An economic downturn can be a boon for volunteerism. Not only are people more sympathetic to the needs of their fellow citizens, but thanks to a lightened workload—or, ahem, no work at all—people also might actually have the time to give. Acknowledging the fact that many designers might be using a slow year to build more meaningful connections with their own communities, and spurred by several service initiatives from local and federal government, a group of New York-based designers formed DesigNYC, a new way for New York designers to connect their creative skills with non-profits.
TO DESIGN AND TO SERVE
"All of us love this city and are proud of efforts like PlanNYC to make it greener and greater," says Michelle Mullineaux, spokesperson for DesigNYC. Initiatives like that, plus a pair of similar volunteer-matching programs—Obama Administration's Serve.gov and Mayor Bloomberg's NYC Service—inspired a group from ESI Design, where Mullineaux works, and employees from New York Magazine, including design editor Wendy Goodman, to approach the idea of formalizing a service concept for designers. In the spring of 2009, they began recruiting an advisory board consisting of design and media luminaries like Paola Antonelli, Steven Heller, and Clay Shirky, who framed the concept more fully.
The board conceived of the idea to launch a pilot program, where they'd select both a group of non-profits and corresponding designers, then provide guidance for the each of the projects once they were in motion. 10 non-profits would be matched with 10 New York design firms who would work with board members to define the scope, deliverables and schedule of each non-profit's project. DesigNYC hopes to have 10 action-oriented prototypes for 10 programs—whether it's a new identity or Web site, or a physical space, or a more top-level systemic solution—within the next two to four months.
A SELECTIVE PROCESS
After a call put out in the fall, more than 50 organizations submitted pilot project ideas including NYC non-profits, community development corporations (CDCs), business improvement districts (BIDs), and city agencies. The board divided the proposals into mediums—2-D (graphics, communication design, Web) and 3-D (architecture, planning, landscape)—and examined the projects on a range of criteria. While the advisors wanted to ensure that a range of projects were represented, both in size and scale, all the organizations had to be viable enough to support the effort—and in a reasonable timeframe. "Is the scope manageable for them?" Mullineaux remembers asking. "And would the design work be able to see the light of day?"
Finally, the team wanted to make sure that the non-profits as a whole would amplify certain issues they felt were important—and could be readily addressed by designers—like affordable housing, sustainable development, environmental advocacy, green space, local food systems and youth leadership. The 10 groups chosen range from Added Value, a group that manages a farm in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, to Green Home NYC, a green building database, to the Broadway Mall Association, a group that beautifies a traffic strip on the Upper East Side using local labor (a complete list can be found here). While the range of organizations was wide, Mullineaux noted that each group chosen had devoted a lot of thought to sustainable practices and systems thinking.
A garden maintained by the Broadway Mall Association
THE PROS OF PRO-BONO
Part of DesigNYC's mission was also to communicate the importance of service to designers. They hoped to help reframe pro-bono work as an essential part of design practice—to portray it as almost a responsibility for designers working in New York City. DesigNYC's board all saw the concept of providing design services for local communities as part of their civic duty, and to help them get results. "We sense a surge of interest right now in designing for the public good, especially at the local level," says Mullineaux. "Our goal is to effectively channel that energy into real projects that can demonstrate the power of good design."
DesigNYC is also able to guarantee something for participating designers that most individual pro-bono efforts cannot: Exposure. Its partnership with New York Magazine is an enticing benefit for firms, who will have their work covered as part of the magazine's content. Additionally, being a part of this new community and an exciting new program, offers a secondary level of promotion—and networking opportunities. Participating is a good move for designers, Mullineaux notes, who often attract paying clients due to the press-worthy attention that pro-bono work often brings. "It's that halo effect you're getting from this work," she says. "This is what gets you the bigger projects."
A garden in the Red Hook neighborhood managed by Added Value
Eventually, DesigNYC hopes to remove themselves from the matching process and allow the collaborations to happen more organically. "Our goal is to create an open network where organizations and designers can connect directly, so we want to make sure we prototype different types of collaborations to create an effective platform," says Mullineaux. They also want to see if they might want to partner and collaborate with some of the many existing efforts already working in the same area. "It's not a terribly original idea," laughs Mullineaux, noting that part of the strength of the program came from looking at other successful models like The 1%, which asks architects to donate 1% of their billed hours to pro bono works. The team is open to the possibility that DesigNYC could be absorbed into a larger group, even handed over to New York City leadership as part of NYC Service.
But DesigNYC still needs its most crucial element: Designers. Until January 1, New York designers can register their firms on the site (it only takes a few minutes, notes Mullineaux, and can easily be done between holiday gatherings). In the next few weeks, the pairings will be announced and the collaborations will be underway. Within a few months, Mullineaux says, there will be more announcements and updates about what plans are in motion. At that point, says Mullineaux, they'll also encourage interested designers from other cities—who have already been inquiring about importing the idea—to stay tuned as DesigNYC makes the entire process public, she says. "We'd love to put it out there with this white label so other cities can do it on their own."
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