Case Study: How RGD’s new “Guide to Pro Bono Work” brings positive results for client and designer

Case Study by Rod Nash RGD, Nash+Nash



When contacted by a friend with a request for help with a design project, RGD Ethics Committee Member Rod Nash employed the RGD resource, 'A Graphic Designer's Guide to Pro Bono Work' to help determine whether the project was the right fit and to ensure a successful design process. 


VFF, Canada’s only Vintage Film Festival.

The Vintage Film Festival is produced by The Marie Dressler Foundation, a registered charity whose mission is to make certain that Marie Dressler, born 150 years ago in Cobourg, Ontario and once one of Hollywood’s best-loved stars, is never forgotten. VFF was started 25 years ago by a group of film enthusiasts to generate funds to give as bursaries to outstanding high school students pursuing post-secondary education in the performing arts. A smart, dedicated committee of enthusiasts, plus supporters, is responsible for VFF’s continuing success.

Today, VFF shows a variety of films, some of them rare, often including a film starring Marie Dressler.



The need for VFF to have a “Logo” was real and timely.
This project started for N+N with an email from someone I knew and admired. It had the subject line: 'A favour?' As a member of the VFF committee, this was his request:

“For years now we've used different versions of a letterhead or banner which are not all that eye-catching, and don't reproduce well when used in a small space. Could you help us with the design of a logo in return for front line recognition on our website and in our publications?”

As they were increasingly using the acronym rather than the full name, it made sense for them to have a logo made up from the letters VFF. The aim was to create a stronger, more consistent visual brand that would help VFF become better known and more widely identified.


I am on RGD’s Ethics Committee, which was in the process of developing a Guide to Pro Bono Work at the time of this request. As it advises in the guide, I did some initial research on VFF before taking on the work and determined that this project seemed viable and worthwhile. The added bonus was that it would provide a real life example of how RGD's Pro Bono Guide works as an important resource that can bring positive results for both client and designer. 


I used the following criteria to determine whether it made sense to work on this project pro bono:

  • Is it a registered charity that fits RGD’s guidelines for pro bono work?
  • Do I believe in what they are doing?
  • Can I handle the amount of work they are asking me to do?
  • Is it a viable project? Is the need obvious? Can I make a difference and help them be more successful?
  • Will I be able to work with the personalities involved? Will they be fun, even stimulating to work with?
  • Will this leave a mark or legacy re: my abilities? Is it likely that this logo will have a long life? 


Appointing a Single Project Leader from VFF was Key.
As suggested in the RGD Guide, it was important to identify one project leader. The VFF Committee agreed that N+N would work through one person from their committee. It was important for this person to recognize the importance of each step in the process: getting agreement from everyone on the creative brief prior to sharing logo designs with the committee; providing answers to our questions about the organization; and explaining the skills of each committee member, so that we would know who to call on when input was required. 



A stepped approach made for a smooth process.
The RGD Guide talks about the importance of 'Timing', and recognizing that pro bono projects might have more timing challenges than other projects, especially when working with multiple stakeholders. Knowing that we had more than six months to complete the project, we drew up seven steps for the project’s design process and showed the client dates for the approval and completion of each step. The seven steps started with “Approval of the Brief” and ended with “Sending the Final Files to VFF for Different Applications.”


The committee had already produced a lot of good background material including working and discussion papers. We asked a lot of questions, and the committee passed on their thoughts and concerns. Regular communication between designer and client helped the project move along smoothly and really cut down on our workload, as the project leader and committee worked alongside us during the research phase.


Building trust works.
The project leader acted as a liaison and helped us build a relationship with committee members. The trust we developed with each other meant N+N only needed to make two presentations: one of the VFF logo itself, and a second showing the VFF logo, the '25 Years' logo and combinations with the wordmark and how the branding could look on various materials. There were no re-dos, no revisions.


By addressing questions and concerns with the project leader, and sometimes the other committee members directly, we were able to get a feel for what they would be able to execute on their own once the design was established.


We provided final files that could be used on different promotional materials produced by the committee members themselves. It made sense for us to do so, as VFF have been running this event now for over 25 years and they've developed teams to execute regular promotions, which they have done quite successfully, using local printers and businesses. In a situation like this where so much promotional material is being produced on a regular basis, it would be too much of a time commitment for me to take it all on. As a designer, it made more sense to give them files I knew they could work with, and put myself in a position of being a trusted advisor. In a sense, this VFF project is (somewhat) like being hired by an in-house design team to help them with a specific project and then giving them appropriate files that they can continue with.


Few clients are exactly the same, but I’d advise “experienced" designers that they could do well by providing appropriate files and being in a position to advise where you have the time, as I did with VFF. The one exception would be if part of your objective for taking on the pro bono project is to win design awards for your own design firm. If this is your goal, it is best to let the client know up front, and you would need to create all related materials yourself. If you can find a client who sees design awards for the designer's firm as something that will help them meet their own objectives, great. 


In this case, VFF is interested in getting bums in seats, they enjoy doing their own creative and they support local businesses. 




The RGD Guide recommends that you outline your expectations regarding your intellectual property rights at the outset of the project, which is what we did. I also made it clear to VFF that I’d made a reasonable effort to ensure the new logo didn’t infringe on anyone else's rights.


I see transferring rights as a personal choice. Signing over intellectual rights can also be a good way of building trust and fostering positive relationships. It may also mean that someone I've done a pro bono logo for won't need to come back to me to take care of any future situations that might arise, if for example someone complains of copyright infringement down the road. 


If I believed a client could profit in the future (e.g. by licensing the rights of the logo design to someone else) I would likely not hand over the rights. Nor would I likely hand over rights to a for-profit client without charging a fee.


The main takeaway is that it is important for the designer to put down the agreement in writing, including making sure you maintain the right to use the design you've created to promote your work. 



Friday’s audience increased 30.9% over the previous year.
OK, I’ve spun this a bit to get your attention.
The VFF Committee wrote us:
“The largest increase occurred Friday – a whopping 30.9% over the previous year. The total number of audience members watching films at the 25th event went up 10.8% over the previous year. This is a significant increase.– while Saturday kept pace with 3.6% and Sunday demonstrated a healthy improvement of 10.6%. We’re in the black and all feedback was positive. With Nash+Nash’s contribution, VFF is turning into a professional organization with high aspirations.”



Another committee. Another logo.
During one of many conversations I had with the project leader he happened to mention the Marie Dressler Foundation had another Committee working to create a new film festival for documentaries. He said that committee had already decided on the name ReaRView, and liked the idea of reversing the direction of the second R. We explained it made sense to tie the look of the new logo to the new VFF logo, in some way. So we did.


ReaRView presents a unique opportunity to rediscover art as a force for change. Combining topical and timeless documentaries from 1935 to more recent times.




This was an enjoyable experience for us, as we had the chance to build on old relationships and develop new ones. We also received great exposure, as we were formally thanked for our work in front of the theatre audience, and the Nash+Nash logo is on VFF’s website.

My advice to other designers considering pro-bono work is to read and use the RGD Guide. I think it really can help you with this stuff. 


Click here to read 'A Graphic Designer's Guide to Pro Bono Work'.