Don’t design on spec

Our agency receives its share of RFPs, and sometimes these requests stipulate that our proposal include layouts. Even if the project looks promising, we just say no.

There are good reasons never to design on spec:

  • It’s a lot of unpaid work.
  • Design is only partly decoration. Mainly it is problem solving. Unless the RFP spells out site goals and user needs in phenomenal detail, you can’t create an appropriate design because you don’t yet know what problems need to be solved. (Even if the RFP spells out goals and needs, it’s unlikely that the people who wrote it know what all their site’s problems are. Most times you need to talk to people who use the site and study how they use it to get a handle on what works and doesn’t. It also helps to interview stakeholders. Doing that at your own expense is risky business at best.)
  • It’s unsafe for agency and potential client alike. The annals of the AIGA are filled with stories like this one:

Per Acme Anvil Co.’s request, Joe’s agency designs comps on spec in hopes of winning the Acme redesign project.

Acme Anvil Co. informs Joe’s agency that someone else got the job.

Six months later, Acme Anvil Co. launches its redesigned website. Joe’s VP of new business visits the site and discovers that it looks similar to one of the supposedly rejected designs Joe’s agency had submitted.

Joe’s agency calls Joe’s attorneys. A nasty lawsuit ensues. No matter who wins the suit, it will be costly and annoying — a drag on resources and morale — for all. If Joe’s agency wins, word goes out that they are the kind of agency that sues if they don’t get a job. If Joe’s agency loses, they may have to lay off staff or close their doors. All because they were willing to design on spec.

“No work on spec” was an advertising mantra until the mid-1990s. When we left advertising, it was routine for ad agencies to compete by presenting clients with free print campaigns, TV animatics, and sometimes even branded caps, match packs, or other promotional tie-ins. Agencies would temporarily add award-winning freelancers to their staff, spending thousands on these spec campaigns. Agencies that did not get the account almost always laid off fulltime staff to make up for the money they lost. We do not know if this is still a standard practice in advertising. Fortunately it is not standard practice in web design.

The AIGA strongly advises its members never to design on spec, and we know of no professional web agency that disregards that advice. Most potential clients who’ve initially requested that we submit designs along with our proposals understand our reasons for saying no. Those who insist on getting free designs anyway are simply advertising the fact that they would not be good clients to work for.

If business is slow, especially if you are a freelance web designer/developer, you may be tempted to say yes to unfair requests for free layouts. Designer, beware: the risks outweigh the potential benefits.


This zeldman.com reprint originally appeared 26 January 2004.

[tags]spec, specwork, design, graphicdesign, dontdesignonspec[/tags]