Improve your portfolio with pro bono design | David Airey, graphic designer

Improve your portfolio with pro bono design

Published on February 22nd, 2010 45 appreciated comments �

portfolio book
Photo by Tudinh Duong

You%u2019re a graphic design student with a portfolio full of fictitious projects. You want to work with clients to build your experience, but you need a more developed portfolio to attract the clients. A classic catch-22.

That%u2019s when working pro bono proves extremely useful.

Read on to learn why, and for a chance to win one of five signed copies of Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities.

What is pro bono?

Pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) is a phrase derived from Latin meaning %u201Cfor the public good.%u201D The term is generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service.

Unlike traditional volunteerism, pro bono uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

What business should you approach?

Contact a small- to medium-sized non-profit organisation. Larger non-profits will have a substantial budget allocated to their brand identity, and are more likely to work with an experienced professional or studio.

Conduct an online search or look in your telephone directory for a non-profit in your locality. The benefit of staying local is you can meet your new client face-to-face. Doing so will not only help build your confidence in business meetings, but it makes it easier to ensure you%u2019re dealing with the decision-maker rather than passing design ideas through a middle-person %u2014 adding an unnecessary step to the design process.

There are further benefits with working locally. For instance, once the project is complete, you will have the opportunity to take photos of the finished design in context (e.g., on signage and stationery). It%u2019s these contextual shots that can turn an average portfolio into an excellent one.

Additionally, you%u2019re building your network of local business contacts, and the stronger your network, the more tools and help you will have available throughout your design career.

How to make the approach

It%u2019s important to talk to the person directly responsible for the visual branding. In a small-sized non-profit this is likely to be the managing director or chief executive.

Call or send an email pitching yourself as a talented designer who is about to, or has recently graduated with a design degree. Say it%u2019s your policy to devote a small percentage of time towards pro bono work (for the public good), and that your client%u2019s non-profit mission is one you have a great deal of respect for (this should of course be true).

Detail the savings you are offering your client (your standard rate for an identity project, only discounted by 100%). Doing so will ensure the value of the outcome isn%u2019t underestimated, and helps keep your client motivated.

Arrange a 30-minute meeting, where you will discuss the design needs and set a course of action.

In the meeting

Arrive with a list of pre-determined questions, a notepad, a pen, and your business card (which you will hand over at the end).

It%u2019s possible your client is anxious about the process of having a brand identity created or redesigned. She may see ideas as a risk, and not as a way to secure her mortgage. So the more indepth your initial discussions, the more at ease you will make your client. It may be that it%u2019s her first time working on an identity project, and it%u2019s up to you to show how smoothly the process can flow.

Be sure to time the meeting, and if you haven%u2019t finished within 30 minutes, say you have reached the end of the allocated time, and that you can call or email your client at a later date for any other necessary information %u2014 your client will be very busy, and will appreciate you sticking to your pre-arranged time limit.

Questions to ask

The crux of a healthy graphic design brief lies in the questions you pose. Obtaining the necessary answers isn%u2019t difficult. You just need to ask.

If you want specifics, I outline a number of vital questions in chapter four of Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities, and I have five free signed copies up for grabs.

Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities
Photo by Raja Sandhu

There are two ways to enter the random draw:

  1. Either upload one of your favourite self-designed logos to the Logo Design Love Facebook group
  2. Or update your Twitter account with the following message:

Improve your portfolio with pro bono design: (by @DavidAirey)

Winners will be drawn and notified on Friday 26th February. I%u2019ll also update this page with the winning names. Two signed copies will go to designers who upload to the Facebook group, and three to those who spread the word on Twitter. Double your chances by entering both ways.

Update: 26 February 2010
The winners have been drawn and notified. They are Alex Rogers, Alison Rowan, Wilson Almeida, Jack Franklin, and Naomi Oldfield. Thanks very much to all who entered!

If random draws, Twitter, or Facebook aren%u2019t your thing, the book%u2019s available to purchase now on (or for those in the United Kingdom).

There%u2019s also a free chapter here, and a few book reviews here.

How did you attract your first client in self-employment?

My first design client was actually my former employer %u2014 a cancer organisation in Edinburgh. I had been responsible for the company%u2019s print and web management, and when I resigned to spend some months travelling the world, I returned to find that a suitable replacement hadn%u2019t been found.

I asked the chief executive to hire me for three days per week as a design contractor. He agreed, enabling me to spend the remainder of the working week building my online presence and sourcing new clients.

Five years on, and there%u2019s very little I%u2019d change about the path I%u2019ve taken.

What about you? How did your first client come about?

You can subscribe to new posts via RSS or email, or follow me on Twitter.

Logo Design Love the book

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45 appreciated comments � This post is archived under Designers & clients, Identity design. Receive comment updates by subscribing to the RSS comments feed.

45 appreciated comments to %u201CImprove your portfolio with pro bono design%u201D

  1. This is extremely important, especially for graduating students. I wish they taught us these things back in university so that we had the time to prepare ourselves.

  2. Helping out small local non-profits is a great way to build a portfolio and is great for your community and will be highly appreciated, so it%u2019s a win-win for everyone involved.

  3. Agreeing with Chris i do believe that building your portfolio can be easily accomplished through non-profit-organizations. You benefit through this 4 different ways:

    1. You also give your share to that particular organization

    2. It looks good on you to design for a non-profit-organization

    3. Its much easier for you to find work through these organizations, so you can build up your portfolio much quicker

    4. Those designs can travel and you can get mentioned for more commissioned work

  4. Anna, on February 22nd, 2010 // Twitter: @annafunk

    Thank you so much for sharing this, David!

    I%u2019m working with two non-profit organizations pro-bono right now. My school requires students to pass two %u2018Senior Project%u2019 classes that reaches out to local non-profits, and has groups of students create websites for them.

    I feel so lucky to be working with the ones I was given.

    One is a ballet company that reaches out to all the young women who love ballet, but were told that they didn%u2019t have the %u2018right body type.%u2019

    The other is %u2018The Chuck Jones Center for Creativity%u2019 (Yes, THAT Chuck Jones!) His daughter and grandson run the organization to promote the arts. I have full access to literally thousands of pieces of art by Chuck Jones.

    Both of the websites are going to be absolutely beautiful for my portfolio.

    I also hope that, even after I graduate, I%u2019m successful enough that I can do two pro-bono projects per year for small, locally-owned businesses that are involved in %u2018The 3/50%u2033 project.

  5. Me too, Omar. I would%u2019ve gained a head-start had I known of this after my graduation.

    Anna, good for you. I%u2019m glad to know your school is bringing non-profit work on to the syllabus, and that even after you finish studying, you intend to keep it up.

    I hope your two projects turn out great.

  6. When I was still doing my degree, the lecturers would have had us quit our part-time jobs, and stay in 24/7 working on their assignments if they had their way. So them making suggestions on how we could take on any extra work would have been completely out of the question.

    The issue with University of Ulster in particular is the class sizes. The class sizes are huge, and each student gets very little individual time with the lecturers.

    I was in my final year before I actually got some proper 1 to 1 time with the Senior Design Lecturer. A lot of students revel in the fact that they get easy timetables with little class hours%u2026 but the reality is that when that is the case students are getting screwed for what they are paying in fees!

    But anyway, enough post-apocalyptic ranting on this fine Monday morning. 😉 In a nutshell%u2026 I concur, good sir.

  7. Hi David,

    Long time follower, first time thought giver!! I have been running my own graphic design business in Brisbane, Australia for approx 2years after working as a graphic designer for a printing company.

    I agree with the previous comments that nothing is taught on how to get clients or promote yourself while studying. Its all well and good to have the technical knowledge, but you need to have the business knowledge too.

    My best tip for anyone starting or studying, is to find some work experience. While I did my studies, I did work experience. Not only did this give me some on the job training, but it helped me land my first job!!

    Love reading your posts, and admire your work.

    PS: Updated my Twitter account with your message!!

    Take care

  8. Seems like a real shame, Mark (the crowded classes). I didn%u2019t attend there, but here%u2019s hoping things have improved at the University of Ulster.

    Scott, I completely agree about the work experience part. I was lucky enough to spend a summer interning in the United States %u2014 an experience I%u2019ll never forget. Thanks for the tweet, and for your first-time comment.

  9. It certainly was, David, and it is an issue with the course I did.

    All students should definitely do some form of work placement.

    I done a placement year for my 3rd year and I worked for Intel in Dublin. It was a bit of a bizarre experience working for a corporation trying to do marketing materials for them because you had such strict guidelines to comply with. But the experience I had there was an eye opener to the other side of industry, that being the large monolithic corporate world, which hopefully I won%u2019t have to endure again.

    When I was actually back in my final year I wanted to learn a bit more about the print process so I managed to talk my way into getting a job in a local printers. I was in there a day or two a week helping out, and was getting paid, with some really good perks for coursework printing too, as you can imagine. Even If I wasn%u2019t getting paid though, I reckon I would have at least put in some time there to learn the stuff you don%u2019t get taught in class.

    Most students aren%u2019t aware of opportunities that are out there for them, but if you look hard enough there are always some options to better yourself %u2013 you just need to have that spark and itch to want to work.

  10. Jon Liebold, on February 22nd, 2010 // Twitter: @JonLiebold

    Definitely with you on the pro bono thing. I am working an internship pro bono right now with a neighborhood association and it has given me a lot of stuff to do that I normally would not have been able to. For example I have had two ads published in a local paper (One was a rush job so I crammed new content into a pre-existing template, the other I did from scratch) and I have a third one to be done on Friday. I have also done a few other projects like a membership card and some feature boxes for the website.

  11. Out of curiousity, what do you mean by %u201Cself-designed logos%u201D? Ain%u2019t all logos are self designed by the designers? Or I%u2019m just missing some peculiarities of English%u2026

  12. When I was starting out, Mark, I signed up with a design-based recruitment agency. I was placed in the design department of Scottish Widows for a few days, and it didn%u2019t take long to tire of the incredibly specific design guidelines.

    Jon, our internships are similar in a way %u2014 I didn%u2019t get paid either. Mine was full-time, and because of which, I needed a second %u2018job%u2019, working whatever hours I could get. Tough going at times, but hugely beneficial.

    I%u2019m glad you%u2019re getting your work out there. Definitely a plus with pro bono.

    Luke, if I asked everyone to upload one of their favourite logos, chances are I%u2019d see numerous submissions for FedEx, Apple, Shell, etc. Hence the inclusion of %u201Cself-designed%u201D logos.

  13. I totally agree, this is very important because you improve your portfolio and also you can help an organisation that is in need of a design makeover.

    My twitter account is updated!

  14. Hi David, I think pro bono is a terrific idea for beginning designers. It is hard to get paying clients when you have little to show and works from class is not enough.

    The first works I did that was beyond the classroom was actually for my Fraternity. This was a great opportunity for me, because I got to design materials that were printed, and distributed throughout campus and online. Soon I was designing for other Fraternities/Sororities, and cultural student organizations.

    Many of the events I designed (and participated in) for involved partnered non-profit organizations and I think having those recognizable names (Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc) looks good when presenting your portfolio.

    Eventually I landed a job for the campus TV station and campus Newspaper. Then I was able to get a paid summer internship at a real estate agency and then finally, a full service advertising agency in Boston.

    All those things built upon one another, and though I think doing pro bono work for non-profits is a great idea, David, I also think doing work for student organizations and being involved on campus is also a good way to add pieces to your portfolio.

  15. Hmm%u2026 Taking into account what has been already said, what should a beginner persue %u2013 a pro bono work for a non profit, etc or a low to no payment work which also genenerates him/her a portfolio? what%u2019s your mind on that?

  16. Catherine, on February 22nd, 2010 //

    David, I have a question for you. It may sound like a silly question, but I%u2019m just curious. I%u2019ve been a graphic designer for almost 5 years now. I always wanted to do pro-bono work, but based on the article, is this only something beginner designers/design students do? I only ask because I%u2019ve been looking for other ways to expand my portfolio. Should I look into freelance work instead?

    I also wish they mentioned this in design school. I think my portfolio out of school would have been stronger.

  17. Nice addition, Andy (about getting involved on campus).

    Luke, I advise against devaluing yourself with spec work or design contest websites.

    Catherine, not a silly question at all. Pro bono work is something all designers can do, regardless of experience levels. Think of it as giving to charity, only you get a little something back, too.

  18. Fatma, on February 22nd, 2010 // Twitter: @FatmaYasin

    I totally enjoy pro bono work it lets me put into practice what I%u2019ve gained.
    Although, I was under the impression most people did pro bono work.
    By reading the comments then realized perhaps not, thanks for the sharing
    the informative article David.

  19. Nice article David, always good reading your blog.

    The only thing I would add is that pro bono doesn%u2019t have to be 100% free. %u201CFor the public good%u201D doesn%u2019t mean you have to work for weeks or months without any compensation.

    I would urge students/recent grads that if you feel your work is really good and that you can bring real value to the organization, try offering your services at a reduced rate and/or alternate terms (no deposit, etc.).

    Of course if you don%u2019t feel confident yet in your skills, offering your services completely free can be a good choice. Low/no risk for the organization, and an opportunity for you to get some good experience under your belt.

  20. Jon Liebold, on February 22nd, 2010 // Twitter: @JonLiebold


    As an employer, what would you want to see? A portfolio full of pro-bono work, or a portfolio full of contest losses? Sure you might have the occasional wins, but sheer probability will be mostly losses?


    Can it be one for a made-up company?

  21. @Jon IMHO most of those who look at the beginners folios don%u2019t bother much where the designs come from.
    They cast a look and decide whether that person possesses certain skills, meets their own %u201Cvision%u201D of who a designer for their project should be, and check whether there%u2019s some feedback from real people.

  22. I think it%u2019s awesome that Anna%u2019s school requires students to get some real world project experience and benefit a non-profit at the same time. What a great idea! And how helpful for making the jump to the professional world less painful.

    Great article, David. I%u2019ve always liked this idea of yours and I echo it whenever I get questions from students about how best to build their early portfolio while gaining valuable experience in the process (creating your own fake projects isn%u2019t anywhere near the same!).

    Jason above makes a great point, too. Having the non-profit pay even a nominal fee for one%u2019s work makes it have at least a small intrinsic value to them and hopefully brings the project higher up on the priority list. Having worked at a non-profit myself, I can attest to the truth that often times projects that make measurable money (like fundraisers, grant proposals, etc.) have priority over what they might view as %u201Cnice to have%u201D projects.

    My first official client was my chiropractor. He had been talking to me about expanding his business and having a professionally designed brochure to hand out at health talks and fairs. He was impressed with my portfolio and asked me to work on it. It was a great project (not pro bono, though). Turned out very well!

  23. @LukeSF, I think you are partially right, but portfolio isn%u2019t everything and having real world experience is also very important. You will hear it time and again, a designer can be brilliant, but if s/he doesn%u2019t know how to work with people, s/he won%u2019t make it very far. Just being a cool person to work with will seriously go a long way!

  24. @Lauren Absolutely agree. And in this case pro bono work gives way more positive effect on a designer.

  25. @LukeSF, agreed! 🙂

  26. Artis Desels, on February 22nd, 2010 // Twitter: @artisdesels

    Hi David! Thanks for the great, just in time article.

    I was trying to think of how to approach the local non profit organization, which is providing support to families with children suffering from leukemia, to offer my services. And you just made it so much easier.

    @LukeSF regarding your question about low or no payment services. I agree to David about spec work.There are other ways for beginner to fill his/her portfolio with masterpieces.

    For example, as a beginner logo/web designer I could offer my knowledge and services for low or no cost in exchange for their knowledge or services to photographers, illustrators, copywriters, artists, [enter your option here] who have shabby or no website and/or logo. It%u2019s a win-win situation. I think it was called %u201Cbarter%u201D. At least I suppose it is way better than spending time on spec lottery.

  27. Hi David, great post, I have been away for a while and was getting ready to catch up with all the the posts I missed, and I noticed the changed David Airey logo (I really loved the old one) is there a link to the post that explained the new logo? could I please get a link to it? thank you.



  28. Barter sounds good, but one should be careful too, cuz sometimes stuff like %u201Cdo me a logo and I will mention you in blog, create press realease, etc, etc%u201D sometimes can be far from being a fair trade..

  29. Great tip, Jason. Pro bono doesn%u2019t necessarily involve a lack of financial compensation, and it all depends on the initial chat.

    Jon, you asked, %u201CCan it be one for a made-up company?%u201D but I%u2019m not sure what you mean. If you%u2019re referring to the Facebook group upload, then absolutely.

    Lauren, I%u2019m sure I can%u2019t take credit for the idea, but I%u2019m glad it%u2019s one you agree with. And yep, great to know about Anna%u2019s design course.

    Your chiropractor, eh? Good on you for bringing your skills into the conversation!

    Artis, it%u2019s a pleasure to be of some help.

    Welcome back, Patricia. There was quite a chat in the comments on the following post about my old/new logo and the chances made to the blog:

    Experimenting with a new portfolio design

    To sum it up, I felt I outgrew my previous design, and the legibility wasn%u2019t great amongst those who didn%u2019t know my name. It may well change once I finish helping a current client, but for now, I%u2019m much happier with the simpler logotype.

  30. I think it%u2019s great practice to have real clients, even if you%u2019re not getting paid, experience is sometimes worth the lack of funds%u2026 Sometimes%u2026.

  31. Dominic R�del, on February 23rd, 2010 // Twitter: @dominic_87

    I think this is WAY better training then doing made up %u201Cbrandstack%u201D work. there is nothing harder then doing client work. That is where the good designers seperate from the normal designers.

  32. Hi David, excellent article as usual. What do you do if your between a rock and hard place. Currently I am a freelance web designer and I have a few portfolio pieces but I am finding it difficult to get new work/clients. I also have a couple of websites on the go which are going through the stages and I am working with a web company doing development work too, neither can really help on the portfolio front right now. What can you suggest to somebody who isn%u2019t a %u201Cfresh%u201D graduate and somebody who is already a freelancer with a limited amount of portfolio work?

  33. I have contributed to a couple non-profit organizations but your article has inspired me to contribute more. Thanks! Curt

  34. If you would please replace my twitter address in my previous thoughts.

  35. I think pro bono work is always a great idea when its for a good cause, and especially when one is just starting out. I strongly suggest it to any new designer, and recommend it often to my own readers. Despite my own thoughts, it%u2019s still amazing how many people are against the idea of free work when just starting out (even for charities and etc!). I always get at least a bit of retaliation when I mention the idea in one of my posts. Glad there%u2019s a detailed post here, and plenty of others agreeing with me.

  36. Good idea, David, and I also agree that there%u2019s no need to stop doing pro bono once you%u2019ve got a portfolio established. I still do pro bono work for good causes and have made it part of my business (only part, mind you, I still need to eat%u2026). One thing I would add is to bear in mind that offering your services for free is a great idea, but don%u2019t forget that you are getting something in return. I%u2019ve heard of some people offering pro bono work with the attitude that they are very much doing the client a huge favour, which is not the best way to go about things.

    I don%u2019t use Twitter, but I might upload a logo as I%u2019d love to read your book. Alternatively I%u2019ll just go the old-fashioned route and buy a copy.

  37. Catherine, on February 24th, 2010 //

    I have a question. Like I said in an earlier post, I%u2019ve been a full-time graphic designer for a design agency for about 5 years. I am interested in pro-bono work. However, I%u2019m curious how that will work with someone who has a full-time job. I mean I won%u2019t be able to meet with them during the week, because I work full-time. Does anyone out there do pro-bono work and work full-time as well? How does that work? Do you think the client you are doing pro-bono work for will be flexible? What are your thoughts?

  38. Catherine, I have done pro bono work while working full time and found the client(s) to be more flexible as they appreciate what you are doing. Having said that, if you promise to complete work by a set date you should deliver %u2013 i.e. treat them the same as you would a paying client. I think it also depends on where you are and where your client is. In my case, we were both in Tokyo so it was easy to meet up after office hours and discuss the project. As David said in his original post, though, I think it%u2019s important that you support what the charity or NPO stands for.

  39. Catherine, on February 25th, 2010 //

    Thanks, Richard! I appreciate your thoughts.

  40. Sibu Dandato, on February 25th, 2010 //

    I love this article because this is where it began for me. I have done numerous pro bono projects for small non-profits and individuals as a hobbie and this inspired me to go back to school and study graphic design. I am looking forward to expanding my repertoire and reach as a designer and I already have a small client base as well as the makings of a real portfolio after only one year of study.

  41. Thanks very much to everyone who entered the draw.

    The winners have each been notified, and are Alex Rogers, Alison Rowan, Wilson Almeida, Jack Franklin, and Naomi Oldfield!

  42. Hi Dave

    You have been an inspiration to me and it gives me great pleasure to comment on your blog after so many years of followership. I think it is a wonderful act to give, especially if one is a designer. It helps one to not only not showcase their design flair but also contribute to community. I know it is hard, but giving ones talent for free should not be a heartache, but an opportunity in getting recognition as an individual and a designer. So I would recommend designers having a sort of %u201Cpro bono%u201D in them.

    Keep up the good work Dave.

  43. Tin, on February 27th, 2010 // Twitter: @tindesigner

    Great article and insightful inspiration. Thanks for this article. I just finished your book, yet I%u2019ll still pick it up and read some chapters again.

  44. I have had this approach backfire on me. I suppose I should have gone to a larger business but I believe that because I was offering to do the work for free they didn%u2019t take me seriously. I couldn%u2019t get any content or approvals for my designs and in the end was a huge waste of my time because I got nothing for my portfolio.

    I do however agree that this is a good approach to help build a portfolio and when I am not so jaded will offer my services for those in need.

  45. Steve O, on March 1st, 2010 // Twitter: @stevedesigner

    Oops, missed this one. Gah.

    Pro bono can work even when you have a client base. I producing this logo for a local organisation. They were delighted and it has led to more work and good connections. Win win!

    Congrats on the book btw David B)

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