Spec work & how to make my blood boil.

This is the third time I’ve seen a request for proposal like this in 2 months – I’ve now seen red, since this was from a “multinational firm”, I felt the need to blog it. How on earth is providing 3 different sample designs, simply for the purposes of pitching for the work, fair? Then the “client” who has paid nothing for this process, being able to retain the copyright of anything you do for them? Wow. Where do I sign? At what point in that board meeting did someone think this was the correct way to do business? All it shows me is how little value your business puts on design, and the work involved in it.

Simply producing three homepage designs, without any background into your company or the problems your website is currently facing, is just making a pretty, but useless, picture, with no thought into solving real issues. What are you even judging the designs on?

Friends of the web, please bite back at companies who send RFP like this, don’t ignore them – write back, educate them and say how ridiculous their “offer” is (politely of course, we’re not assholes), and for goodness sake don’t even think about completing a thing for them, no matter how much you need the work.

No Spec
AIGA on Spec Work

  • I’m glad someone is taking time out to address the situation and how designers get exploited / overlooked.

    Much respect as always. Keep going.

  • Sadly, this is the model that creative agencies have worked with for years, in spite of their own admission that it’s a horrible way to work. The classic pitch is done with three concepts, sold by the agency sales dude, with work from a copywriter and the creative team.

    Focus on homepage redesign as a solution to demonstrate client focus is the real joke.

    • Winston Smtih

      The point is that clients increasingly want to bypass creative agencies and seek out work from freelancers (at lower cost) whilst keeping the same horrible model in place. That’s bad for agencies, bad for freelancers, and a ripe moment for both to make it loud and clear that this is no longer a valid (or sustainable) model going forward…

  • Here in Italy this is a very common practice. I always bite back and try to educate and explain why it doesn’t work.

    And sometimes, let’s say 20%, the bite back works 🙂


  • Nick Toye

    Problem I have with it is not so much the greedy corporate company looking to exploit the designers – I expect that from them, but more so with those who are willing to do this.

    I get approached by designers all over the world offering to do work for next to nothing. Offering to do free work to get more work.

    No self-respecting designer would do this, but some clearly are.

    • Actually there are plenty of self-respecting designers out there who would offer to do work for free in order to get more work.

      A stellar reputation and portfolio do not appear overnight, and whilst conceptual art is good, a portfolio without a single measurable success is likely to be overlooked.

  • MRH

    Totally agree. However the problem is that there are companies out there that will do this just to get the business. We all need an industry wide agreement not to work for free!

  • A myopic request (demand) like this is only a sign of nightmares to come if a designer were to agree to this nonsense.

    I’ve grown so tired of dealing with demanding, arrogant representatives of companies needing web design, that I now “choose” them. I would consider it fortunate to receive this demand from a prospective client – as it would help me in my decision to turn THEM down.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Strange that this comes from a multinational firm, they usually have their heads screwed on a little better.

    However, I worked for an agency that would do initial spec work for big clients before we even pitched for the job. We used to pull together 1 or 2 initial designs that formed part of the pitch document that was presented to companies tendering their website projects. I assume this is still common practise inside many agencies and, therefore, seen as acceptable for a company to request this?

    Not saying it’s correct but if you’ve got agencies willing to put time in before they even win the job, it becomes expected that this process will occur before said company appoints an agency?

    I guess it all depends on the scale of the work, kudos of having a certain client and possible referral work that may come out of it as to whether you, as a designer, take on work like this.

    I don’t, myself, anymore but there was a time I may have considered it if the pay-offs a year down the line were worth it.

    Just my two cents! 🙂

  • That is pretty bad. Just yesterday I heard about a company taking spec work that someone had done (probably for free) and trying to get a cheaper quote for a similar design somewhere else.

  • The problem is that people working for these companies either don’t value design, are completely oblivious to the web design process, or are maliciously trying to take advantage of people they may consider “young” and talented.

    They may be lacking education on the field as you mentioned, but I wouldn’t assume it.

    Personally, I would reply, but be as professional and helpful as possible. Certainly don’t mention how “ridiculous” or get all in a huff about the situation. Be cool, calm, collected, and offer suggestions that could help them in the future. That’s the only way their minds could possibly change, and if you’re successful then it’s win-win. You may even get to work with them after all and find out they’re not the jerks you thought they were.

  • I’d have liked to read your reply, I can image it to be pure fury

    • Sarah

      This was my reply:

      Thanks for your email and the follow up attachment.

      I’m really sad to say we won’t be producing anything for your RFP. You guys are engaging in Speculative work. Section 1) in “Information Required” regarding producing three sample homepage designs. Then section 6) where you retain copyright to those designs, essentially being able to take work from more experienced designers and have cheaper designers imitate their work.

      Also, simply providing 3 homepage designs doesn’t address anything other than making a pretty picture. Someone who knows what they’re doing would want to look at the objectives of the new site, any user experience issues you currently face and how these can be addressed. These come from many hours of meetings and research, stuff that simply cannot be undertaken for free or promise of being picked.

      I’m sure an organisation of your size and stature doesn’t need to revert to speculative work.

      AIGA Position on Spec Work: http://www.aiga.org/position-spec-work/
      No Spec – http://www.no-spec.com

      • That’s the best answer. Keep it professional and point out to them where they are wrong. Otherwise some more inexperienced designers are going to sign up and do as asked, and possibly get fleeced. For the good of web design AIGA needs publicising more.

  • These things always make me see red too, but lately the focus of my anger has been shifting. I actually think it’s hard to blame some of these companies for making a request like this. They just don’t know any better, and you can’t blame an entity for trying to get the best deal it can for itself.

    A great deal of fault lies with our peers who are engaging in and tacitly encouraging the practice. Regrettably there will always be designers willing to undercut themselves and their peers by engaging in spec work. The best we can do is stand tall and insist that our work be paid for and our time, effort and skill be respected.

  • We agree. A client trying to get copyright ownership of spec work is not something that is fair to the creative. It’s good you’re reading the fine print so you can protect your copyright and intellectual property rights. We’re on a mission to make the world safe for creativity. Blogging about this issue and more public discussion are what’s needed to change the tide on client expectations of what can be expected from designers when responding to RFPs.

  • Respect for taking a stand!

    My solution to this lately has been to offer an in-depth evaluation to the client for anywhere from $5k-$10k. I simply explain why what they’re requesting doesn’t fly with us and how to approach a new project the right away. A lot of them are puzzled at first, but understand what I’m getting at when I start explaining the problems with RFPs and what a solid project evaluation does for them. The paid evaluation process is different for every client, but usually it involves several weeks of communication and research along side the client, several design recommendations, a detailed project spec, and a few initial wireframes.

    If anyone out there is getting these requests in volume I recommend adapting an evaluation process for your clients (and of course charge for it).

  • I blame Mad Men and Donald Draper for the idea that spec work is part of “winning the client” over. You can see this process all the time in that show where the designers work nights, weekends, etc. to come up with 2-3 potentials that Don then pitches in some meeting.

    Pretty humorous that occasionally the client hates all of the work and Don makes the team work overtime again coming up with something new. It really drives in the idea that the designers/copywriters/etc. are the “menial labor” element of a creative studio. Ridiculous.

    Good response to the requester! Kudos for taking a stand.

    If it’s any consolation, app developers are in the same boat. We often get emails asking for similar speculative “app designs” for free. In fact, they often ask for a “dummy app” which demonstrates UX, etc. Again, this is expected before any contract is signed, etc. We don’t do any of this sort of work, of course, and have found that good clients actually respect you more when you push back on their devaluation of the process. We get similar respect when we push back on hourly rates also.

    This sort of thing is driven by sites like http://www.iphoneappquotes.com which promise “3 free quotes!” as if someone can give an accurate estimate of work from a 20 minute phone call. And these types of clients always ask for an NDA so they can disclose their “totally innovative” idea without having done any market research, etc. Literally, I’ve gotten serious people who want to do a grocery shopping app that allows you to put your grocery list on an iPhone and “wouldn’t that be so cool!” not having any idea that there are hundreds of apps like that already available.

    • Christoffer

      Don Draper and his merry mad men did a lot of spec work – that’s true. But when they occasionally won a pitch, they had the client for a longtime collaboration, producing ad campaigns, prints, broschures, displays etc for at least a couple of years. Whilst we are asked to do spec work for onetime projects. I don’t think Don would do all that work for getting the “favor” to produce just one ad.

  • Amen to this post

  • Professional standards, contract terms, business etiquette have all changed so much since the advent of the web. Yet one thing remains true: We teach people how to treat us.

  • Paul

    I’ve seen this happen with the agency I work for; the end result was days of design work and consideration wasted, no payment. And worst of all, the “client” took the work away to another agency (who was presumably cheaper) and basically copied what my agency did.

    It’s ridiculous, unprofessional and more evidence that more and more people are expecting something for nothing in this day and age.

  • A well written response and absolutely the right thing to do.

    I know of a number of instances where on spec design work has been produced for companies that have then gone on to produce sites that have “very similar” design styles and layout to the spec work. Not a coincidence I would suggest.

    It’s in a sense self perpetuating. Until agencies and freelancers alike explain why it’s not in anyone’s interest to be party to spec work companies will continue to request/demand speculative (and ultimately worthless) design work.

  • I’ve seen this happen occasionally at my own agency, where we’ll pitch to clients who want spec work initially. And like Paul, our ideas are taken and executed elsewhere.

    It’s such a shame how we have to constantly defend the value of our work.

    Similarly disheartening, I had another (freelance) client who verbally agreed to a price quote for a website, and before I could send over the contract, I received an email a few days later requesting more than a 50% cut off the agreed price because “a friend told me that I could do this cheap with a template”

    Somehow, I dont think that Doctors and Lawyers get this sort of treatment. Sure, I can look up law on the internet and DIY when I need legal help, but there’s a reason *professionals* are called professionals….

    I like your response to the client requesting the RFP- the one addendum I would make is that “we don’t perform spec work, but would be happy to fulfill the RFP for a discounted rate of XXXX” . Just throw it right back at them.

  • I’d be tempted to go the other way! Between this http://www.computerarts.co.uk/blog/murmurations-unique-cd-packaging-123448 and a careful bit of scripting along the lines of http://startupista.com/corporate-bullshit-generator/ providing the ‘message’ of each piece you could burn days of their time 😉

  • The only sort of work that should be done before getting paid or coming to an agreement would be researching the company you may be doing work for. You need to make sure that you are a good fit for their company and that they are a good fit for you.

    If your portfolio isn’t a good enough example of what you can do for them then they aren’t someone you want to do business with. Some bigger companies that I know of still do this spec work before a contract is even signed, I think that is why people think it is an okay practice.

  • Ella

    This post is getting a little grey at the temples, unfortunately the situation isn’t.
    ‘Design’ Platforms enforce the current tendency of clients expecting loads of spec work for free to choose from – and they meet with an eager crowd of freelancers about to comply with every whim.
    A little while ago I tried – politely – to point out to ‘contest’ holders the practical implications of what they demand: at desperately low prices designers cannot afford to spend any reasonable amount of time on a design and the quality of the work will suffer.
    I got no reply from the potential clients (surprise there!), however, I did get a bashing from a fellow designer. Oh and contest holder stooped to tell me my opinion was based on the fact that – obviously – my work was so bad.
    The design platform I am referring to had or has frequent contest holders that resell designers work. Designers are putting the work in, chop and change the designs to every whim, compete against each other in ludicrous numbers and get paid on average maybe 150 Dollars for the end result. Excuse me for not rejoicing!
    Hold, did I say ‘get paid’ just now? My fault entirely. Said internet venue I wish not to name – suffice to say it rhymes with Bogolids – has a reputation for not paying their designers and deleting any comment signifying to that effect. Some designers kick up and then rejoin the ranks. Present situation: Tiny sh** storm on their website, but only a bubble in the ocean, so it would seem.
    The situation continues unchecked and untamed, freelance fish feeding themselves to the sharks, gutted and boned in a self sacrificial act and in hope of achieving stardom or to pay this months bills, at least – failing at both.
    In my mind no point in competing in online contests – unless you cannot get yourself into gear to build a portfolio any other way, maybe. But do not expect anything in return for your efforts!
    Go out into the real world and try for some real clients, eye to eye contact,
    only advice I can proffer.
    This online contest scene is like a coral reef after a flock, school, pack or whatever they are called, of starfished have ravaged it.

    Boiling blood? Too right with outside temperatures below zero.