Graphic Design for Good: The Dos & Don’ts of Pro Bono Design

Knowing how—and when—to offer your creative services for free is the key to pro bono design work that benefits you and contributes to the greater good.


Whether you’re beginning your design career or you’re a seasoned veteran, the pros of pro bono design work outweigh the cons. Having trouble gaining experience or filling out your portfolio? Donating your time and talent could pay off in unexpected ways. Been in the game for years? Decades? A pro bono project could recharge you, providing an escape from the daily grind.

But how well do you know pro bono? Before plunging in, make sure you know all of the issues at play, so in the end everyone profits.

The term pro bono, shortened from the Latin pro bono publico, means “for good” or “for the public good.” Doing pro bono design work often means doing it for a nonprofit or a socially conscious organization, and in many cases it’s for a cause you believe in or for public service.

Consider the pros and cons of doing [design work] for free, and stay true to your values. Whether for free or for a fee, create a contract, timeline, scope of work and revision requests. And before you take the pro bono plunge, recognize how it benefits you as a designer, along with the client and the general public.

In the legal profession, public service is an ancient principle, according to Stephen Rispoli, assistant dean of student aff airs and pro bono programs at Baylor Law School. Rispoli cites the Magna Carta from 1215 as the basis for due process and equal access to courts. Today, the American Bar Association outlines pro bono work under Model Rule 6.1: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.” Baylor Law School has programs and clinics to prepare students for practicing law and giving back to the community through pro bono service, and Rispoli has seen positive results. “Many experience deeper understanding of the subjects they’ve studied,” he says. “These experiences solidify their calling to be a lawyer, and create the impetus to continue to serve throughout their careers. We believe that the completely volunteer nature of this service creates this effect.”

The same experiences happen in design schools. When my students take on pro bono work, they connect with an organization they believe in and it’s often their first hands-on experience with a “real-world” project. They learn about managing the customer relationship and meeting expectations, and the entire design process becomes much clearer to them.

pro-bono-2 pro-bono

Centerfold’s designs for Turn Two for Youth, a nonprofit charitable organization providing “baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged children in poverty-stricken areas around the globe.”

Whether you’re a lawyer, designer or doctor, Rispoli suggests that every professional should make time for pro bono activities. Rispoli sees pro bono work as a means to “recharge,” giving ownership of work that energizes. It can be an opportunity that comes to you or something you seek out on your own. Tim Rebich, principal at Centerfold, a Charlotte, NC, branding and advertising agency, considers a number of factors before taking on pro bono work, with one key element steering the decision. “We take into account the project scope, process and timeline—but the organization has to align with our culture and has to be something we believe in.”

belser_nutrition_factsSome pro bono projects are small and some are large. And then there’s extra large, as in the case of the Nutrition Facts food label design, deemed “a masterpiece” by Massimo Vignelli. Designed by Burkey Belser in 1994, the Nutrition Facts labeling was the first pro bono work Belser took on, and he says it set him on the path of “making a diff erence.” Belser did it for free because “it was a remarkable opportunity for a designer to make a big difference in a small space.”

There are plenty of reasons to take on pro bono work, ranging from exposure to experience, but Belser recognizes a greater cause: “We give back because it’s our professional responsibility.”

Working for free is a great way to contribute to your community or a cause you believe in, as long as you recognize the difference between donated pro bono work and spec work. Pro bono means good and is good, but spec is a definite no-no.

Belser is a “longtime advocate” and “1,000% OK with community engagement via pro bono work,” though he refuses to entertain spec work. “Free in hopes of getting paid is fool’s work,” Belser says, while “free (pro bono) in hopes of helping others is God’s work.”

Belser sees pro bono work as something much different than spec work. “Pro bono has no stigma. Spec work—free work—does. Free work is nothing more than a desperate heave of the ball at the basket from mid-court.”


You’ve heard the terms but do you really know what they mean? 

  • Pro bono: meaning “for good,” the term is often used when discussing work done for a nonprofit or socially conscious organization. Because it’s often done free of charge, pro bono has come to mean both “for good” and “for free,” but not all pro bono work has to be done for free.
  • Gratis: (origin late Middle English, from Latin gratiis, “as a kindness” and Latin gratia, “grace, kindness”) without charge, for free.
  • Revision guidelines: these let the client know that only so many revisions will be part of the process. If you and the client exceed the contracted number of revisions and/or amount of time, then create an addendum to the original contract showing how additional revisions and/or time will amount to an additional fee.
  • Scope creep: if you see too many changes happening or a continuous and never-ending amount of growth in what you’re delivering, you’ve met scope creep; prevent it with a contract you adhere to.
  • Spec work: (short for speculative work) fully or partially designing a project and delivering it to a client with the hope of winning a pitch, their business or an eventual fee. Spec work provides neither the assurance of acquiring a job nor being paid for the job, and is often done without a contract.
  • 501(c)(3): recognition by the Internal Revenue Service of tax-exempt status for charitable organizations under the Internal Revenue Code; nonprofits can have 501(c)(3) status, but they must apply for it.


Should you work for free? Jessica Hische’s infographic “Should I Work for Free?”—which you can explore in full here—attempts to answer the question.


In an email interview Hische wrote how since its release in 2011 she’s “received emails from photographers, writers, artists … people from every kind of creative industry, and even some noncreatives!” She’s even heard from seasoned professionals who reference her chart “every now and then to remind them not to work for free.”

But even Hische designs for free, doing work “for businesses for barter” and sometimes for friends. She also donates her time and work to charities. Most recently she did a project for the Chicago Design Museum, creating a Cards Against Humanity card for its designer series. “It was fun to be included, to create the artwork, and always feels good to make something that financially supports an awesome cause/group.”

Illustrator Kali Ciesemier finds Hische’s chart helpful and considerate of the issues. Ciesemier has her own answer to the “Should I Work for Free?” question: “When passion is mixed with business it can create situations where artists are taken advantage of, so it’s smart to be on guard.”


Illustrations by Kali Ciesemier 

Like other designers and illustrators, Ciesemier believes in donating her talents to worthy causes, such as the first Women Warriors zine. She also contributed work to the “Picture Book Report” blog at the invitation of illustrator Meg Hunt. Ciesemier and others made illustrations based on a children’s or young adult book of their choice, and she chose Sabriel. “At the time most of the freelance work I was getting was for dry business articles in magazines, and I was excited to create some fantastical narrative images to put in my portfolio,” Ciesemier says. “Making those Sabriel images helped lead publishers to my work years down the line, and even got me a project working with Sabriel’s author, Garth Nix.”

Pro bono can pay off in unexpected ways. It also feels just plain good. Rachel Martin, design director and designer for social change at Rachel Martin Design LLC, specializes in sustainability and social responsibility. Martin works with “high-impact businesses [that] are committed to social value and want to create a better world.” Since all of her work is pro bono (for good) and she also takes on some projects for free, she categorizes them as either “pro bono” or “donating pro bono.”

Donating means the work was a charitable, volunteer contribution. In general, Martin avoids using the word pro bono with clients because of the confusion between “for good” and “for free,” since not all pro bono work is done for free. Martin does give back by donating her time to nonprofits, investing “over 500 hours per year doing volunteer work for worthy causes,” and she’s actively involved in the community doing “design work for select nonprofits along with the hours serving and volunteering on boards and for local charitable events.”

How does she decide where to donate her time? Martin suggests working with like-minded people and if at all possible, “doing the work as a trade for services.” If you can’t get paid, she also recommends getting name recognition on the design work or listed as a sponsor. “I believe you can be more happy and successful if you do what you love and follow your heart,” Martin says. But even so, she’s realistic about the business side. “Not all cause-related projects will pay the bills,” she says. “However, they may lead to other projects and clients that will. I’d suggest a balance of profitable clients that you love and can make a good living with mixed with cause-related clients. And hopefully the work you’re doing with them helps in their success and ultimately yours.”

[Related reading: Wheels4Water: How Creatives Are Bringing Safe Drinking Water to Thousands | Design for Social Good: Latitude + Fleuri Bakery | 7 Poster Designs That Raise Awareness]

To be successful, have a plan. Martin recommends that all designers “have a contract clearly stating expectations, scope of work, responsibilities, etc.” Hische echoes those sentiments, suggesting designers have “contracts, deadlines, deliverable lists, etc.” Hische also cautions designers about revisions because things could “get out of hand in terms of the amount of revisions/tweaks that are asked of you.”

Without revision guidelines you might see yourself making one revision after another, without any end in sight. With a contract and revision guidelines you establish a limit for the client and yourself.


Even with contracts, timelines revision guidelines, and everything else you put into the planning and project management, the work—or client—could grow in ways you never expected. What if your client changes from nonprofit to for-profit? Paula Scher, partner in the New York office of Pentagram, had one such experience. Scher’s pro bono redesign of Madison Square Park’s Conservancy included creating an identity for the façade of the park’s burger stand.


Paula Scher’s pro bono redesign of Madison Square Park’s Conservancy included creating an identity for the façade of the park’s burger stand.

Scher designed the Shake Shack façade pro bono since it was part of the Park project. Another phase of design happened later with more extensions created for Shake Shack, with this secondwave of work done for “a real fee—not huge but real,” according to Scher. Considering her experience with Shake Shack, what advice would Scher give to designers who might take on a pro bono project that could one day evolve into a multi-million dollar—or multibillion dollar—company? “It will bring you a lot of other work. If you can get some stock, that’s nice, or they may want more work from you, or they may give you some stock if they go public, but you are never really hurt by it.”

Scher’s iconic and groundbreaking identity for New York’s Public Theater in the 1990s, also pro bono work, continues to be a source of inspiration for designers. Scher has always done projects for free, for a variety of reasons. She cites The Public Theater work as a project that made a significant mark: “the ability to make a design discovery that has some influence on its community.”

scher_public-theater-bring-in-da-noise scher-public

Pro bono work by Paula Scher for The Public Theater

Her Public Theater designs continue to serve as a reminder—and as proof—that cultural institutions can have energetic and dynamic communication design programs. To Scher, pro bono work can also present research opportunities that let her take a chance and experiment. Scher believes that pro bono projects afford you the opportunity to work on something that matters to help make a difference.

The issues surrounding pro bono design work are wide and deep, and opinions about it vary from person to person and from one organization to another. Some believe in donating pro bono work by doing it for free, others do it at a reduced rate, and others base their entire practice on pro bono work that is in their fee-generating client roster.

Consider the pros and cons of doing it for free, and stay true to your values. Whether for free or for a fee, create a contract, timeline, scope of work and revision requests. And before you take the pro bono plunge, recognize how it benefits you as a designer, along with the client and the general public.

Choosing how to approach pro bono work is as personal a decision as choosing why you’ll do it. So how will you know if it’s a good fit? If it really pays off, it should do everyone good.


  • Know the work. Have a plan with milestones, deadlines and final deliverables. Let the client know how much time and how many concepts and revisions you’ll deliver, and when.
  • No scope creep. Too many revisions can drag a project out. Establish the maximum number of revisions and the final deliverables, and if you hit one or both, create a new agreement between you and the client in order to continue.
  • No sacrifice. If the pro bono work gets in the way of your paying work, then reconsider your priorities and either reduce your pro bono workload or hand it off to somebody else who can take it on instead.
  • Know when to say no. Is that your iPhone vibrating or your intuition tingling? If you get bad vibes—especially if they’re overwhelming—pass on the job.
  • Know their budget. Not sure what to charge or if they have a budget? Ask what their budget is and either come in, at, or below it—how much or how little is up to you both.
  • No payment? Inquire about trading for services or other benefits.
  • No—or low—expenses. A nonprofit may ask you to design a website, but you don’t have to host it on your server. Have them invest the money in their own so it won’t create a bottleneck on yours. Got a print project needing lots of rough comps? Use their printing resources for proofs or have them pay for ink and paper to use in your own printer.

how-magazine-fall-2016This article originally appeared in HOW’s Fall 2016 Issue—the Promotion & Marketing Design Issue. Inside, explore design in Philadelphia, learn how to tackle client contracts, discover 7 coloring books for designers, and meet the winners of the HOW Promotion & Marketing Design Awards. Get a copy or subscribe today.