Most design firms face a common challenge in their early days: their portfolios aren’t extensive enough to readily get work. Without experience, it can be tough to convince clients that a young firm is right for the job. This catch-22 situation doesn’t necessarily spin on forever, but it can be a frustrating trap to escape.
One way to shake the stigma is to create strategic partnerships. Whether it’s with another, more established firm, with a university on a research project, or with a nonprofit on pro bono work, the right partner can help a rookie firm get that first bit of professional momentum.
It’s an approach that helped partners Brandon Marshall, AIA, and Tiffany Redding, AIA, get the first job for their new El Cerrito, Calif.–based firm, FOG Studio. Shortly after launching in 2013, they collaborated with San Francisco firm Mark Davis Design to bid for a library renovation project—the type of educational and institutional work both Marshall and Redding had done before setting out on their own. And though most of Mark Davis’s work up to that point had been residential and commercial projects, his firm had the benefit of being established, with built projects under its belt. Davis, AIA “added some legitimacy to our team immediately,” Marshall says.
And while that legitimacy wasn’t the only factor, it did help them win the bid. “It was about selling that idea that neither of us [alone] might be your choice, but collectively we’re a pretty talented team,” Marshall says.
To enrich its portfolio, FOG Studio has also been taking on pro bono work. They’ve partnered with Education for Change Public Schools, which operates charter schools in the Bay Area. FOG Studio worked with the group on a new middle school in Oakland, providing interior program design and visual branding.
“For us, it was no skin off of our back, other than devoting some time, which you have a lot of when you’re starting your business,” Marshall says. “Obviously, you’re just trying to find ways to build.” He acknowledges that it can be a challenge for a new firm to devote time and energy without any chance of remuneration, but says that this type of work can provide rewards in other, perhaps longer-term, ways.
“It’s all going toward the same goal of developing your firm and creating more exposure, developing a relationship with somebody that has connections with an industry that maybe we’re trying to get into or a market we’re trying to get into,” Marshall says.
FOG Studio partnered with Education for Change Public Schools through San Francisco–based advocacy group Public Architecture’s 1% Pro Bono Design Program, an initiative to encourage architects to dedicate 1 percent of their billable hours to pro bono projects. The organization asks firms to pledge to donate some time—they estimate about 20 hours per person per year—and then helps connect them with community organizations or nonprofits in need of design services. Director Amy Ress says these kinds of partnerships are mutually beneficial.
“In order to not be seen by the public as only reserved for the most elite of our society, in order for the profession to continue and to grow, we need to tap into the social sector,” Ress says. “It’s an area that’s not really explored by the profession in a deep way.” She argues that partnering with organizations and doing pro bono work can be a great way for new architecture firms to provide their own legitimacy. “It can be really a good thing for a firm starting out, if they can do a pro bono project that gets built,” Ress says. “It’s a way to build a portfolio.”
Donating services to a nonprofit can also help out with a new firm’s marketing. Marshall says that FOG Studio’s pro bono work has actually led to paying work, sometimes in unexpected ways. When a relative of an official at the middle school needed help with a home renovation, FOG got the job. “It was kind of marketing by proxy,” he says. “To us, the priority started with doing what we wanted to do, but it ended up being good exposure.”
Note: This article has been updated to correct Amy Ress's title to director of the 1% Pro Bono Design Program.