Even in a bull economy there are days (sometimes weeks) when things are slow. That's just the nature of things. And while you shouldn't take it personally, there are some ways you can take personal responsibility for what you do with the opportunity formerly known as down time. Assuming the proper authorities in your firm are busy being rainmakers (and assuming your résumé is up-to-date, you know, just in case), here's a simple thought about how to put those idle hands to something other than the devil's work:
Work for free.
You heard me. Give it away. I'm not talking about spec work or contests or becoming an anonymous, soulless, desperate and indistinguishable face in the expanding sea of the "sourced" crowd. No. Not unless you want to tear down the pillars of our profession and erode the very foundation of our information economy. I'm talking about the new spec workthe kind that speculates on your potential to do good rather than simply rolling some well-designed dice for your paycheck. I'm talking about changing the world, one person, neighborhood or cause at a time and I'm talking about doing it all for nothing. Trust me, it's easier than you think. Here are three ideas to get you started:
1,000 Free Postcards
Let's start with people. If your design firm is slow right now it might be because your clients are slow. If your clients are slow, maybe they've laid off a few people. Or more. That means more people looking for work, trolling the internet for odd jobs or freelance gigs and looking for opportunities anywhere they can get them. In less than an hour and for $0 cash, you can help. I call this project 1,000 Free Postcards. You can call it Project X or the Postcard Effect if you think it sounds cooler.
How it works: As print designers we often find that we have some left-over space on a press sheet. Rather than let that area go to waste, why not place an ad on Craigslist offering 1,000 free postcards (or whatever the quantity may be). The rules are simple: the recipient must be an individual looking for work. They must respond with all of their final content by 5pm the day of the posting, and tell you who their audience is and what they hope to accomplish. Keep it local. Make the selection however you want, but don't make people apply, pitch or beg for it.
Personally, I also think it's polite to email everyone back, either way. Now all you have to do is design a promotional postcard for them, throw it on the press sheet for that print job you're doing for one of your paying clients and in a week or two your new Craigslist friend will have a thousand or so beautiful biz dev tools to help them get back on their feetall courtesy of you, you beautiful stranger. My firm does this every time we have spare room on a press sheet. We offer it on a first come, first served basis, limit ourselves to one hour of design time, and make it clear from the outset that the "client" has no say in the design, we just promise to do a good job. Try it.
You can easily adapt this to create business cards or flyers or whatever. If you're not printing anything these days, the same process could apply to typesetting a résumé or making a PDF flyer (which they could photocopy themselves) or whatever. You get the idea. I'm not a web designer, but I'm guessing there's an online adaptation of this plan as well.
These days, most large cause-based non-profits have their visual act together. They're well-branded, focused and have crystal-clear messaging. When it comes to smaller groups with local concerns, however, the sophistication level plummets. Thankfully, you can help. Open your local or neighborhood paper, the yellow pages or just take a walk in your neighborhood. Look for the ugliest thing you can findmaybe it's a newspaper ad for a local benefit concert, a poster promoting your neighborhood library's upcoming book fair, or a website for a local charity event. Make sure it's for a cause or organization you truly care about. Call them. Tell them you're a designer and you'd like to offer them your services. Then do it. It's that easy.
Most designers, for most of their education and careers, have been trained to think of themselves as problem solvers. True. But that doesn't mean we can't seek out the problems we want to solve too; there's no law that says that you have to be part of an organization to take on a cause you're passionate about. In my home state for instance, there is a law that denies equal rights to same-sex couples. Supporters of equal rights are finding inventive ways to raise money to support the campaign to overturn this law. One San Francisco designer created a beautiful and compelling t-shirt proclaiming "I am Californian for Equal Rights." He sells them online and on street corners and donates the proceeds to the campaign. He didn't ask for permission, he just adopted the cause. It took a little cash to buy and screen the shirts, but the popularity of the design has already helped him recoup all of his initial outlay. T-shirts are pretty easy to design and produce, but posters, books, and other creative products are also well within your grasp. Consider talking to your printer or screen printer to see if they're willing to offer you a discount (or perhaps even partner with you). You'll probably be surprised by how much support people will offer.