How do you get paid to do good work? This has been a question I’ve been attempting to answer for well over five years.
Just Do It
My first true, go-out-and-do-it attempt was a year and a half ago when I joined a friend to start a public interest design practice.
First off, neither of us had run a business or practice before so we had to quickly learn basic marketing, sales, operations, and management. Second, we wanted to focus on working with ethically-minded people and organizations, who typically aren’t the highest funded. Organizations like IDEO.org, Frog Design, D-Rev, Design Impact, and MASS who were all succeeding were who we aspired to become.
Being in the Bay Area, we were immersed in the risk-taking, startup culture along with progressive social and environmental initiatives. But we also hit roadblocks when trying to ‘sell’ our services to nonprofits who typically have a pro bono mindset (why pay when you can get it for free?) and the lack of money invested in the up-and-coming social enterprise network (newer industry so not a lot of risk-taking.)
Nonetheless, we persevered with making connections with some remarkable people, failing many times, and producing some worthy projects. It wasn’t an easy ride but in the end what I learned along the way was worth the bumps, bruises, and depleting my bank account.
Now I’m in a new city with new people and organizations, and yet I still have the same dream–do good design work with people who need it–and I’m riding high with the SF risk-taking attitude to go out and try again with a bit more experience and direction under my belt.
Although there are many organizations practicing ethical design (or one of the terms in the image above), I still find it difficult to explain what it is I do. I’ve talked to many designers who are in a similar situation so I thought I’d share my list of these, shall I say, ‘terms of endearment’ that are inspired by and expanding on Public Interest Design’s glossary.
This is something I would loved to have seen five years ago when I began my journey. Back then I wasn’t aware of how to approach work differently and I thought my options were to find a job in a like-minded organization or continue with volunteer work–all very good options but to me seem limiting in progressing the field.
Fortunately because of the recession, workflows are reorganizing to include more freelancers and consultants based on projects rather than heavily staffing up organizations. Michael Schrage’s recent article ‘Prepare for the New Permanent Temp’ does an excellent job at documenting this shift.
Terms for New Design Practices
Many of these terms below can be combined with the adjectives above, say for instance, ‘social-impact design consultant’ or ‘human-centered design freelancer’, to categorize the type of design. Overall, I want to see what the terms and work styles could be as if the ethical part was inherent.
1] Design Consultant
Inspired by a talk I had with Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design, this term moves beyond ‘architecture’ and opens up the service as solution-based, which can include a space, program, communication, or organizational role. I see this is more of the ‘problem-solver’ approach where needs-assessment and ‘programming’ are essential.
You can work on your own with a multitude of clients or within a practice, preferably a multidisciplinary one.
2] Social Entrepreneur
In San Francisco, we started using this term to align with ideal clients, but then learned that entrepreneurs aren’t always the spendy type. Entrepreneur can be applied to a multitude of professions and the social part categorizes you as having a good purpose. Entrepreneur also puts you in a for-profit mindset, which aligns with my goal.
Go it alone and with purpose! I see the entrepreneur as the visionary who forges ahead with an idea and eventually brings in more people (see the next one below.)
3] Social Enterprise
A step up from an entrepreneur, you are running or working within an ethically-focused organization. Again, you are aligned with the social impact scene, but now you’re an established business. This one requires formal business registration where B-Corp could come in handy.
Whether it be telecommuting, setting up an office, or coworking, you’ve got a team to work with and pursue initiatives.
4] Design Collective
Since joining a team for IDEO/+Acumen’s HCD course, I’ve met people from different careers trying to employ the same human-centered methods. In fact, the communications designer, ergonomics engineer, and architect (me) all want to use HCD strategies full-time with ethical organizations. Having a collective of designers could be something like a consultancy, but a bit looser.
People can work on projects together, solo, and come in and out freely. It could also encompass a workspace where people collaborate and produce amongst each other.
5] Design Nonprofit or Charity
When I heard Heather Fleming from Catapult Design describe all the reasons why they chose to be an design and engineering nonprofit, it made complete sense. It’s easier for nonprofits to work with other nonprofits since funders see this as value-aligned. And the perks! Software for free, tax-deduction incentives, and more. AfH does this, as does Public Architecture, and many for-profit/nonprofit combined practices like Inscape Studio/Publico and SCALE studio/africa. If you’re clients are established nonprofits or are heavily invested in staying within the nonprofit world, then go this route. My hesitation with this one is that I see so much potential with the gap that social impact organizations are trying to fill with for-profit methods.
Board of directors is a big plus to obtain guidance, connections, and support. With non-profit in your name, you’re almost immediately seen as a good company so explaining your social mission is easy. However, I’ve heard that setting up as a non-profit in the US can take awhile, so be prepared.
6] Freelance Designer
This one is similar to a design consultant with selecting clients but perhaps is seen as even more solo. ‘Freelance’ is not a new term, but I find that most freelance designers are doing web design and related work.
Riding solo means work from home or venturing out to coffee shops and coworking spaces. As I’ve written before, coworking is my favorite option for meeting fellow freelancers. With the growing workforce of temporary positions, I’m sure we’ll see many more workspaces catering to these types of people.
The ‘Who’ in All of This
No matter what you want to call yourself, finding, communicating, and building relationships with your clients is the most important element. Identifying the who will determine how you describe your role and the value you bring to the project.
But how we communicate this is just as important, especially if we’re going to build a community of social impact/ public-interest/ participatory/ socially-responsible designers.
Are you a creative designer employing new ‘terms of endearment’? How do you describe yourself? Does your client determine how you sell yourself? Leave your comment below or email me at katie [at] designaffects [dot] com. I would love to hear how you’re communicating your services and how you’re getting paid to do good work.
On a side note, I’m also in the midst of getting my first interview posted, where we’ll learn about one practice doing good work in Singapore!
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