Donating Design …

I’ve got about 22 minutes before dinner, 45 minutes before the dogs need walking and an hour before a new episode of Top Gear, so I better get cracking with this post. I was thinking of a recent project I did not win and I thought of you AIGA’ers and design blog enthusiasts. Upon hearing of my work with another firm, I got a call to do design work. But it wasn’t a typical call—and when I say typical—it wasn’t a robo-telemarketer selling health insurance. It was a bona-fide call. But as it turns out, the call was from a foundation with a solicitation for donated work because they love my work.

Of course they mentioned that their budget is tight and they have no money, but they wanted an interesting design for their upcoming event. I suggested a fee and they declined. Which had me thinking: “do you really love my work if the work won’t support me? Would you love my work if I spent a half-hour (my available “free time”) designing your project?”

At an AIGA event two years ago, for instance, David Plunkert, of Spur Design, mentioned that even in donated work, he develops an estimate and an invoice that reflects the actual value. That’s an idea I like, because what I want more than anything (almost more than getting paid) is to have people value the work that I’m doing, even at the expense of the pesky conversation of value getting in the way. But, let’s be honest. Money is at the base of the discussion. Always. Or at least gratitude. Once, I did work and got a $100 Panera card. that was great stuff!

Four our profession, most important to the equation for donated work is engaging selectively in a matrix of work that involves either a cause that I support (Shepherd Fairey’s Obama Posters), something that allows for a breaking of a boundary (creativity, etc.), and/or doing work for a cause that can benefit from our personal effort (i.e. Haiti fundraising, for instance). In other words, one should manage donated work (printing, pr services) like one would with giving money. As it turns out, money is often easier to give. No one calls you back two or three times telling you the decimal in the wrong place.

As for serving on a board, I’ve often heard that people, no matter what the profession, say one should not do for a board what they do for a profession: meaning the lawyer shouldn’t become the legal counsel or the accountant shouldn’t stay up late balancing the books. Again, I believe that as long as one is aware, it’s a matter of personal preference. Those knowledgeable can clear the way for that board to secure those valuable services, by knowing what to look for. While experiences are different, I’ve been nominated to a committee because ostensibly I could design. And as a CEO once mentioned to me: “there are three things I nominate board members for: money, wisdom or work,” you still don’t want them looking at you like you’re the media department. Contribute in disciplines that are outside of your profession because you can extend your experience, and extend their value for the work.

It’s difficult to estimate that if you, as a great creative, contribute to a project that you may introduce the client to the value of great design. Sometimes this happens. Certainly, sometimes it does not. The client’s gratitude can evaporate as soon as the work commences. They box you in creatively. Other conditions arise. Or, other times, they may become more cumbersome than a paying client. It’s important to have a strategy towards these projects and don’t be afraid to be clear up front.

While creatives are often happy to contribute their talents to causes, be measured in how much of that you do, because sometimes firms become addicted to free work, spending all their time looking for free work, when some of the work they commission should be paid.

In an age when it’s more and more valuable for designers to embrace the inherent and latent value of their work, be mindful of your approaches when it comes to the donation of design work.

By AIGA Baltimore
Published March 17, 2010