Written by iain 28/06/2009


Design and Usability

The impact of designing on spec

by John Ellis

360innovate receive a fair amount of requests for visual design work on spec from prospective clients. From an agency perspective the dilemma whether or not to agree to carry out speculative design work is often a difficult one, and due to commercial pressures it can be difficult to say no. However should we as designers or indeed agencies dismiss all on spec work out of hand?

This short article aims to present some of my own views, concerns and the professional implications for business (and designers) that deciding to do on spec work bring.

What is ‘on spec’ work and why does it matter?

Now it’s fair to say that the subject of designing on spec is a pretty contentious one, and with strong views on both sides it’s often difficult to know where best to pitch in on the topic. However some clarification of what ‘on-spec’ means is probably a fair starting point. The AIGA (professional association for design) briefly defines it as “Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, for the client’s speculation”.

The AIGA also makes the distinction between the following types of work, which are sometimes perceived as work carried out ‘on spec’. For the purposes of this article the items in the bullet pointed list below have not been considered as ‘on-spec’ work as defined above;

  • Competitions: work done in the hopes of winning a prize—in whatever form that might take
  • Volunteer work: work done as a favor or for the experience, without the expectation of being paid
  • Internships: a form of volunteer work that involves educational gain
  • Pro-bono work: volunteer work done “for the public good”

Now while I do understand why some designers and agencies decide that producing work on spec is the right thing to do, my own views and experience tell me that it’s ultimately the wrong choice and one that can damage the value and perceived quality of services that designers and agencies offer clients.

Ultimately who does on spec design benefit?

There are many reasons I believe a professional web agency shouldn’t  consider on spec requests from clients – a few key reasons are as follows;

Good design is not simply an artistic statement - Essentially good design is about problem solving. Different clients will invariably have unique needs and associated problems to solve, which can’t adequately be addressed without having detailed information about the project and it’s specific requirements. For example; goals of the website, user needs, information architecture and so on.

Poor understanding of the creative process - Prospective clients who insist on pre-sign up layouts often don’t appreciate the creative (and technical) process and by inisiting on work on spec present themselves as clients that an agency should probably steer well clear of – this raises doubts about the type of relationship that would exist between agency and client within the lifetime of a project.

Potentially damaging client/designer relationship – The very nature of doing work on spec preempts the important relationship between designer and client, which can be damaged if the work produced on spec is discovered not to be workable within the context of the project. On spec work can also damage the credibility, trust and value of a designer. After all if all we are seen to do is knock-up some visuals in an hour or two where does the real value in what a designer does lie?

Promotes sub-standard work and plagiarism - Due to having little or no requirements upfront the resulting design will most often be a very superficial reference for the client. Being judged on visual work alone means that unless it is of top quality (which often takes a large investment in time) it’s not likely to win the account. It is also not uncommon for work done on spec (that has been rejected by the prospective client) to turn up months later with someone else’s name on it. Potentially leading to litigation, where no-one really wins.

Lots of unpaid hours of work - Producing work on spec requires an agency (and designers) to often invest large amounts of time and resources for a client or prospective clients speculation. For an agency this can be costly not only financially with the investment in time – it can also undermine and draw resources from other projects, which can be damaging to existing client relationships.

Pitching for work should be about understanding the brief - When pitching for work, agencies should be able to show client they understand the brief. It’s better to give an explanation of previous related work and examples so clients can see the creative and design skills an agency has to offer. Clients should be walked through the creative process so they get a real sense of how the design phases fit within the wider project.

Ultimately individual design agencies (and designers) have to make a judgement call on the potential value and/or damage of doing work on spec. I believe it is best for an agency to stand it’s ground, while politely and professionally explaining the position of the company. It’s clear that many clients will understand and respect the stance, others most definitely won’t!

If design agencies (and designers) want to build successful, long-term relationships with clients who value and understand the creative process and benefits of good web design – work on spec should not even be a question.

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