bono work, but they don’t let the reward become what is important.

On Oct.20.2004 at 12:06 PM
Ross Ciaramitaro’s comment is:

Concerning Pro-bono or No-bono, I feel that when your career is affected positively by something and helping others is always morally uplifting, pro-bono is a good thing in small portions. It will definately help attain clients ... most importantly it will get your name out there in the world of design where, unfotunately a name means something.I am acollege student at Central Michigan University and when I graduate thid December I will do freebees, no problem...as long as the money starts flowing soon after : )

On Oct.27.2004 at 03:57 PM
Tyson Craig’s comment is:

I agree with Alec. Pro bono work done while thinking of benefits for yourself isn't really pro bono. However, if you do genuinely want to help, and it does end up getting your name out there, there shouldn't be a problem. I kind of feel like getting my name out there, and getting myself established by receiving more jobs should eventually allow me more freedom in the future to help out causes that I think are worthy, whether it be with monetary aid, or what have you. Becoming more established benefits the organizations you are trying to help as well.

On Oct.27.2004 at 06:37 PM
marctaro’s comment is:

I’d love to find a way to actually do something �worthwhile’ (in a social sense) with my skills. In my (admittedly limited) pro-bono experience, the harassed, under funded, volunteer organization type of clients are among the worst I’ve had; as far as nitpicking creativity quashing. They don’t even seem to have the burring desire to win awards that can make a rare corporate project more stand out.

It would be interesting to establish a clearing house slash matching service for:

A: Committed artists and designers who seek to do good, and

B: Vetted, responsible clients that are prepared to accept donated work for what it is — a collaborative relationship.

I wonder if this actually exist anywhere out there on the web ???

On Nov.13.2004 at 05:03 AM
Robin’s comment is:

Before accepting a "free" project you ask yourself three things:

A) Is this a cause I believe in and want to donate my time and resources to?

B) Will my studio get external recognition for this in a way that will raise our profile?

C) Could this be a fun project or learning experience for one of my employees - something they could dig into without worrying about the timeclock?

Each of these answers correspond to:

A) This is a charitable pro-bono project and IF you desire to be recognized with their other sponsors, submit a sponsorship letter

B) This is studio marketing, pure and simple. Internally, chalk the time to your marketing budget (and don't pretend you're doing something noble)

C) This is for employee relations - to boost morale or inject some excitement inbetween those other too-corporate projects (I think people tend to forget about this one, and I would argue that this reason is important too)

The point is to understand your motivation behind it. Pro-bono or gratis work is not inherently evil, but it can be used that way. An obvious evil example is a corporate client asking for free work. Gratis work in pursuit of the proverbial carrot is always a bad idea and a slippery-slope for everyone.

On Nov.26.2004 at 11:20 PM
Tiffany Chin’s comment is:

So what if pro-bono work is started for selfish reasons? If we are talking about doing something for the public good, what could be better then helping the public communicate well? Teaching the general public about the atrocities of bad typography, and non-communicative hierarchy, should be considered a noble cause.

On Dec.01.2004 at 06:50 PM
Clutch’s comment is:


I would ask if there is even such a thing as pure altruism or altruism in general. After all, serving the public good makes us feel good. In the context of that reward, a 9pt liner may be secondary.

On Mar.17.2005 at 05:32 PM
Bill Johnson’s comment is:

BC Lawyers and Judiciary are among the most corrupt criminal gangs in Canada, those in Victoria Particularly. To them, pro bono means taking a case on a 'contingency basis'. They demand large up front cash payments from victims on social assistance to put on court charade.

Trusts and legal language of joint, mutual will is considered just meaningless 'window dressing'. Valid Wills in effect left in the trust of lawyers are buried to enable probate of second bogus wills to steal Johnson family estate for lawyers RUSSELL relatives using aliases and long void and misleading documents.

The BC Law society refuses to do a proper investigation. Accepts Lawyers lies and wrongful interpretation of the Mutual Will. Judiciary and Probate Master broke court rules and refuse to exercise legal responsibilities to Testator and blood line relatives. Those named and who produced much of the estate in the first place. etc. etc. Government officials claim hands tied, see no, hear no, do nothing. All I have ever asked is proper investigation and application of Joint Mutual will with suitable punitive damages awarded as well.

On Oct.15.2005 at 05:47 PM
Maya Drozdz’s comment is:

It would be interesting to establish a clearing house slash matching service for:

A: Committed artists and designers who seek to do good, and

B: Vetted, responsible clients that are prepared to accept donated work for what it is — a collaborative relationship.

wonder if this actually exist anywhere out there on the web ???

The Taproot Foundation does just that. I haven't worked with them, but their approach seems extremely logical and well-stated. I recommend reading their site for some tips on how you may approach pro bono work. For instance, this organization views its services as grants with dollar figures attached to them, and breaks down each kind of grant into the time and resources [on all sides] needed to realize the project.

I find it helpful, in a pro bono situation, to keep the language surrounding the project as professional as possible. I never call myself a volunteer [that seems intangible]; I always call my contribution a 'donation of professional services.' I put a dollar amount on everything, and use terms like 'billable hours.' I want the client to realize that the work has monetary value even though it's being done for free. I put clear expectations on myself and the client. I meet those expectations and remind the client to do the same. It's easier to do all this if you started with a professional agreement [contract, formal project brief, etc.] in the first place.

My studio recently 'fired' a pro bono client. After months of trying to pull final content out of them so that we could accomplish our tasks, we realized that the project could turn into a liability. We had projected deadlines and a turnaround time, but the client was very wishy-washy on all this, and we feared not meeting able to meet our set goals if they suddenly got their sh!t together and expected us to be able to deliver. So, after pushing them a bit more and setting deadlines one last time, we ended the relationship. It's unfortunate when you know it's for a good cause, but you have to be fair to yourself and your other projects as well.

On Oct.16.2005 at 03:03 PM