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The power of free design: why you should do pro-bono work (sometimes)

August 26, 2014

A few months ago, my uncle Tim started a project to restore a small theater in downtown Antioch, Illinois. The century-old theater had closed due to general disrepair and outdated tech. It needed an extensive revamp, and it was going to be costly.

Tim’s a real estate developer, and he was putting up his own money to get this project off the ground. But he needed help. He wanted to do a Kickstarter project and a fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 for the renovation.

He asked me if I had any recommendations for someone to make a website:

I need somebody good, fast, cheap and available. That’s only 1/2 a joke.

The only person I knew who fit that impossible criteria was me! I believed in the spirit of the project and thought it was worth my side project time. So I offered to help (for free.)

He had some rough marketing materials drafted, but it was clear we needed something more cohesive. I asked him to tell me the story of the theater, so I could get a sense of its past and future. From there, we moved on to visual design. I explored some type and color treatments and we chose a logo.

Antioch Theatre logos
Logo sketches. We had the name spelled wrong.

Then we designed several print materials to get the word out locally, including brochures, posters, and an enormous 200-square-foot banner to hang on the front of the theater:

Antioch Theatre banner
One giant banner.

Finally, I launched the website, while Tim’s team got the Kickstarter campaign started and planned promotional events.

Throughout the whole project, we spent extra attention on copywriting. We carefully explained the theater’s rich history and its ongoing value for the downtown. Bottom line, if anyone was going to give us money, they had to understand why it was worth it.

All together, I spent about 3 weeks of my occasional spare time on the project, and we ended up with a strong marketing effort, with a unified look and a consistent message. If you were anywhere near downtown Antioch, you couldn’t miss that SAVE THE ANTIOCH THEATRE logo on posters in every shop window.

But even with all that promotion, we weren’t so confident this would succeed. Will people care about a neglected old movie theater? Can we really raise $65k on Kickstarter for a small suburban town? For a while, the campaign stalled out around $25k and it seemed like we were done.

Not so. In fact, the campaign took off like crazy, and we ended up raising nearly $20,000 more than the original goal—enough to hit a stretch goal and upgrade the projection tech to 3D.

So, marketing done, money raised, theater saved! End of story, right? Not quite. Turns out that the campaign built a wave of energy and kicked off a broader movement toward improving the entire downtown:

I am not exaggerating this, but the messaging has inspired key business people to engage in the overall downtown revitalization effort, and has instilled a belief that things can get done. They see that residents will respond to quality.

This is what design can do—it can inspire people and change things for the better. It’s easy to forget about that when you’re doing client work, or routine production work, or whatever your day-job specialty happens to be.

Furthermore, pro-bono work gives you a chance to stretch your legs and try stuff you’ve never done, which can improve your day job work too. With this project, I took time to learn Sketch and used Basecamp with folks who were new to the product. I discovered some interesting challenges with onboarding, and used features I rarely use in my regular work. These lessons will help me improve Basecamp.

If you have the means and the time, take on some free work* once in a while. Help out a cause you feel strongly about. When money’s not at play, you’ll be motivated by an entirely different set of factors, and you might be surprised by the results.

*Jessica’s chart holds true: be careful to set clear limits and scope on the project, so you don’t get abused and everyone knows what to expect.