Why speculation hurts

By Robert Wurth, creative director, Freshly Squeezed Design

When your company seeks out a new logo design, advertisement, brochure, or any other marketing collateral, what you’re really looking for is a solution to a problem. For example, you have just made a new product. Your problem is that no one knows about it, so you require a means to alert potential customers. You might conclude that an advertisement is the solution. In reality, the advertisement is merely the vehicle that delivers the solution, but the concept is similar enough.

Some companies advocate the practice of gathering a number of different designers or agencies to pitch ideas for a project. The way it works is that the company calls up several different designers and says, “We need a new ad. Come up with an idea to show us and if we like it, we’ll hire you.” If the designer is lucky, the company will at least have a creative brief, a short document explaining the problem, to send.

In the design community, we refer to this practice as speculative work. It requires a designer to put forth work on behalf of the company without any promises or guarantees of getting paid.

This practice has become popular because many companies erroneously view it as a quick and easy way to get the best ideas from designers. Unfortunately, requesting speculative design is a poor business decision because it caters to the lowest common denominator of design. It also forces designers to engage in the poor design practice of making snap decisions.

Currently, one of the hot books in the world of business and marketing is Blink: The power of thinking without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. In Blink, Gladwell advocates for the inherent quality of decisions that are made in an instant, citing that often these decisions are just as accurate (if not more accurate) than decisions made after careful, conscientious deliberation.

However, within the book Gladwell also cautions that the process of snap decisions can backfire, sometimes drastically. The difference, he says, seems to be one of knowledge and experience. For example, you might come to me doubled over and complaining that your stomach hurts. I might make the wrong snap decision that it must have been something you ate and that you’ll be fine. A doctor, on the other hand, might make the correct instant conclusion that you have appendicitis and then examine you more thoroughly.

Gladwell’s explanation for this would be that the doctor’s experience allows him to instantly take in all of the subtle clues about your condition, allowing his mind to make a correct conclusion based upon very little data. Of course he would order more tests to be sure, but that’s not the point. Rather, the point is that I lack the experience and knowledge to give me a chance to make the same sort of correct diagnosis. I might have been able to guess right, but that would simply have been a matter of chance. Instead, my snap decision is based solely on my personal experiences — maybe I ate something bad once, and it gave me a severe stomach ache.

This is important because it relates directly to speculative work.

Inspiration never comes from just nowhere. It is the culmination of experiences stored subconsciously for the right moment to all click together. Speculative design work is an attempt to force inspiration without the benefit of experience. None of the designers are allowed the opportunity to get to know you and your business. They aren’t allowed the time to examine your market and industry. They simply lack the necessary data too allow them to make good, informed decisions about your marketing.

The result is that the designers are forced to develop ideas based upon their own personal experiences and preconceptions about you and your company. Without any research, or discussions with you to guide them, their ideas become less about substance and more about style.

If the designers are talented, they will certainly be able to come up with appealing designs. It’s even possible that one of them, through sheer chance, might hit upon a perfect solution to your problem, but that’s a gamble. In fact, it’s a gamble on two levels: first that at least one of the designers comes up with the right solution, and two, that you happen to choose that design.

Many business owners tend to distrust designers. They will hop from designer to designer, never satisfied with the work and becoming more and more jaded to the process. Often this is a result of poorly executed ideas that come from the speculative process. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the designers for not hitting the right message, without ever considering that their own process might be flawed.

So, going back to the beginning, you still need an ad. Having read all of this, you decide not to put out a call for pitches, but rather you decide to choose one designer or agency and work more closely with them.

Now, the process is different. Before the designer ever gets to the idea stage, he or she comes in and talks with you to get to know you and your business. The designer is armed with materials you’ve done in the past, information about who your customers are, about who the competition is, and what the industry is like.

As the designer absorbs more and more information about your company, preconceptions are replaced with meaningful knowledge. When inspiration strikes, it has context that is relevant to your business and your needs, and that makes for a better design that caters more to your needs, and less to the whims of the designer.

If you have questions or suggestions, contact us.