Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Trick or Treat

A collection of colorful Halloween candy organized by typeEvery Halloween, children walk neighborhoods dressed in costume in search of sugary snacks. Jack-o-lanterns, spooky skeletons, the crunch of leaves underfoot. For one night, it’s all good fun – all treats, no tricks.

Many firms are taking a similar approach to offering pro bono services to nonprofit organizations – gathering for one night in a whirlwind of design, costumes optional. The Nerdery, a Minnesota-based web design company, hosts 24-hour website makeovers in several U.S. cities. Students at the Un-School of Disruptive Design aim for social change in its intensive, one-day workshops.

The energy and good will generated by these events is undeniable. But is it possible that they are more trick than treat?

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I believe design firms should offer the same level of thinking and service to nonprofit and pro bono clients as they do for the ones who have an adequate budget.

Some might consider this opinion uncharitable.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Something is better than nothing.”

True enough.

Believe me, I understand the allure of the design blitz. Take the creative shackles off. Think fast. Don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. It doesn’t hurt that this model often results in good publicity for the donating firm or individuals either.

Treat the cause
The problem is that one-day giveaways create a misconception about the value and power of design. Design as surface decoration is like giving a hungry family a handful of miniature candy bars when they really need a way to put food on the table next week, and the week after that.

If it’s actually possible to complete a project in 24 hours – to “rebrand” an organization or redesign its website – then what are the for-profit clients paying for? What’s taking you so long?

When you shortchange the design process – discovery, strategy, design, and implementation – you can treat the symptoms, but rarely the cause. You end up with short-term solutions for long-term problems.

There are many things you can do in 24 hours. Solving complex design problems isn’t one of them.

Let’s aim higher.

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