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.