Doing Work On Spec | October 1, 2003
In the world of advertising, it's fairly common for clients to ask to see some design concepts in order to help them choose an agency. Most ad agencies don't object. These commissions can be very lucrative, often running into the millions, so spending a small amount of time on sample creative is a reasonable move.
Unfortunately web design clients have started asking for design concepts, and not just on big, 6 figure jobs either. People commissioning even the smallest jobs have started to expect to see design concepts.
This is a big problem for a number of reasons.
Spec work is dangerous
Visual design should start some way down the line after you've had chance to get to know the client, their business, their users and their competition. It's not something that should be done right at the start of a project, before you've even been awarded the job.
Unfortunately many clients hear the term "Web Design" and think the most critical part of the job is "Visual Design". Most people don't get the technical side of our jobs. They don't really understand about usability, information architecture, web standards etc. Why should they.
That's why clients generally ask to see creative. They have difficulty determining who would be best for the job based on all the technical jargon flying around so settle on design. Everybody feels qualified to make decisions about visual design.
However if a client is basing their decision on the spec work you create for them, a pitch ends up turning into a visual design competition. Visual design is so subjective, it's not usually the best company for the job who wins the pitch, or even the "best" or most appropriate design. It's the design that most appeals to the key decision makers in the room. Not really a good way to make an important, strategic decision.
If you end up getting the job, the main decision makers will already be wedded to your design concepts (after all that's why they chose you isn't it?). You'll end up being stuck with a design concept that the MD loves, but one that is likely to be inappropriate to the users goals and the business objectives of the site.
Spec work is not a good ROI
Pitching for work is time consuming at the best of times. Talking to the client, getting an idea of their needs, analyzing their RFP, meeting with the design team to discuss the response and putting together a proposal all take a considerable amount of time. For a small project this could be a couple of person days, for a large project it could take weeks or even months.
This is already a very large resource drain to secure a potential client and something that needs to be done in a considered and managed fashion.
If you're going to produce spec work, be prepared to be judged on that alone. This means the sample creative you produce has to be top quality. It's not something you can knock up in a few hours. It's something you'll need to spend days/weeks on. If you insist on creating spec work, you'll need to put in the hours, ask the right questions know the client, their product/brand and their customers inside out. You'll also need to be emotionally prepared in case you don't get the account.
This all takes time and effort, but is it a good ROI?
If the jobs big, the competition small (1-3 other design firms) and the clients are only wanting a feel of what you can produce (not what you will produce), then it's possibly worth it. However it's still worth asking to be paid for creative. It's not often people will pay you to pitch, but it does happen.
Unfortunately in this day and age, there are clients out there that will send a RFP to large numbers of design agencies. These clients tend to have the smallest budgets but the largest demands. They'll want to see designs from the largest number of people possible and will pick an agency based on the design, not the company's merits. These kind of clients are tire kickers, wanting the maximum return for the minimum risk. Who can blame them?. The ROI of creating spec work may be justifiable on a big job and low competition. If the job is small and the client has 6 other designers also producing work, walk away. It's just not an effective use of your time.
Spec work devalues the role of the designer
The job of a web design agency is to plan, design and build websites. It's as simple as that. We do have to spend time getting new business, but new business development is not what people pay us for, it's just something we have to do in order to secure work.
So if people pay us to design, why give this way for free? If it stops being a commodity people have to pay for, and starts becoming part of the standard business development practice, this greatly decreases the value of design.
Fundamentally people put value on something the have to pay for. If you charge £500 per day you're probably good, if you charge £1,000 you're probably better. What do you expect people will think if you're giving away design to anybody who asks? If something is being given away for free, most people put little value on it.
Personally I feel that doing work on spec sends the wrong signals about the value you put on your time. It also sends the wrong signals about the value of design as a whole.
When pitching for work, show the client you understand the brief. Explain to them how your process works. Give them examples of your previous work so they can see your creative skills. If they want to see creative fine, but they should pay for it and you should explain that the ideas you're showing are just ideas and the final work will need to be based on a whole raft of things that you'll only find out in the discovery phase.
If a client insists on seeing creative, you'll need to way up the pros and cons. However personally I believe only the largest jobs really warrant producing creative for a pitch, and even then, you have to set the parameters.
If you choose to stand your ground, politely explain your position. Explain that it's not possible to produce design ideas at this early stage as a large part of the design process is the discovery phase. Some clients will respect you for this, others won't.
However I know that the clients I want to work with are the ones who understand the value of design and respect me as a professional.
Posted at October 1, 2003 2:46 PM