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


Panagiotis said on October 1, 2003 4:58 PM

Excellent article on a new subject. Although I am a frequently reader of your posts, this article was the first large article that I read, and the reload of the screen every 2 minutes was a little annoying.

Richard Hiscutt said on October 1, 2003 5:47 PM

I agree with Panagiotis, a very good article about something that’s been hurting small design groups for a while. Client’s don’t seem to understand processes that web companies have in place to help create sites that are relevant, usable and creative at the same time.

But it’s not only clients that are pushing this - I know that in my previous job I was asked by the Big Boss to design and then TEMPLATE those designs (against my wishes) with the hope of winning a client. We didn’t get the job, which isn’t surprising, and we wasted a lot of time in the process.

Sadly I don’t know what the answer is because there will always be companies willing to throw away hours in the hope of winning any job.

Keith said on October 1, 2003 6:09 PM

Good article, good topic. I’ve dealt with this issue, and others related, from both sides of the fence and can tell you that you are right on the money as far as my experience.

Unfortunately I’m not sure there is a solution, and I don’t see these problems going away. Deciding how much to show a client (or Big Boss - which can even be worse) and when is an age old design problem.

I think you’re summary has some very good ideas, and depending on your situation, these ideas could work very well.

Ryan Parman said on October 1, 2003 8:03 PM

I’ve only recently begun doing some web work as an independent contractor. I’ve been trying to go over some of the better ways of winning clients, as I’ve worked on each project, and many times it’s frustrating because they want a design before I know anything about them.

Excellent, and well-written.

nathan said on October 1, 2003 9:03 PM

OK, I agree with your points to an extent, however the simple reality of all this the bottom line, cash-money.

As someone that went through the whole boom bust cycle, from the begining when we were arrogantly turning away high street banks because we were ‘too busy’, to the end where we’d let someone fuck us for a fiver, I’ve learnt one thing: All that matters is the money.

You are absolutely right, you must temper what the client is demanding with a reasoned, well planned and process driven approach, and always push back if you think it’s necessry. But, if you dont deliver what they want they will walk away. The key is value add, give them what they want, but add value through IA, process, ROI etc blah blah blah. You’ll stand out. Always remeber, no matter how big or small the pitch, if the client wants look n feel, give them look n feel (you can always qualify it). If you dont, you can guarantee that there will be 10 other agencies behind you that will, no matter how good your process or approach is.

Anyway, rant over, dont mean to be a wanker. Good article.

Joel said on October 2, 2003 1:01 AM

Interesting article Andy. Recently discovered your blog, like your subject matter.

I tend to think that having a high and mighty attitude to clients is no bad thing. Hell, who’s the talent here? If they want you, why should you jump through their hoops?

While I realise it’s a buyer’s market and all that bull, on the other hand, if you’re good be disdaining! I like to think that if someone wants me to design a website for them they might be the kind of person who I might enjoy a pint with in the pub, just a richer version. Someone who knows I can give them something good. If they’re asking me to join a rat-race, then fuck ‘em, I’ve got better things to do.

So I don’t see any great problem. It’s a self-esteem thing. Know you’re good, and just wait.



Stephane Curzi said on October 2, 2003 5:08 PM

I was the creative director of a web consulting firm, the biggest problem we encounter in selling our work to clients was our approach. We did marketing research and information architecture then we did design based on the research.

Most of the clients asked for a pitch, we would then be face with big advertising agency who did a 2/3 week of intense design with a full staff. We would lose the contract because we didn’t present a good enough design.

I think the big advertising agency ruined the internet, they don’t try to understand the client, they only ” design ” a cool website and it doesn’t serve the client in the end. It’s too bad that clients still base their choice only on design.

Harley said on October 2, 2003 5:15 PM

Here is an article that addresses some of what you touch on (sort of), and provides one possible solution:

Scrivs said on October 3, 2003 10:19 PM

Fortunately I have not dealt with any clients like this as of yet and my general advice would be to stay away from them. Clients who ask for spec work are usually ones who also want great websites at Walmart prices. I am not saying you should walkaway from these people, but if they can’t look at your portfolio and decide that they like you then they probably won’t like you after you wasted your time designing a spec site for them.

pid said on October 6, 2003 2:53 PM

I (mostly) agree with what you’re saying.

The nearest comparable models that I can think of are architecture, or landscape gardening.

While it would be unusual to refuse to show a client examples of your past work, as an architect, it would be more unusual to be asked to build a small office building to demonstrate your ability to construct a skyscraper, likewise a conservatory in advance of a house building contract.

Without confusing Information Architecture for my analogy, it’s not hard to see the many parallels between such a discipline and our ever growing industry.
There are requirements to know about technical specifications, legal obligations, structure, engineering, design principles, and more.
I’m sure the list could be expanded, but I think the similarities are clear.

It will not always be appropriate, but if you are working on a project that extends beyond a 5 page faceplate and a client expects you to produce real custom work to win a pitch, then you are not out of order to ask for a retainer or to have your costs covered.

Andy’s point about giving away for free, that which is misunderstood to be our whole skill is the most important one I’ve read here.

As long as Web Constructioneers™ continue to permit themselves to be considered as the low resolution equivalents of the well known field of print graphic designers and typographers we will always have trouble winning contracts with businesses that are new to, or have little understanding of what web technology can do for them.

I respectfully suggest that if the client is not enamoured of the idea of paying for your work, you may find your time more efficiently, (lucratively even) used elsewhere.