David Rockwell
Sioux Nesse David Rockwell

As founder and chief executive of the New York–based Rockwell Group, David Rockwell, 55, presides over a 140-person firm engaged in wide-ranging assignments, from theatrical designs for Broadway shows and the Oscars telecast to more traditional design and architecture assignments in hospitality and retail. Rockwell and his staff still find time for a raft of pro bono projects—long-term work that underscores their commitment to serving the community. They have designed school libraries, mobile food trucks, and New York City’s widely acclaimed Imagination Playground, among many other projects. Rockwell talks to architect about the power of pro bono and the best way that firms can carry the torch of doing good.

Find a place for pro bono.
Architects can have a bigger impact on society. They can make a difference by using the power of creativity to help others—specifically, through unbillable hours. So figure out how to find the time, Rockwell says, and integrate that into how the studio operates.

Make it real.
There are many opportunities for pro bono, he believes. Sometimes you are approached about projects that grab your attention. Or you go out and find a cause. But choose a project that affects you most deeply. “Make sure it is tangible and relevant to you and has a personal connection,” Rockwell says. “You usually don’t have to look very far to find that. It’s hard to imagine you are more than two steps away from something that matters. For example, we work with Citymeals-on-Wheels, which delivers meals to people in need. I am not in such a situation, but if you live in New York it’s easy to see people who are.”

Do it yourself.
Launch your own pro bono effort, Rockwell suggests. “The Imagination Playground was totally our idea. We said, ‘Let’s see what playgrounds might look like if they weren’t burdened with what they look like now.’ That grew out of a project we did for a kids’ school in Lower Manhattan after 9/11, when they had to move to a temporary building,” he says. “It was like an urban barn-raising, an opportunity to directly do something we knew how to do when we weren’t really motivated to do anything else.”

Share the tasks.
In the studio, as many people as possible work on pro bono projects, collaborating with outside architects and designers, artists, and commercial and nonprofit organizations. Up to eight people can be engaged at one time on anything from graphic design to architecture. Pro bono isn’t a specialty in the firm, he explains, but a part of the process of what everyone is doing.

Cast a wide net.
Take on projects at different scales and time frames that best use the skills of your staff, Rockwell says. “For one Taste of New York annual benefit, our contribution was designing a projection screen made up of hundreds of laser-cut paper plates. For the Robin Hood foundation, we are one of many firms designing school libraries. The playground took five years to complete.” A variety of projects ensures that more staff can bring their strengths to the table, he explains.

Commit to the long haul.
Dedicate studio time to pro bono causes for the long term rather than taking on too many one-off projects, Rockwell says. Longer collaborations allow studios to include more people in the work. Become engaged in organizing, management, and fundraising. “I have worked with the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS’s Dining by Design event since 1994,” Rockwell says. “That started after my brother died from the disease. It was a very difficult loss for me. Our contribution helps them physically create events to raise money.”

Don’t benchmark the bottom line.
There’s no quantifying the benefits of working pro bono. “It has to have its own heartbeat and reason why you are participating,” Rockwell says. “For me, it reinforces the reasons why I wanted to do creative work to begin with. Do as much as you can.” Public Architecture’s 1% program—in which architecture firms commit to dedicating 1 percent of their working hours to pro bono service—is a solid start. “But I don’t want that to be the ceiling. That should be the floor. We do way more than 1 percent.”

Spread the word.
Pro bono work is needed now more than ever. “It has an incredible impact not only on you and your firm and those you are reaching out to but also the industry and other professionals. It is critical for designers to give back,” Rockwell says, “and by participating in pro bono work you encourage others to do the same.”