Why spec work is bad for the designer and client

By Con Kennedy, Con Kennedy Visual Communications

The issue of clients requesting speculative work from designers is becoming commonplace. The issues regarding speculative work or “free pitching” have been debated for a long time and are now compounded by the economic downturn, meaning that some designers are more willing to work for free while others have taken the opposite view.

Requesting new and original work to be created in this manner is one that seriously compromises the quality of work that is presented. Clients requesting speculative design work has a longterm damaging effect on the industry, this is recoginsed both in Ireland and internationally.

Successful design results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer, with the intention of the designer to develop a clear sense of the client’s objectives, competitive situation and their commercial needs. Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the work submitted and is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics because often there is no clear brief or objectives given from the outset.

Design creates value for our clients. The strategic approach designers take in addressing the clearly identified problems or needs of the client is one of great importance. Speculative or open competitions for work based on a perfunctory problem statement will not result in the most effective design solution for the client.

Clients requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process, the value and benefits that effective design has for the client, and for the time of the professionals who are asked to provide it. Speculative design work threatens the integrity and work ethic of our profession, commoditises our industry and destroys the value of effective design.

Neither the designer nor the client benefit from work created in a speculative manner. Because designers have no guarantee of remuneration, those who work on spec are unlikely to engage in the full design process and conduct the research and analysis needed to produce effective work. As work carried out in this manner often means that there is no provision of or opportunity for a client briefing, the designer’s abilities to act as professional consultants, partners or members of the client’s strategic communications team are therefore not utilised, further undermining the work carried out by the design professional.

Producing work in a speculative manner also places smaller design companies and sole traders at a distinct disadvantage, due to time, cost and resources required to produce speculative work and engage in this type of tendering process.

In certain design disciplines, such as architecture, advertising and broadcast design, business practices differ and professionals have been expected to participate in speculative work. This usually occurs where the initial design is not the final product and is followed by extended financial engagement to refine or execute a design. But also, in these disciplines, budgets tend to be significantly higher and there is also an opportunity to exhibit any work produced, in communication design, this is rarely the case.

Although, recently we have seen advertising agencies in Belgium go on strike because of the damaging effect that spec pitching is having on the industry there. So perhaps things are changing?

Best practice internationally strongly discourages client’s requesting design work to be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance as part of a tender or pitch. Organisations such as AIGA, ICOGRADA, Design Business Association, Design Business Ireland, the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario and NO!SPEC all discourage their members from producing speculative work.

Many of these organisations have position papers for clients on how to hire design firms, but pointing the finger at the client and telling them how to their job is a fudging of responsibilities. Design organisations have influence with designers, not clients and should use their influence to raise the level of business acumen amongst their membership. This would help raise the esteem of the profession and deal with the issues of free pitching. Recently, the Design Business Association (UK) published a report titled “Design and the Public Good” with the view to advise the UK Government on how to procure design services in an ethical manner. But it’s not just State Bodies who request speculative work, our commercial clients do also.

From a business perspective, producing speculative work raises other issues. There is the cost associated with undertaking work in this manner, overheads incurred and cost undertaken as part of unsuccessful bids will clearly have to be covered by subsequent tenders — in other words, if this client doesn’t pay, the next one will have to. Is this fair to our clients? And, therefore it begs the question, is it really a “free” pitch? Speculative work is done at no cost to the client, in the hope of getting paid, does this sound like a sustainable business model?

Many of these organisations have position papers for clients on how to hire design firms, but pointing the finger There may also be legal implications in terms of intellectual property and trademark infringement with work produced in a speculative manner. The Copyright and Related Act may be clear on who “created” the work, but who has the right to use work created in a speculative pitch?

The design process should not be a one-way street, with designers producing work in a vacuum, with no brief or understanding of the client’s business objectives. The most effective design solutions comes from the request of a specific client brief and partnering with the client to a successful outcome. Speculative design tenders result in superficial assessments of the project at hand that are not grounded in the client’s specific needs or strategy.

A more effective and ethical approach to commission work is for the client to request a panel of suitable designers to submit examples work from previous assignments accompanied with a statement of how they would approach the assignment in question. This way the client can assess the quality of the designers previous work and their way of thinking without the designers having to supplement the costs and overheads of producing speculative work. The selected designers can then begin to work on the assignment by producing an original solution to the client’s brief, while under contract and without having to work on speculation up front.

But ultimately it’s up to us — the designer — to end this practice and to educate and inform our clients about the best way to commission design. There will always be designers willing to produce speculative work and designers who fear that they will not win business if they do not participate in these competitions, but it is a risky path for both the designer and client.

Con Kennedy, Con Kennedy Visual Communications
Originally published on Ratio, magazine of the Institute of Designers in Ireland

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