Best Practices for Pro Bono Graphic Design

In leading Designers Available, I've uncovered some best practices and developed a point of view around pro bono graphic design that I'd like to share, should you be inclined to volunteer design work in support of Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 crisis response, or another political or social movement. Before you embark on any design projects at this time, I really encourage deep reflection and conversation about what it means to step into a designer role right now and if that is where the most help is needed.

Please reach out if you have any questions or advice you'd like to see included here.

Be well,
Joelle (Designers Available founder/lead)

Be a good person before trying to be a good designer.

  • Donate. March if you can. Make calls. Show up.
  • Be honest and critical with yourself about your intentions to step into a role as a graphic designer right now. Are you hoping for a portfolio piece? To break into working with nonprofits and community organizations?
  • Is there something else that organizers and activists are asking for that you can provide?
  • Can you organize conversations with friends and family and create accountability, learning, or action groups?
  • Work from where you are. Take a look at your creative community and workplaces. Are Black designers missing from your teams or from leadership? What can you actively do about it?
  • I recommend pausing on this step for a really long time.

Cold call organizations you want to work with.

  • Find an organization, organizer, or campaign you want to support and call or email them. Tell them what you can do and ask what they need and do it.
  • Go where the organizations are. Get in touch with your local (or your hometown's, if you've moved to a large city) nonprofit association to learn who is working to support Black lives right now. Focus on small, local, and specific organizations who likely have small staffs and reach. Search beyond the organizations that are getting amplified right now.
  • While it’s great to express your intent to support organizations on your social media, that message likely won’t travel too far outside of your bubble. Consider how to expand your reach and get your offering in front of the right people.
  • Share a portfolio of work that shows what you might do for the organization. Don’t make anyone hunt around to learn what services you offer. Avoid design-world jargon and share simply what you can make — design and program a database, design an annual report for funders, create a package of logos and word doc templates, etc.

Do the work.

  • Be prepared to really just do the work.
  • Come to a simple agreement about what you’ll provide. It’s not the time for a contract, agreeing about revision rounds, etc. (Others might disagree!)
  • Show up and keep showing up until it’s done, on their terms not yours.

Don’t be opportunistic.

It’s not the time to focus on building your portfolio or building a personal brand as a designer for social justice. Put it out of your mind and focus on finding the right solution for the organization.

Make what makes sense.

  • Make something that works well and make it easy to use.
  • Make it easy to print on home printers (one color, no bleeds, etc).
  • Make a site that’s incredibly easy to update and train folks on how to do it.
  • Be prepared to make some really unglamorous but useful materials like Google Slides, one-page informational PDFs, and the like.

Find other ways to pitch in.

  • Establishing projects require a bit of leg work to research, make contacts, and kick off a project. That work is necessary to make design happen. Consider working with a small group or a partner to tag-team research and outreach and take turns helping each other set up and manage projects.
  • Once you’re connected with a non profit, ask if there are other efforts you can support with. I bet they could use help with grant writing, outreach, and admin tasks.

Move with integrity, grace, and patience.

Things are more than a little chaotic for organizers and non profits alike. Over time, try to learn a little more about how their work happens so you can sustain relationships and plug in to their workflows better in the future.

Support Black-led organizations and campaigns now and always.

Be mindful about what it means for you to do the work.

  • White and non-Black designers might feel justifiably iffy about stepping in and making work to represent a Black organization. If you're feeling conflicted about whether or not you're the right person for the work, put that out there and invite the org to ask questions and see what they're comfortable with.
  • A valid case can be made against taking on any kind of pro bono work. Some argue that working for free devalues the discipline and the work of our peers who expect fair compensation. This is further complicated by the understanding that Black designers are underrepresented and inequitably compensated in creative industries. Designers Available takes the position that volunteering can be a viable way to redistribute resources through time and labor, that ideally those most affected by social issues should be those leading design to address them, and that Black designers and other designers of colors and those from marginalized backgrounds should be materially supported and advocated for for all kinds of design work, not just that related to social justice.  It's complex and I urge you to meditate on this and talk about it.
  • Lots of people are asking for non-Black designers and artists to take a step back from sharing work on social media right now. Before you make or post a statement graphic social post, think about your intentions and the potential impact or perception. It’s natural for creative folks to want to express, share, and be seen. Some folks have pointed out that graphics that don’t offer useful or new content can be redundant and derivative of existing POC-driven content.