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 reprint originally appeared 26 January 2004.

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

82 thoughts on “Don’t design on spec

  1. Great to see you write about this! This is a real bone of contention for me, unfortunately it is quite a common expectation with a lot of the clients that I deal with. We have a pretty strict policy of not doing any spec work but occasionally we’ve had to do it. I’ve experienced the exact issue of my company’s proposal being rejected and then a very similar design being launched some months later, and this for a public body supposedly meant to encourage digital media in my geographic area!

    There’s definitely times where we know a job would just not have come our way had there been no visuals, yet it’s such a waste of time and energy. The design process should start by geting to know a client and what they want to achieve, making sure they are on the right track and not about to waste time and money approaching something the wrong way. Some frivolous visuals really don’t mean much.

    We’ve just had an RFP come in this week where they aren’t willing to give any idea of a budget except to say they don’t have much money and just want us to blindly give a price without any real specific guidance, I’m dreading that the next thing they ask is for us to include visuals.

    Sorry, my rant is now over!

  2. What’s your advice when interviewing for a position, especially an in-house one, when you’re asked to do design work?

  3. If only I would have heeded such wisdom a year ago!

    Fresh out of school, I was hoping to land some freelance work specific to a certain industry. I met up with this guy who seemed to have a moderate amount of clout. He promised me the moon (and he’d throw in the stars) in referrals – if I would just do this one, small job for him.

    I knew the conventional wisdom regarding spec work: don’t do it! But I said to myself, “Self, this situation is different! This could be your break. He has the kind of contacts that could really get things rolling. And you could be big…

    “Rockstar big…

    “Nay — Zeldman big.”

    The only calls I got were from him – wanting more free work.

    You live and learn, I suppose. But now I’m hard-line: no spec!

    p.s. – You’re book was the course text for one of my classes. I’ve been a lurker on your blog since then. There’s an undeniable warmth in finally coming out of the shadows and leaving a comment. Or maybe that’s the global warming…

  4. Jeffrey, I’m glad you reprinted this one, as it seems it will always be relevant. These days I see less spec work requests but more and more design contests that seem like they’re just spec work in disguise — the “client” gets free, or discounted, work, and the designers do a ton of work, with no promise of reward. Not to mention that all they’re doing is making pretty designs with no relationship or problem solving.

  5. The idea of a prospect demanding work speaks for larger problems (summarized above as “not a good client to work for”).

    In short, demands for speculative work prove one of two facts about the prospect:

    The prospect doesn’t know what to ask for and doesn’t know what budget to set. At best you’re dealing with an inexperienced client; at worst, you’re facing the prospect of being the meat inside a political sandwich in the event that you do get the job. (It’s not inconceivable that both conditions could be in force simultaneously.) In either event, it’s the prospect’s responsibility to know how much money they’ve got to devote to the job, and what they need done for the price. They are, after all, the ones who best understand their own financials.

    In my world, a prospect rarely takes up more than 30 minutes of my time before I know the budget and business objectives of the gig. If they can’t give me those (unqualified) data fairly quickly, I know that the client’s shopping for either free advice, or a vanity project. I’m not often in the business of providing either, and you shouldn’t be, either.

    The other possibility…

    The prospect is taking advantage of others’ desperation. Which speaks for itself, without qualification. My response to those, had I no manners, would end with the qualifier “and the horse you rode in on.”

    Either type of account puts your health – mental and ultimately physical – at risk.

    The Bottom Line: roundfile a prospect unless they can give you a budget and business objectives off the bat.

    …And if your referrals and/or portfolio aren’t enough to demonstrate your likely fit with the prospect, they shouldn’t be hiring you. This removes from consideration the last reason why they should go asking for free comps.

    kthxbye, bmh.

  6. Its our first rule of business – we never, ever do ANY work without first taking a deposit. As a small business we can’t afford to and I’d agree wholeheartedly with your conlusion that the clients who demand and make a fuss over this are the ones you don’t want anyway.

    I’m so glad to hear you formalising this – again as a small business its tough to know what is standard for larger agencies – and now we know.

  7. This is a classic, and a one worth reviewing every now and then.

    “Design contests” are often a veiled way of asking for free work, and usually not worth the hassle, no matter which big name agency or celebrity is behind these. Just avoid them like the plague. If you want to make a big name out of yourself, create kick ass work, make yourself get paid for it, treat your clients respectfully, and word of mouth will do the rest.

    For young designers who are most likely to fall prey to the temptation of spec work: Would you expect a doctor to make a diagnosis for free? Or a plumber to come fix your sink for free “just to see if it works”? No? Then why you should give away your own work for free?

    If clients want to know how good you can be at helping them get what they want, that’s what your portfolio is for.

    Your computer, your home/apartment/loft/whatever, your degree, your day-by-day living – those things haven’t come to you for free. And you most likely have bills to pay as well. So there you have it – Sure it’s hard to say no -specially if you are just starting in the business- but in the end it will pay off to stick to your guns and be recognized over time as a professional worth paying for their services instead of being known as “the guy who works for free”.

  8. @ beto:

    Though I agree in principle with the “doctors and plumbers don’t work for free” argument, I can’t subscribe to it wholeheartedly. Logically speaking – it’s apples and oranges.

    Typically, those trolling for spec work aren’t simply saying – “Hey, come design my site for free!” or “Do this for me for free just so I can see what you can do!” There’s always bait involved. There’s always the promise of landing a big account, or making a name for yourself by working a hot-shot gig, or being set for life with a constant stream of quality referrals… *cough* *cough*

    It’s the chance and the risk and the ridiculously improbably hope of a big payoff. Kind of like the lottery.

    Funny thing is: most people don’t get rich playing the lottery. They just lose money.

    For a better comparison, may I suggest: There’s a newbie doctor, fresh out of medical school, attempting to establish his own private practice, and he has very few patients, very few leads, and little idea about where he can “break into the industry.” Now, let’s say that someone of reasonable merit in a support organization for disease X comes to him and says, “I need treatment, but I can’t pay you. However, if you treat me, I’ll refer all of the sick people with disease X in my organization to your practice.” Wouldn’t you think about that, even before saying “no!”, just for a second?

    Or let’s say said diseased person of importance claims, “If you cure me, I’ll pay you, but if not…” Come to think of it… that’s not such a bad idea…

    Anyway, I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s a good idea. (My previous comment clearly states that I went against better judgment and got burned.) I’m just saying, I understand it. And, for the first time designers who get taken, I can sympathize with their decision.

    As for the habitual spec workers- that’s another story…

  9. What do you think on asking for a deposit up front. I’ve been working with a business partner who seems to constantly be let down by his clients after the job has been started.

  10. I’m currently doing a job on spec which means I have to code funtionality I’ve never done before. If I don’t get the job I’ll still end up with code that I can use and sell onto other clients.

    Sometimes a spec job will give you the opportunity to design/code stuff you’ve not done. So they’re not all bad.


  11. The alternative to presenting a series of speculative visuals is to propose services with a lengthy scope of work document comprising everything from company credentials/ specific competencies, methodologies, first thoughts regarding the extent of the solution being proposed and concluding with a guesstimation of fees.

    From experience, the document is rarely read save for the part about your fees and the work that goes into it is both time consuming and tedious not least because it is written in the knowledge that it will rarely be read. It then leaves your prospect guessing as to whether or not you would be capable of assuming the work and the level at which you operate.

    I am of the opinion that the sale success rate you enjoy is directly propotional to the opportunities the customer has to touch and feel the product- how else would the grocer sell his fruit if he were to keep it stored away from view?. This applies whether it’s a new car an item of clothing, or, in this case (albeit a more complex experience) a website/ application.

    I agree that such proposals run the danger of being copied, or worse used as bait for other agencies, even if it was simply for their ideas (which invariably is the most valuable part). Nonetheless, we are in a business that is part execution and part problem solving and unless you are approached as a brand recognised for its ability to deliver specific solutions or preceded with a track record of set solutions attesting to your competencies to deliver your client’s requirements, you will always face the dilema to propose your services using your key assets or ignore the clincher and go for a 50 page ring-bound document.


  12. You should give a talk on this to your local colleges and universities. Students and recent grads seem to get taken advantage of this way the most.

  13. @Trevor
    “If I don’t get the job I’ll still end up with code that I can use and sell onto other clients.”

    Trevor, a better use of your time would be to take the details of the project, tell the client “No, thanks”, and code it as a personal project. You’ll avoid the headaches of dealing with a spec client’s deadlines (and unprofessionalism, and disrespect for your skills), and be able to code/learn at your own pace. I’ve done this for two projects that came in as spec, and learned a LOT, and was able to use it for paying clients later on.

    I just hate to see people waste their creative energy doing work for a client that clearly doesn’t value it.

  14. Clients who request spec work are often control freaks and do not understand the creative or strategic process.

    The only time I would say it is ok to do spec work is when its a highly public competition for a piece of business. And only if you are in a position to participate with minimal risk (meaning you are not desperate for the work). I know that there are a couple of high profile clients around where I live, and if you get invited to do spec work its in the news. Not exactly free PR but not bad company to be in either. Those are however rare exceptions and those same high profile jobs are also often for clients with really big heads.

  15. I tend to agree with all of this. As enticing as the opportunity to get a foot in the door can be, I’m sure it more often than not leads to faiure.

    What do people think of ‘design competitions’?
    Some company launches a competition to redesign their web site, or something along those lines, with promises of riches and fame for the winner. Yet nothing is ever mentioned about the other people who spent time and effort entering, and nothing is mentioned about what happens to their work, or how it maybe gets used later on.

    Netflix are doing something along those lines at the moment, and I can’t say I like it. Big fat prize for the winner, but the potential to claim the research and development of many many people who enter.
    At the end of the day, it’s probably a cheap cost for the amount of work they are going to get.

  16. Spec work should be paid for, if a client wants to check things out then they should be prepared to pay a bit of money as part of the commissioning process.

    What gets me most is when it’s clients looking for spec work on projects with very small budgets, sometimes you’d like the work in order to get in with the client but it’s very seldom worth it.

    I wouldn’t tend to compare it with the Doctor / Medical example mentioned previously in the comments but rather with Lawyers.
    if you needed some legal work done you wouldn’t go to several lawyers and say to each of them “Produce these legal documents for me, and whichever one I like best I will pay for.”, the Lawyers would tell you where to go! Why should it be any different when seeking a company to do provide your design / branding / communication needs?

  17. I won’t design on spec either. Too much work just to get a job, and that’s iffy at best. In the past I have noticed the customers who want such a thing are the hardest to please. I sometimes think they are the people who really should learn this stuff and do it themselves as they are the most likely to succeed at making themselves happy (sometimes at the cost of a proper project).

    Nope, I much prefer clients who say: “Mike, you do it — we hired you because we don’t know how so please use your best judgment.” In other words, I am given complete creative license. I don’t abuse it. I listen to their needs and goals, then apply my expertise to deliver what will perform for them on many levels.

    I hold fast to this position, and it works or so it seems. I have more work than I know what to do with and find myself turning down work all the time.

  18. @Adrian – a few people, myself included, mentioned their disdain for design competitions/contests in the above comments. It’s just spec work with another name. Right around the time the Slashdot redesign contest came around, I wrote an article about it on my site called Finding the Con in Contests. It got a lot of heated response in the comments. It’s pretty fun. People can be pretty passionate about this kind of topic.

  19. I totally agree. This is a mistake I made often when I was a freelancer and almost begging for work. Just say no to spec work!

  20. Great post. Spec work is a joke. @Brian – I like your idea of doing free work for a non-profit or other organization, if you really want to offer free work. I’ve done a couple of church websites at a discounted rate or free in some situations, but I always include the full price and indicate that they are getting a deal.

    When I was in college I was approached by a small business owner who wanted a site. When I met with him face-to-face, it turns out he didn’t have any money and wanted me to be his business partner for a cut of the profit. It doesn’t even make sense to me why an established business person would want to partner with some 20-something college student who knows nothing about his industry. Bottom line: he wanted free work. No dice.

    I didn’t do the work, but I didn’t handle it right either. Live and learn.

  21. Adam said:

    What’s your advice when interviewing for a position, especially an in-house one, when you’re asked to do design work?

    Show them your portfolio.

    Peter Holloway said:

    What do you think on asking for a deposit up front. I’ve been working with a business partner who seems to constantly be let down by his clients after the job has been started.

    Always get a deposit up front.

  22. JZ said:

    Always get a deposit up front.

    I actually had a fairly high-profile client (who had already agreed to budget/timeline, and loved the ideas we were discussing) back out of a project because we requested a deposit. They expected to pay for everything when it was completed, and were insulted that we would even request any advance payment.

    Needless to say, we didn’t work for them.

  23. i heard tell that AIGA recently never had a stance, officially, on spec work.
    The GDC (Canadian version) have been preaching this mantra for years.
    Unfortunately, the vancouver olympic comittee decided to hold a spec work contest for their logo. =\
    With some GDC intervention they got the rest of the contest (for all the other branding and promo items) cancelled.

    long story short: boo spec work.

  24. Just for my understanding: Work on spec is basically the same as a Pitch right?

    Because if it is, a lot of big(ger) companies work that way. I work at a packagedesign company, and we’re in pitches/specs all the time. Although i do agree that you lose money in most occassions, and the “if” is pretty big in áll occassions. But not all designcompanies can avoid to Design on Spec. In some areas nearly all possible clients expect that you want to work for them, and they want to sit first row for a dime.

    It’s a shame, yes. But not always unavoidable unfortunately :(

  25. This is a great post and comments! I’ve forwarded it to some people I know that are just getting started. If only I had such great advice back when I was getting started. UGH! The horror stories, the mistakes and hard lessons learned – ick! Most of my scars are healing nicely ;-)

    It can’t be said enough, clients that ask you to do a bunch of design work up front are generally not going to pay off. It’s at the very least a great indication that they don’t value the hard work that you do. It should be taken as a sign of how the relationship would be (think scope creep if you are unlucky enough to get the job).

    All that being said. I OCCASIONALLY do free/discounted work for carefully selected non-profits though. It’s been a great way to meet people (board members, etc), feel good and build some portfolio pieces. I would say to be careful not to do too many. Make sure what you do will be a win for you and for them. And, check who is on the board or committee – often you’ll find people who hold important positions at companies in your area. Helping their organization is a great way to meet them (assuming you do a good job). I’ve gotten referral work and great job references this way.

  26. I only partly agree with this article. I understand why most would NOT want to design on spec, but I always do, and I have never lost a client or got into trouble because of it.
    I do it because I love to design. I love it first and want to get paid for it second. To prevent “highjacking” my designs, I always show my clients the design on the internet where they have to log in with a provided username and password which I sent them via e-mail. I log the access with time/date and send them a confirmation e-mail after I have seen they viewed it, together with all e-mail correspondance attached. I make sure they see I logged their activity on the test-site.
    But even if they did steal my work…so what, who was it who said: copying is the highest form of flattery…or something ike that?

  27. I’m an Image Editor, and every position I have applied for requires a Photoshop test, even after they have seen your portfolio.

    What’s your take on this? It worries me since I am currently looking for a job and this once again has come up.

  28. I couldn’t agree more, especially where you say, “Design is only partly decoration. Mainly it is problem solving.”

    Unfortunately, it’s often true that the people preparing the RFPs don’t understand what design is. They think it’s just pretty pictures. They don’t realize that they’re asking you to solve their problems, without fully understanding all the problems… and do it for free.

    I personally won’t do work on spec. If they need to see examples of my work, they can look at my portfolio. That’s what it’s there for.

  29. How to say ‘we completely agree with you’ and still look for new ‘on spec’ customers at the same time? Great marketing mistake on our side. The most unpleasant fact isn’t actually that the actual scope of the service is never known (and as a result, it’s never accurately quoted and paid accordingly) but the reluctance of customers to acknowledge the quality of the resulting product just because they fear they’ll be charged additionally for all the stuff that wasn’t mentioned in the RFP. Sad.

  30. Our company receives the same requirements, Proposal with layout design. Before we were entertaining those kind of requests but results were always disappointing, as they always choose company which has cheaper rates. They totally negotiate prices with the quality.

    I also do not believe in pitch-in design any more no matter if there is less jobs in pipelines.

  31. For a while we had an artist on staff who worked with colored pencils. She would design a spec – very rough, under two hours – with her pencils, and we would show it to the client. They knew this was a rough draft, and it didn’t give them much meat to go to another team with.
    But it would help concretize the project in the clients mind, gave them a site plan, made them somewhat indebted to us, and showed off our efficiency.
    We no longer freelance (just work on music), so there was no reason to keep her on staff. However, the idea was a good one, and gave us a safe way in with those clients that would otherwise have gone elsewhere.

    Just once you get the job, make sure you are payed first :)

  32. Crazy story and yeh I NEVER Design on spec in this game is far too much scope for people to just rip ya off, way off the world isn’t it.

    Don’t agree it can give you the chance to work on stuff you might need later, examples and map out a plan should be plenty should just have to prove your good enough and work out a base price.


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