In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in both dialogue and action in the area described variously as socially responsible design, public interest design, skills-based volunteering, reduced fee or pro-bono design.

We are all familiar with the great organizations that launched efforts in this work many years ago; organizations such as Public Architecture and the 1% program and Architecture for Humanity to name just two.

These groups have pushed hard to increase the impact of work whose primary emphases include: providing access to the benefits of design to those who would not otherwise have that access; helping the general public to understand the potential for design to improve life and advance culture; and providing innovative solutions to local and global challenges.

While organizations such as these have been working hard for years, it seems that in the last five years there has been a significant increase in the number of individuals and firms who have committed to taking major steps to integrate this work and this set of concerns into their practices.

There are many forces at play that could together explain this explosion of interest and action such as the 2008 economic meltdown which resulted in staggering job losses and dramatic reductions in funding support. At the same time we had a growing number of young professionals who deeply care about global challenges and social equity. This care focuses on the disenfranchised, whether the under privileged or, in the case of environmental sustainability, future generations.

Our story, the story of The Open Hand Studio, began in 2008. Since then I have had the privilege of diving into this subject with my Cannon Design colleagues. In the course of this article I will share with you some of the experiences, observations and lessons learned in our pro bono journey. In my 35 years of practice I have never seen such brilliant and positive energy as I have seen in the cause of socially responsible design. We are fortunate to have a generation of young professionals that not only believes that it can move the needle on global challenges, but that it must and it will.

Never Don’t Meet

In 2008 we gathered a small group in our office in Chicago, a group that had shown strong interest in active engagement in the world beyond our walls. We talked about the possibility of taking on a large pro bono project. While there was some interest in the idea we spent time reflecting our firm’s stated purpose, which includes a mandate to improve life and advance culture wherever we work. In order to do that we must have a deep understanding of the contexts in which people live and work. These contexts include the social/cultural, economic, environmental and historic. So rather than taking on a single large project, we set out to connect with our communities more broadly and deeply over the long haul, perhaps in a way that offered our clients, our colleagues and our communities a greater benefit in our engagement. 

We determined that it would be more meaningful and compelling if we could organize a program/movement that would benefit many organizations and involve many people for many years; a program that would become integral with our practice, not peripheral or relegated to the “department of good”. We also knew that historically these initiatives have a tendency to ebb and flow. We committed to flow only, no ebb. To do this we set a regular meeting every two weeks. We agreed that we would not miss the meeting. Even if we had not gotten done what we had hoped to get done. We would always move forward, even if slowly. This simple rule has been a critical key to our progress.

And so the founding of Open Hand Studio, a virtual studio, a movement, a dialogue, a call to action. We initiated the movement with a three-pronged approach:

  1. We set up a system to connect individuals with local organizations such as Public Architecture and Architecture for Humanity that bridged the gap between design professionals and organizations and communities with needs. Those interested and able could then work through these groups to find opportunities to serve.
  2. We initiated group activities to expand the base of involved design professionals within and beyond our firm and sought ways to connect them with organizations and communities with needs.
  3. We established a process to target and assess potential clients for pro bono projects. In this effort, we limited our focus to organizations that needed our service and could not otherwise accomplish the work. For this work we developed contract forms and a rigorous go/no go decision process.

During our first two years a rather remarkable array of opportunities came our way. We concentrated on those opportunities that arose with organizations we knew well from our established network. For the most part, these projects were not traditional “bricks and mortar” projects, but ranged from marketing, to strategic planning, to performance assessments.  Examples include a development brochure for the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, a design toolkit for the KIPP Schools, and a facilities maintenance plan for the Hyde Park Art Center.

As we looked back over our first two years we were stunned by the variety of subject matters and organizations we had served. No two even remotely alike. All required inventive approaches. This raised questions about our ultimate purpose and the untapped value potential of our work. We felt it was time to assess our progress and look to the future to increase and improve our impact. 

We turned to the Taproot Foundation to help us. Taproot has organized a significant national team of volunteer professionals and linked them with clients with serious needs for their services. Taproot also consults with many of America’s major corporations to assist them in the development and advancement of their skills-based volunteer programs.

The Business Case

We asked Taproot to do three things with us. We asked them to facilitate our Open Hand Studio Forum, our first ever gathering of Open Hand leaders from most of our North American offices. We asked them to interview our pro bono clients to get open feedback regarding our performance and the actual impact of our work on the organizations. And we asked them to help us to effectively articulate the business case for this work and think creatively about ways to move to the next level.

The feedback from our clients was very informative. It was much more than testimonials and gave us valuable insight for the improvement of our impact. Taproot also shared with us their “Business Case for Pro Bono”, five fundamental aspects of this work that have brought and will continue to bring value to our practice. We matched these with key examples from our pro bono experience as illustrations of the business case: 


Leveraged Impact – The Multiplier Effect

  • Increase the value of your support to community organizations and individuals while also increasing the magnitude of impact that your community partners have —“the multiplier effect.”
  • Enable nonprofit organizations to expand their impact by building their organizational capacity, lowering operating costs and increasing efficiencies.
  • Nurture a full spectrum of community engagement for maximum impact: “extra-hands” activities (Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together), mentoring and coaching (ACE Mentoring), and pro bono (individual and team opportunities).
  • Share your knowledge and expertise of design practices to inform, educate, and improve the organizations that serve the surrounding community.
  • Teach nonprofit clients about the importance of good design during project work and enable them to apply their learning to future work and organizational needs.

Enhanced Corporate Citizenship and Reputation

  • Pro bono service deepens your reputation as a good corporate citizen.
  • Reinforce your firm’s values and vision through creative problem solving and commitment to community improvement.
  • Foster and grow connections with firms or other associations focused on improvement through design.
  • Improve visibility, reputation and connection within the community, including to local government
  • Nonprofit clients who received pro bono services cited a desire to return to the team and firm for future paid design work.


As the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network prepares for significant expansion in both quantity and in new models of elementary schools, they were in need of design guidance that would be useful for a wide range of space opportunities. 

Under the project management of Public Architecture (PA), Cannon Design pooled information from the KIPP network to create a learning environment guide that will be useful in all locations.

The goal is to provide a highly flexible framework which will be applicable KIPP as an evolving organization with a diversity of facilities needs in an extensive network of schools. Through joint work with Public Architecture, the project team was able to strengthen its relationship with PA and showcase its depth of knowledge to both PA and KIPP Foundation. The finished guide was shared through the KIPP network and is available as a free public download from the  PA website. The broad distribution will reach many individuals across the design and education professions, showcasing Cannon Design’s expertise as well as the firm’s commitment to community engagement and improvement.

Human Resource Benefits

  • Enables employees to apply company expertise in a new forum.
  • Builds leadership, project management, and communication skills through working on a new and different challenge.
  • Reinvigorates commitment and energy to an employee’s “day job.”
  • Provide opportunities for demonstration of leadership and skill-building outside of normal job duties.
  • 66 percent of the Gen Y workforce reports that they would prefer to work at a company that provides opportunities to apply their skills to benefit nonprofit organizations.
  • 97 percent of MBA graduates said they were willing to forgo financial benefits to work for an organization with a better reputation for corporate social responsibility and ethics.


At risk of losing funding, the Chicago based family services organization Family Focus needed to add an elevator for accessibility to their 1920’s building in order to continue to serve children, teens, and families in the suburban Chicago area. Family Focus came to Cannon Design through the Open Hand Studio for help in evaluating the existing building and in designing an elevator for the social service agency that was functional, attractive and financially responsible.

Since the completion of the work, Family Focus and the other non profits that share their space have noted increased traffic in the building and greater attendance at their many programs. Cannon Design team members honed their design skills to solve a critical community challenge.

An architect from Cannon Design who worked on the Family Focus project team described the experience as one that “reinforced why he became an architect in the first place — to help people through the power of good design.” By pairing teams with clients who otherwise would not have access to the caliber of service that Cannon Design offers, employees benefit by seeing how their work can truly transform lives of individuals in the community. As a result, they approach their normal workload with renewed excitement and energy.


Improved Collaboration and Communication

  • Reinforces collaboration through increased interactions among colleagues in different locations.
  • Helps to breakdown silos and nurture internal communication across divisions and geographies.
  • Poses new and different challenges to project teams (e.g. restrictive budgets, tight timeframes, unique and specific end users, etc.) and requires creative problem solving.
  • Builds and strengthens relationships between employees and teams.
  • Provides increased ability for departments to be “in service” to one another.
  • Provides employees with visibility into different aspects of the company and its employee base that they might not otherwise see as part of their daily job responsibilities.
  • Managers felt that their employees improved their job-related skills as a result of the pro bono experience, including client interaction skills, leadership skills and oral presentation skills; and employees added networking to that list.


For over a year, Cannon Design staff looked out the windows of their Washington, D.C. area office and saw a dormant demolition site. When community development organization Rosslyn Renaissance proposed a beautification project that would turn a corner of the site into public space, Cannon Design presented an even bigger vision — a temporary urban plaza constructed by the community, for the community. 

The local Cannon team tapped into their networks and leveraged their resources in collaboration with public organizations, property developer JGB Companies, landscape architects, and local schools to design and construct a vibrant space for the Rosslyn community.

What once was a vacant, fenced-in lot is now CentralSpace — a colorful square with shade structures, a rain garden, and a stage for summer concerts. While the plaza is temporary, its construction allowed the Cannon team to build partnerships in the community and collaborate with those partners in the spirit of a “single firm, multi-office” practice approach. In addition, Cannon Design received recognition in the community for being a firm that practices sustainable design and exceeds expectations.

Opportunity for Innovation

  • Enables employees to question assumptions and sharpen skills.
  • Apply your firm’s expertise in a new forum.
  • Apply employees’ skills in a new and challenging environment — learn about new clients, geographies, sectors and leadership styles.
  • Introduce fresh perspective and expertise to address persistent challenges.
  • Bring the power and productivity of the private and public sector together to create social innovation.


Hyde Park Art Center inherited a major facility from the University of Chicago in 2005 — a former army warehouse dated in the 1940’s — enabling them to drastically grow their programs and services through the additional space. The new space came with the responsibility of building maintenance and operations, and the organization needed a better understanding of upcoming facility needs to plan for the many expected costs. Through Open Hand Studio, Cannon Design delivered a Facility Condition Assessment and Capital Needs Report to help Hyde Park Art Center budget for the improvement and maintenance of their building for the next 20 years.

The Open Hand Studio team provided needed expertise to their pro bono client while exploring new business offerings in renovation forecasting and LEED certification for existing buildings. Having the report allowed the Hyde Park Arts Center to bring specific maintenance needs to the attention of the board of directors and enabled them to make a plan for raising the necessary funds. By calling out the areas that required immediate attention, Cannon Design saved the nonprofit from compounded expenses down the road. Because a sudden, unexpected construction need could decimate the organization’s budget, this report ensures the Hyde Park Arts Center can have the resources in place to maximize the use of the facility for years to come.

The National Dialogue

In the past year we have found ourselves participating in a number of meetings and conferences focused on the growing movement in public interest, socially responsible design. It seems that all professions and organizations of all sizes are wrestling with the challenges and opportunities associated with “corporate social responsibility.” But I feel fortunate that, as design professionals, we are uniquely equipped to use our core skills in service. The dialogues we have been involved in have added valuable new perspective, informing our efforts and helping us to advance.

Engaging the Nation’s Business Professionals

The Taproot Foundation leads the national dialogue on professional pro bono service, largely partnering with significant American companies to help lead, mobilize and engage their pro bono service programs. Occasionally, Taproot brings together corporate philanthropy and human resources leaders from major corporations for knowledge sharing in the pro bono realm. Recent conversations we have participated in tackled the state of pro bono today, challenges with the integration of HR and philanthropy, perspectives on growth, and the issue of non-profit readiness. I have found it interesting — though perhaps not surprising — that there is some doubt that, through our efforts, we can move the needle on global challenges. 

The value for most businesses seems to reside primarily in the HR (recruitment/retention) and PR realms. It is also true that, with many of these corporations, the skills based volunteering that they offer cannot be directly related to the work of the corporation itself. So it tends to fall more into the category of corporate social responsibility, good citizenship or “giving back.” In the design world it seems that in the most compelling instances, pro bono is about moving the needle on global challenges. In the design world, because our services are directly related to our core work, we also have an opportunity to apply the thinking, the processes and the learning throughout all of our work since one might say that all of our work is “pro bono, i.e., “for good.”

It’s Not About Issues in Isolation

At a recent Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design, in addition to a remarkable series of presentations and discussions on environmental sustainability, topics such as Leadership Toward 2030: What We Are Learning About Our Biggest Challenges, by Ed Mazria, we also covered significant topics in the  realm of social sustainability such as Reimagining Civic Engagement in the Inner City, Why is Capital Afraid of Cities, and, Open Hand Studio: Integral Social Engagement. Increasingly we are seeing the subject of sustainability becoming a holistic subject. This reinforces the notion that increasing knowledge of the variety of contexts — social/cultural, environmental, economic, and political — will no doubt increase our ability to tackle daunting global challenges. This also strongly reinforces the importance of deep and broad collaboration. To take on these challenges we need to incorporate thought leaders in many areas of expertise.

Access: …

The issue of design access has infiltrated the national dialogue in recent months.

At a recent conversation convened by Public Architecture and the University of Minnesota College of Design with Tandus Flooring, designers, not f profits, and funders came together to review innovative solutions to solve complex problems within underserved populations. Highlights of these conversations included the awareness that these solutions remain isolated and limited. 

Together these meetings reveal a number of recurring subjects related to pro bono work. Each discussion adds valuable perspective which helps us better understand this complex subject and formulate our own plans for the next stages of the Open Hand Studio.

1. Resources

We all realize that this work can be resource intensive. If scaling these efforts is important, then we have to be inventive, we have to re-imagine the deployment of resources. Of course it was noted that this issue is central to all of our project work.

2. Service Delivery

As design professionals, we are relatively inexperienced at serving the underserved. Likewise, those with need of our service typically have no experience with the process of design and little understanding of the benefits it can bring. Much of our work in this area, then, must be focused on “client readiness.” Up front assistance, where there is little or no risk yet great value comprises a large portion of the work.

3. Measuring  Effectiveness

If we want the support of stakeholders in underserved communities, we need to be able to show the beneficial results of good design approaches. Much of the impact is defined through anecdotal evidence. When is it necessary and useful to find quantitative data?

4. A Common Definition of Socially Responsible Design

There is continued debate about the definition of design with some stressing visual impact and others stressing a broader and more inclusive definition. There is also a growing issue in the broad and expanding definitions of this work, from community design, creative placemaking, humanitarian design, public interest design, social impact design to name a few. Perhaps a barrier to increased impact lies in our inability to describe this work.

5. Professional Credentialing of Public Interest Design

Is there a value to the profession and the client in which we serve, to evolve — much as the medical and legal professions have — to a model where engaging in pro bono or community based work might require a varied skill set? Would this skill set be credentialed through a formal education process?


High on our list of interests is finding ways to increase our impact. This is driven by a couple of thoughts. The first is the simple notion that if some of this work is good, more is better. The second is that, as proud as we are of what we are doing, the more we do, the more aware we become of the incredible magnitude of the need. We have initiated a few programs outside and inside the walls of our office to help us advance.

Engaging With Other Architects and Professionals in Our City

To do this, we are working with Archeworks, Chicago’s alternative, socially focused design school, we developed a beta test program under the umbrella of a new Archeworks Institute. The first program, a four part seminar for senior design professionals entitled The Search for New Practice and hosted by The Graham Foundation, brought 20 firm representatives together to explore the ways we might further integrate pro bono work into our practices. 

We shared information and ideas about the current state of the subject in our firms; we presented and discussed a series of four case studies representing a wide range of projects and approaches; we then wrestled with the nitty gritty scope, legal, and risk issues; and, in our last session we collaboratively solved a hypothetical challenge, discussed the potential benefits and methods to network among ourselves, and considered the future evolution of the Archeworks Institute. We are hoping to work with other organizations such as the AIA and to continue collaboration with the Design Futures Council to reach a broader portion of the architectural profession.

Bridging the Gap Between Non-Profits and Design Professionals

In the spirit of more is better, we have pioneered an event, the first of which was hosted in Chicago in 2010, called Meet and Match. Simply put, the event is a celebration of community-based design which offers an opportunity for design professionals and non-profit, community based organizations to meet face-to-face and match design needs with design services. Our partners in this effort have included local and national organizations dedicated to bridging the gap between non-profits and design professionals.

At the first event, through our extended networks in Chicago, we brought together a group of design firms who are active in the pro bono realm along with a group of not for profits with a range of design needs. During the course of an afternoon and evening at the Hyde Park Art Center we held a workshop which included presentations of project examples to familiarize the not for profits with the available services and firms that they could tap as resources. During the evening, several matches occurred which have resulted in the implementation of some great projects. As mentioned above, growing awareness of the magnitude of the need has caused us to continue this event, with one planned to occur in San Francisco in the fall of 2012.

… and Next.

Perhaps the best opportunity to increase our impact is in our own firm. We have developed a firm wide network of passionate professionals and confer on a monthly basis. As I am sure is true with many firms, these conversations reveal a surprising level of activity and interest about which we were simply unaware. An excellent way to build enthusiasm is simply to make ourselves aware of the many good things happening. 

In 2012 we convened our second annual Open Hand Studio North American Forum at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. As might be expected, we took a glance back at what we’d accomplished in the past year and raised a glass in celebration. But, more important, we  looked to the future. And as we looked strategically forward, we saw an Open Hand Studio that continues to both evolve our practice and empower our clients — and the public — to join us in enhancing human life.

Open Hand Studio will continue to advance in ways that make our firm’s vision robust. We’ll continue to tackle barriers to design access, become more critically engaged in community based and explore ways to create sustainable social change in our communities. But a question we continually wrestle with is how we can incorporate Open Hand thinking and processes into all of our work. Perhaps lurking in all of this is the possibility of a Hippocratic Oath for design. Energy is building.