Designing for charities seems to be de rigueur among design groups. Is this merely a profile-raising exercise, or are genuine acts of altruism involved?

What is it in the nature of designers that draws them to charity work? Are they a big bunch of softies or what?

Practically every consultancy worth its salt has had its finger in some charitable pie. Even diehards like Carroll Dempsey Thirkell senior director Mike Dempsey, who declares that charity is “an unknown quantity to us, although we sometimes chuck in a few coins when someone from Great Ormond Street comes round”, is sponsoring theTate Gallery’s ongoing Art Now series of displays.

Design Bridge is leaping up and down on the bandwagon. It is currently donating its services to Centrepoint, the London charity for the homeless, and has come up with several Christmas card concepts. It has also organised a brainstorm for the design industry to generate fundraising ideas for the charity (DW 9 June).

“Centrepoint is the right charity for us, it aims at the under 35s and design is a young industry,” says communications manager Margaret O’Brien. The consultancy is working closely with Centrepoint, which wanted “a cut-price service but not cut-price quality”. Design Bridge will have spent around 15 000 of designer time on charity projects by the end of 1995, plus extra hours put in by a willing staff.

“It’s nice to do something worthy,” says senior designer Wendy Mellors. She is echoed by creative director Marion Dalley, who sees Design Bridge as “the people who always say yes”. “Design is quite a soft industry, there’s a willingness to participate,” says O’Brien, who is busy organising a treasure hunt to raise yet more cash for Centrepoint. Charity work is easy for Design Bridge, which burgeons with staff and is run by folk with open minds. “Only 10 per cent of our work is corporate identity, so we’ve got the space,” admits O’Brien.

Giant director Mark Rollinson says charity work is harder to fit in now that margins are tighter and the industry is less buoyant than it was in the Eighties. “Before the recession, the fee-level generated from jobs gave you more room to manoeuvre. Now it’s harder to absorb low-cost or voluntary work painlessly,” he says.

But Rollinson also feels that charity work is an important aspect of the designer spectrum, through boom or recession. “When things are rosy, charities don’t have much trouble getting designers to work for them, and when things are hard, designers want to attract paid work by doing beautiful jobs and hawking them around. It’s excellent publicity.”

Carter Wong does as much charity work now as it did during the boom time of the Eighties. Says director Phil Carter: “It is harder to take on low-cost work now. We’ve got bigger but it’s still hard. We always find the time, be it evenings or weekends. We don’t want to turn away these sorts of jobs.”

Giulia Landor, managing partner at Spencer Landor, sees the recession as being “when charities raised their heads and looked at design. Designers wanted to work and charities wanted designers”. And Jenkins Group chairman Nick Jenkins does “more charity work in the Nineties than in the Eighties”.

Media Natura acts as a bridge between designers and clients in the environmental and human rights arenas, putting low-budget clients in touch with suitable consultancies. It has 1500 designer members, many of them “big names”, according to managing director Bruce McKinnon.

“During the Eighties it was ‘you’re lucky to get our services, so you can like it or lump it’. Designers behaved like great beneficiaries to charities,” he says.

Are charities treated like fee-paying clients by consultancies, or does a patronising attitude tend to creep in? Centrepoint fundraising head Mo Houlden says she feels “like a proper client” in her association with Design Bridge. “Some designers who have worked for us voluntarily have not given us the space to say what we want and they’ve ended up designing what they want. We do get approached by a lot of designers, but we’re quite wary,” she adds.

McKinnon says: “There’s a shift in design consultancies’ perception of a charity client. Now there’s a more professional approach – even though the designer doesn’t earn much”.

Nick Jenkins can “see how small charity clients might feel. In the past they’ve asked us to do something for low rates, then it turns out they’ve literally got nothing at all. Everyone gets cross and they demand constant alterations. We try to treat charities like any other client, but it’s hard under these particular circumstances”.

Jenkins prefers to donate his services as design director – “that’s hefty ‘cos I’m rather expensive” – to causes he feels strongly about. The Jenkins Group does ongoing design work for the charity CARE, which works worldwide with the underprivileged.

He has also taken on the UK’s largest pre-school organisation practically single-handed, persuading it to change its name from the Pre-School Playgroups Association to the Pre-School Learning Alliance, and is designing a new logo for the organisation. “I had to make a presentation in front of 500 ladies in Scarborough, it was hell,” he says.

Giulia Landor is emphatic that Spencer Landor does not have a policy of unpaid work. “The charities we work for are ordinary paying clients,” she says. These include a corporate identity for Voluntary Services Overseas (at “more or less normal” rates). Creative partner John Spencer designed an identity for Help The Aged on “a big budget with slightly reduced rates” in 1984, when he was at Allied Inter-national Designers, and Spencer Landor

continues to work with this charity.

“We haven’t done much for free. It has been our experience that if a client doesn’t pay, they don’t get the best value job and they don’t appreciate the work,” says Landor. She opted to design an identity for the British Red Cross on a low budget because “the communications officer knew what was wanted. If it’s a little charity with three people in the office it can be misleading for all concerned as they often don’t really know what they want”.

Phil Carter would disagree: “Designs for charities are a way of putting something back.” He’s just finished designing a ticket for an RAC Racy Ladies Day at Silverstone racing circuit, which aimed to raise money for St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

Mike Dempsey, on the other hand, feels the best way his consultancy can contribute is through donating skills to the arts. “We were originally looking for ways to promote ourselves when we sponsored the Tate,” he says. “It’s rewarding on all levels, we got clients and notoriety through it.

“Since we’ve sponsored the Art Now exhibitions we’ve been inundated with charities asking for money, or trying to get cheap design. We prefer to feed the mind as opposed to the body by our involvement with the arts.”

According to Media Natura’s Bruce McKinnon, the quality of design work has gone up in the past few years, whereas quantity has gone down. “Designers used to work for at least three charities per year. Now they’re more likely to have one long-term relationship”.

McKinnon says that “some of the jobs we engineer are absolutely amazing”. For example, Lewis Moberly has designed an identity for the Silvanus Trust, which campaigns for the Cornwall woodlands. “It’s an example of a tiny little trust getting the design skills of one of the best consultancies in the world,” he says.

So designers are obviously not an endangered species when it comes to charity work. But can they be considered a soft touch? Phil Carter is proud of his easy accessibility to charity clients. “You can’t be money-minded about this sort of work; you do these projects with your heart, not your head,” he says.

Mike Dempsey’s head appears to be leading his way, with similar strong results.”You’re never going to get the wild rates you’d get from a large corporate company, but you get more artistic freedom and challenge working for a charity. You need to decide if that is enough payment for you,” he says.

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