Designing in the public interest is often challenging–and controversial. How do you know when to do public interest work and when pro-bono efforts are going towards greater good? In our office with the recent launch of our pro-bono Social Impact Design Initiative and partnership with the 1% Program at Public Architecture, we continue to learn from our work locally.

Chris Hardy, a designer with our San Francisco office, gave a lecture at ASLA’s Northern California Chapter this Spring to talk about the benefits and challenges of pro-bono work. In the lecture, he mentions six ways that pro-bono work makes us better designers:

  • New and otherwise unavailable projects help us broaden our experience and train young and intermediate designers in on-the-ground project work;
  • Each project makes us better designers, particularly (and often) locally;
  • Younger staff can take ownership over the process in ways that might not be available yet in big office-wide projects within the firm and demonstrate leadership and project management skills;
  • The project is often an opportunity for mentorship and learning between staff and new contacts within the field;
  • Strategic volunteering–when a project is pro-bono at first but beneficial to the firm in the long-term–can bring projects that are otherwise unavailable to the firm. For example, when a community has a need for an amenity that’s very strong, but there’s no visioning documents or initial support, a landscape architect can assist with the visual and preliminary documents needed to get a project up and running to later phases;
  • Inter-office collaboration: with quick charrettes and idea brainstorming, you can meet people within the office and collaborate on a quick project with a tight timeframe and generate new ideas quickly.

Additionally, Chris noted that pro-bono and local projects are “often small enough to get your hands dirty” and they are also discrete–in that you can finish them–so that designers can participate in local design-build projects they can point to fairly quickly. These projects, in turn, serve as a model to help us do more work in the field in the future and act as a catalyst for creating a new market or niche area of expertise within your firm.

As he concludes in his lecture, “pro-bono work is often the beginning of a longer process, and we can learn a lot while doing it and capitalize on  our experiences to share and grow.”

“As long as we’re passionate, that’s all that matters.”

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Chris Hardy is a designer with SWA’s San Francisco office; he holds an MLA from Cornell University and a B.S. In Conservation Biology from Duke University. He is part of the Social Impact Design Initiative at SWA and spearheads projects focused on ecological design and collaborative community infrastructure.




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Sarah Peck

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