Member News October 22, 2014
Graphic designers, like most professional creatives, invest untold hours in their craft. Years of schooling — both formal training and the school of life —, and untold hours hunched over workspaces and tablets. One layout, two layouts, a thousand layouts, all to get that perfect logo concept… only to crumple it up and start again. The pitching, the bitching, the fight to make your one shining gem see the light of day.
Why the hell would you want to just give it away?
Giving work away, however, is exactly how ADC Member Matthew Manos makes his living. He’s the Founder and Managing Partner of verynice, the Los Angeles/New York/Austin based design firm whose very business model consists of providing 50% of its services to non-profit organizations for free. It’s been such a successful model that Matthew et al. decided to share the methods of their madness in a book entitled “How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free“
With the second edition of “How to Give Half…” launching this week, ADC chatted with Matthew about how it all began, and more importantly… why?
Where did this crazy journey begin? What was the spark that kindled your love of art and design?
My parents enrolled me in art classes as a child, and I guess I always had an interest in art. I was particularly fascinated with abstract art, basically making a mess on a canvas (laughs)
Once I got to high school, I took fine art a little more seriously, but I also stumbled upon a class in “digital art”, which was their way of saying “design”. At the same time, I had a godmother in Australia who was working in design, and she sent me a pirated copy of Photoshop. This allowed me to practice at home and get really into it.
When did you start to think that this could actually be a career of some sort?
That’s an interesting story. I have been into skateboarding since I was four, and when I was sixteen I met this guy in a wheelchair at this Bay area skate park. He was the founder of a non-profit organization that taught handicapped children how to participate in extreme sports. This was the first time I had met anyone doing anything like that before, and I was so inspired that I volunteered to design some stickers for him.
That said, back then my mentality was like “oh, this is cool! I can do art for people.” It was more for fun. I got to do things like wedding invitations for family friends, which opened my eyes to the possibility of making this career, if not the reality of a career.
“This was the first time I had met anyone doing anything like that before, and I was so inspired that I volunteered to design some stickers for him.”
But surely this is where the seeds of verynice’s business model were planted. How did those seeds sprout?
I went on to study design at UCLA, and that was very helpful, but outside of class I was volunteering for a wide range of different student groups. My volunteering tended to come in the form of designing posters, flyers and websites for these groups.
Now one thing about all of these groups is that their leaders would graduate and move onto jobs in the real world. Many of them took on marketing positions, and I found that they’d come back to me with freelance projects. This experience made me think that I could start my own company.
Starting a business is one thing. Creating a new business model is something else, particularly for creative, non-business types. How did you decide that pro bono was a viable path?
(laughs) Well design school doesn’t really teach you anything about how the business side of things works. Before I branched out on my own I took on a number of internships in agencies and studios to see how they operated.
Those internships really opened my eyes to the necessity of a new model to assist non-profits with their work. I quickly noticed that companies either charged non-profits similar rates as their big clients, or they’d take on pro bono work but not give it the same level of importance. This disillusionment strengthened my resolve to do things differently.
“Funny, back then I don’t even think I knew what the phrase ‘pro bono’ was! I wanted to do everything ‘for free.'”
How did you settle on verynice’s model of 50% paid work, 50% pro bono work?
There was some trial and error, but it was also part of me growing up and maturing as a person. I started the company when I was nineteen, and back then I thought I could do 100% pro bono work. Funny, back then I don’t even think I knew what the phrase “pro bono” was! (laughs) I wanted to do everything “for free.”
Of course I had to grow up and figure out how to make a living. I started to feel afraid that verynice would have to become a side project, something I did at night while I worked a real job in an ad agency or something. That prospect didn’t sound too appealing, but I still wanted to find a way to be able to make an impact for non-profit organizations. So moved from 100% to 90% to 70% before finally settling on 50%.
I feel that 50% has a nice, philosophical ring to it. If you’re dedicating half of your time to giving back to the world, all of a sudden its no longer an extracurricular activity, it’s an integral part of who you are.
“If you’re dedicating half of your time to giving back to the world, all of a sudden it’s no longer an extracurricular activity, it’s an integral part of who you are.”
How do you strike that balance? You said it yourself, many agencies and shops take on pro bono accounts but don’t give it their full attention…
That was a very big question for me, as I really wanted to find a way to make it work. I came to the realization that if I wanted to give half of my work away for free, I’d have to do twice as much work as a regular studio if I wanted to do just as well as them. So then the challenge was how could I do such a high volume of work without going crazy? (laughs)
The answer ended up being open to collaboration. I like to call it “social production”. We have a relatively small staff, but we tap into a network of over 350 contractors, freelancer and volunteers from all over the world, who work with us on a per-project basis. If it’s a non-profit client, they’re essentially volunteering their services, and if it’s a paying client, they’re contracting their services.
That really became the magic of making this model work. We have an abundance of resources without ridiculous overhead.
Is there a flipside to pro bono clients feeling neglected in a traditional agency model? Do paying clients wonder “wait a sec, we’re paying for this, why aren’t we getting more attention!?”?
I had a fear of that once, but it turns out that some paid clients work with us because they support what we do for non-profits. They know that their money directly and indirectly affects these worthy causes. This helps us attract the very type of client we’d want to work with, both paid and pro bono.
So now you don’t just have verynice’s model, you’re also teaching it to the world by way of Give Half. Did you have any idea you’d be such ambassador of your model?
(laughs) Not at all! In fact, so many things along my career path have come as a surprise to me.
In 2010 and 2011, as verynice started to get more press, the number one question people would ask was “how do you give away half of your work for free?” Initially the tone of that question implied “why on earth would you want to do that?!”, but soon that question was asked by people who wanted to do the same thing.
And so my role at verynice began to change, and I started mentoring people about best practices in pro bono, based on what we learned over the years. Eventually we just decided to write all that stuff down, and that’s how our book “How To Give Half of Your Work Away for Free” was born.
The first edition was released at the end of 2013, and we just released the second edition this week. It’s much more robust than the first edition, and instead of just being authored by me, this new one has stories from others who have started “give half” companies of their own.
What would you tell somebody considering a similar model?
You have to explore the advantages to doing pro bono work. Pro bono clients tend to be more open to being adventurous, so if there is something you’ve always wanted to do, a new strategy you’ve wanted to try, these are the companies that will more likely trust you to execute these things. They are also more likely to give you more creative freedom, which can be very rewarding.
Have you kept in touch with your friend from the skate park, the one who started you on this path towards the greater good?
Unfortunately no, and that in itself is a story. He had to shut down his non-profit organization due to lack of funding. That alone illustrates the importance of helping non-profits out every way we can.
Are you an ADC Member with a cool project you’d like to share with the world? Contact Brett McKenzie, ADC Content Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not yet an ADC Member? Join today!