October 23, 2012

For this installment of our Webby Connect series we’re spotlighting a talent who knows all about social good.

Founder of graphic and website design studio Illusio Design, Chuck Spidell has been slaying pixels for over 13 years. And slinging pen and paper for even longer.

We were fortunate to talk to him and ask how in the heck he went from traditional agency guy to the CD running a studio that specializes in not-for-profits and companies with a cause.

"One of the first non-profit projects I ever worked on was for the Sierra Club’s Ventana Chapter back in 2000. it’s funny because they're still using my design from more than 10 years ago! That project was a lot of fun for me, and I’d have to say that's what really got me into the whole environmental scene. I'd always been a big hiker and doing work for them fit into my own personal beliefs about wanting to do things for the environment."

Ten years later he had a bigger epiphany. Illusio Design was working with the humanitarian organization CARE to create a website to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake. He remembers, "Working on that project was very intense. We were designing during the Haiti disaster, and I was being sent photographs from CARE in real time. I'm at my computer looking at the these high-quality, professional images of despair: these women, children and their families. When you see pictures like that you can't help but feel helpless, that there's nothing you can do."

It was then that it came to him, "I CAN help these people. If I design something that's really strategic and compels people to want to help, then I'm successful. The money is going to get back to and help the people of Haiti.”

He remembers, “It was during that project that I learned, as corny as it sounds, that design can save the world."

Obviously, it had a huge impact on his life. Chuck remarked, "After that I was hooked. I thought, 'I want to do more projects like this, I want to do more work for non-profits. There's thousands, hundreds of thousands of non-profits out there that need help with branding, and it's just a matter of finding them. Or them finding us.'"

It didn’t take long. With some work on their part, of course. While attending a networking event for sustainable businesses called EcoTuesday, he discovered CivicActions, a company that specializes in creating Drupal websites for clients with a social mission. How he found them is a story that most designers will appreciate. He loved the design of the EcoTuesday site so much that he wanted to find out who created it. It was CivicActions. After checking out their site and finding out that their clients include Amnesty International, Smithsonian Institute, and Democracy Now!, he knew he needed to pitch his studio’s work to them, which he did the next day.

A month later he received an email back from the CivicActions team and not long after he was working with them on a site redesign for a Columbia University’s Global Master's in Development Practice (MDP) program. A full non-profit funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the MDP program has students setting up irrigation in Rwanda, combating food insecurity in Ethiopia, and improving literacy in Bolivia.

Since that first project, CivicActions and Illusio have formed an ongoing relationship, working together on projects for BikeNYC, Privacy International, and Lambent Foundation.

When asked how he finds his clients, aside from going to networking groups, he said he’s found more than one client on Twitter. In fact, he's found more than one RFP on Twitter. Though he pointed out, no one can answer an RFP in under 140 characters. Aside from that it’s about getting a great site together and making sure clients can find your work using savvy SEO.

Though Chuck treats his for profit and not for profit clients exactly the same (which is to say that he always provides the best work he can), he finds that the motivation is different when dealing with non-profits. He said, “For those clients, there's a bigger mission. This is real life and these are real people who are oftentimes in dire situations. There's something very tangible about that. That knowledge absolutely changes the motivation behind the work you're doing."

Even running his own studio and raising a family, he still finds the time to volunteer. He's currently revamping the website for Depave, whose mission is removing unnecessary pavement in urban areas to create community green spaces. He and his wife also helped brand their local farmers market. He said, "We redesigned their website, created billboards, posters, buttons, whatever we could. It's really important to give back to your community when you have time or make the time for it. It’s great to get away from your own worries for a while, have fun, and help someone else out. Again that's the whole tangible thing about working with non-profits."

His advice to anyone who'd like to follow in his footsteps?

"If you want to work with non-profits, start locally. Look them up and study their missions and goals, and find something that speaks to you. Go to one of their projects and see what they do. If you feel strongly about what you see, tell them you want to volunteer." He suggests that if you can't do afford to do pro-bono work, tell them you'll give them a discount on the work you’ll do for their organization. And once you've gotten work with one non-profit, others will see your stuff and follow."

He did want to make sure we also passed along this final point: “When you do work for non-profits, even if you’re doing it pro-bono, make sure the work is the best work you can do. Treat them with the same level of integrity that you do for your for-profit clients. They deserve it.”


Thanks again to Chuck (and his family) for his time to spread a little more social good!

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