Speculative Work and Why It Hurts the Client


We recently received an inquiry  from a well known real estate company based in Southwest Florida.  We were offered the opportunity to enter into a bid process with the hopes of being selected as the winning firm. To enter a bid, the company required that each design firm create two homepage designs for them, and they would select the design they like the most, thus selecting a winner.

The details of what the winner receives are unclear in the inquiry, with the only promise made being that the designer will receive compensation if they are chosen.  This brings us to the major problem with this process:

This company will only compensate the winning firm for their work, time and effort. All other designers that enter a bid receive nothing.

A competition like this is called “Speculative Work” and is disrespectful to both the design industry and the designers involved.

The approach they are pursuing is one that compromises quality of work  and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide.

If this was spec work, one of these dogs would be fed at the end of the race!

AIGA, the nation’s largest and oldest professional association for design, strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.

There are two main reasons for this position:

  1. To assure the client receives the most appropriate and responsive work. Successful design work results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer with the intention of developing a clear sense of the client’s objectives, competitive situation and needs. Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the project at hand that is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics. Design creates value for clients as a result of the strategic approach designers take in addressing the problems or needs of the client and only at the end of that process is a “design” created. Speculative or open competitions for work based on a perfunctory problem statement will not result in the best design solution for the client.
  2. Requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process. Requesting work for free reflects a lack of understanding and respect for the value of effective design as well as the time of the professionals who are asked to provide it. This approach, therefore, reflects on the client’s practices and standards and may be harmful to the professional reputation of both the client and their  business.There are few professions where all possible candidates are asked to do the work first, allowing the buyer to choose which one to compensate for their efforts.

    Just consider the response if you were to ask a dozen lawyers to write a brief for you, from which you would then choose which one to pay!

    We realize that there are some creative professions with a different set of standards, such as advertising and architecture, for which billings are substantial and continuous after you select a firm of record. In those cases, you are not receiving the final outcome (the advertising campaign or the building) for free up front as you would be in receiving a communication design solution.

There are designers and design firms that will agree to “work on spec”. They will most likely be less professional and less experienced  than a firm that disagrees with speculative work.

If a designer agrees to work on spec during the bid process in the hopes of being chosen as the winner, it displays a level of desperation which is a common characteristic of an unsuccessful business. If you as a client choose to work with a designer that agrees to spec work, you should not be surprised when you don’t receive the level of service or quality that you are hoping for.

There is an appropriate way to explore the work of various designers. A more effective and ethical approach to requesting speculative work is to ask designers to submit examples of their work from previous assignments as well as a statement of how they would approach your project. It is also wise to judge a design firm’s merit by reviewing their client list. You can then judge the quality of the designer’s previous work and easily determine the level of skill and experience the designer or firm possesses.

More useful information on spec work can be read here

Update – Sunday, August 1st 2010

We responded to the inquiry notifying the client that we would not be entering into their bid process and we included much of the above information in our email to them. It appears that a few hours after our response, the company has now modified the document (hosted on their servers) that contains the details of the bid process that they are sending to designers.

They are no longer requiring two homepage designs to enter with the bid, but have added the alternative option to meet with them and “schedule a time to show us why….you are different from the rest.”.

This still isn’t ideal , as they are still asking for bidders to present design work for free (unless chosen as the winner) as the first option, but at least we helped to educate them and encouraged them to re-think their process.

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