It’s OK to do well while doing good

For six years, I designed websites for Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian relief and development nonprofit. I was Doing Good.

I was also Doing Well. I made a healthy salary. Maybe a little less than if I’d have stayed at a software shop or a creative agency, but not much. And, disclosure: before I started at Mercy Corps I was working for a gigantic clothing company in China. A shop. Where people sweated. You get the picture.

I left Mercy Corps two years ago, but somehow I have contrived to keep clients whose net effect in the world is positive: credit unions, schools, nonprofits. I do well while I’m doing good. So, yay me.

Dewy-eyed Bucks fresh out of college often strike up acquaintances with me (some might call it “networking”). They look for insight into getting a Job That Makes A Difference. They think, as perhaps I once thought, that “making a difference” means “working for a nonprofit.” Surely any noble, socially-valuable task implies penury? How can anyone turning a profit possibly make the world a better place?

Didja see that “Making a Difference One App at Time” Apple ad yet? Watch it, I dare you not to cry. The dude making apps that adjust prosthetic feet? I bet he’s turning a profit. And the app that lets the nonverbal kid talk to his mom? I bet they paid money for it. The world needs more Good Things, desperately, and the crazy thing about capitalism is that people also pay money for Good Things, too.

Grizzled Old Hands with long resumés from ad agencies also “network” me. Their needs are subtler than the bucks’. Often it comes in the form of offers to do work pro bono for one of my charity connections. The Old Hands have a nagging sense that touting cheez-doodles isn’t Making the World Better, that the world has enough cheez-doodles. So they want to Give Back.

The kids in Group A refuse to sell cheez-doodles, so surely they must live like monks? And the old hands in Group B refuse to live like monks, so they must sell cheez-doodles?

Let’s square that circle.

Dewy-eyed Bucks in Group A:

It’s OK to make money designing stuff for businesses. The credit union (or nail salon, or corner brewpub, or your cousin the massage therapist, or yes even a saving-the-world nonprofit) needs an app and a website and a logo and buckslips and Twitter wallpaper too. Corollary: don’t do this for free. If your clients stand even the remotest chance of lasting five years they know the value of those things, and they are willing to pay cold hard fungible cash for them.

Grizzled Old Hands in Group B:

If the cheez-doodles bug you that much, stop selling cheez-doodles. The Perfect is the enemy of the Good, right? Didn’t you read that in a Steven Heller book somewhere? Pro bono work for the Rescue Mission won’t undoodle the cheez. Here’s an easy litmus test: if it feels wrong, it probably is.

Waitwait, Paul, some people have to sell cheez-doodles, right? Because the Economy? Because they have babies to feed?

Yeah, I get it. I just spent two months buying health insurance and I know not to confuse the evil machine with the human beings who answer its phones. And I have three babies. Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

But listen: bend once, and someone will ask you to bend again. And then again. That’s how designers wind up with portfolios full of cheez-doodles. If you really have babies to feed and no one else will hire you (really?), pinch your nose and shill the cheez-doodles. But don’t fool yourself that someone won’t notice that you’re only working with one hand.

I worked with one hand like this once. I turned out a design for perfume for four year-olds. (Geez that’s concentrated evil in a bottle right there, ain’t it?) My heart wasn’t in it, and it showed in my work. The creative director pulled me off the project. After that no asked for my take on the Big Sneaker Company Job or the Gigantic International Bank Conglomerate Job or the MegaLowMart Contract — flashy jobs the other designers brutalized one another to win. I didn’t miss those projects; fifteen years later I count myself lucky that I might be the only designer in this town who hasn’t worked for the Big Sneaker Company. Lucky because the CD recognized right away that I was designing with one hand and started to throw me low-profile projects. I did a design for the local natural gas company and it was awesome.

Everything you want to work on, work on it with both hands. Let someone else sell the cheez-doodles, with both hands.