02/04/2011 05:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power of Pro Bono

Just got back from a panel discussion tonight about the power of pro bono design and architecture and I can tell you that the pro bono movement of designing for good is gathering power. Around this time last year, Emily Pilloton of Project H Design appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss the idea of designing something that wasn't just good, but that would have a positive effect on the world. Colbert gave her hell -- as he does to most good people -- and his treatment made her ideas seem a little bit on the fringe.


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Ah, but that was then. This is now.

John Peterson, founder and chair of Public Architecture, moderated the panel I attended. Peterson makes a compelling argument for a simple idea.

Public Architecture asks architecture and design firms nationwide to pledge a minimum of 1 percent of their time to pro bono service.

Simple, right?  But powerful. There is certainly dollar value there -- some $25 million worth of donated services from Public Architecture's 1 percent program alone. But there is also human value. Peterson made the point tonight that architectural firms and their clients need to raise expectations about the value we all get back from pro bono work. Not all of it can be deposited in a bank.

As Peterson said in a recent interview he did for our film SHELTER, "the movement that we're seeing around design for the public good is really coming about because the design profession has a desire, sort of a pent up desire, to serve."

This desire gives rise to projects that are not only imaginative but necessary, too, like the Food Chain project by Robin Elmslie Osler and her architecture firm. The Food Chain project, which aims to play a role in eradicating hunger, is a series of ingenious vertical farming walls used for growing produce in urban areas. Other pro bono design stories are told in The Power of Pro Bono, a book about pro bono work from the perspective of both the architects and the clients. It's published by Metropolis Books.

As architect Eric Corey Freed put it in an interview with me for SHELTER:

"For centuries architecture was relegated to special buildings -- cathedrals, office buildings, skyscrapers. Many people assume that that was architecture, everything else is building. And what we seen is that we can create designs for the masses, designs that inspire, delight and bring joy to uplift people and uplift the soul. All the power of architecture could be made to reach everybody."

When you combine that uplifting power with the power of pro bono, you reveal a powerful force for positive change in the world. Design is unavoidable because it's everywhere and in everything. Why not design for good?