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Why We Don’t Do Free Spec Work

…and why I don’t think it’s a good strategy for most creative businesses.

So, I got in an argument today. A fun argument, but an argument nonetheless. The argument was about spec work.

If you don’t get chosen? You get nothing.

For those that don’t know, “spec” work is work done, for free, under the premise that if the client likes your work, they’ll choose you for the account and you’ll get paid. If you don’t get chosen? You get nothing.

As much as possible, I don’t want this post to devolve into a general argument for or against spec work—there is plenty of that on the net. These are my arguments. You may disagree with them, but I want to address why we don’t do it. At all.

Where does spec work come from?

Requests for spec work can come about in many different ways, but the most common that I encounter are the following:

  1. An RFP (request for proposal) that wants custom work included in the proposal.
  2. A potential client who wants to “make sure” that they’ll like the work we do for them. So, they wonder if we could do “just a bit” for free to prove ourselves.

A subset of spec work are sites like crowdSPRING or 99designs that ask many designers to compete on the same project by actually completing and submitting the work ahead of time. The client picks the winner and that designer gets paid. I won’t focus on these types of sites as we don’t participate in them. They have their place and plenty of designers willing to participate in their projects (for reasons I won’t pretend to understand).

An aside: This post deals almost entirely with the design side of my business. And I mean that in a very specific sense. No one asks us to “code some of their website,” just to see if we’re capable of doing it. And I’ve never had anyone ask me to do full-service brand consulting work (aside from logos) on spec, though I know it has happened to others.

Setting expectations.

One of my primary roles in any design project is to help set expectations. Part of that is to work directly with clients and get clear on their expectations of us during the beginning of a project and throughout the process.

Spec-work, particularly inside the RFP process, tends to make everyone a bit blind. Clients don’t get the full attention of the firm because the firm is having to juggle paid work with spec-work (that might not get them paid), and firms are often limited in their client interaction (particularly in a competitive bidding process where the potential client doesn’t want to be unfair and tip a firm’s hand).

It often leads to dazzling work that over-promises the reality of the project because the firm doesn’t have all the information yet.

What I’m trying to say is that spec-work often happens prematurely in the normal client/designer relationship and process. It often leads to dazzling work that over-promises the reality of the project because the firm doesn’t have all the information yet. Other times it leads to potential clients picking the wrong firm based solely on some initial work presented, as opposed to developing a relationship with the firm.

Design is about more than

making things “pretty”.

A potential client shouldn’t need to see free work on their own project to determine if a firm is capable of doing the project at hand. That’s what a portfolio is for.

Potential clients should also be talking to past clients for references, and walking through case studies with the firm to begin to understand their process, how they work with clients, and the insight they provide into projects.

The end result is the design. The design is not the starting point.

It comes down to this: a design project is a process. Through that process of client interaction and design work, we help the client arrive at the best solution for any given project. The end result is the design. The design is not the starting point. Whatever you get from a potential firm on spec, during the RFP process may impress you, but ultimately may not be the best solution. This is wasted time for both parties.

What the client misses.

Often, when spec work is part of the process, the client relies on it too heavily to make their decision. For one thing, would you rather hire the guy who’s in demand and doesn’t have the time to do free work, or the one twiddling thumbs, eager to work for free? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Often the firms that did their best to jump through all of your hoops are not the ones that will actually provide the best thinking…

Have a conversation with potential firms. Most are happy to talk with you about your project, their process, and even begin to provide insight into how they’ll go about solving your project problems. But when you ask them to provide free work, through an RFP, you won’t really be getting the insight you think you might.

Note: An RFP with a bunch of questions does not count as a conversation. Often the firms that did their best to jump through all of your hoops are not the ones that will actually provide the best thinking for your project. Rigorous hoops to jump through are boring and often unnecessary.

What the designer/firm misses.

When you jump to prove yourself through spec work, you often aren’t really doing your best work. Rarely are you fully understanding the project and what the client’s needs are. Why? Usually because the client doesn’t fully understand and can’t articulate what is best for them.

When you do work to impress, to win a bid, you usually don’t listen.

Helping them figure out their needs is part of your job. When you do work to impress, to win a bid, you usually don’t listen. You create something extravagant (often over-promise) and then try to convince the client that your sparkly thinking is really insight into their business problem. It might actually work a couple times, but eventually it will bite you.

“I thought you had this solved already? That’s why we hired you.”

You might get burned. They might reject your proposal, and then go ahead and feed your creative ideas to a cheaper designer. No, it’s not ethical, but it happens.

You might set the wrong expectations with your client early on, frustrating them later when the project changes. They might not understand, asking, “I thought you had this solved already? That’s why we hired you.”

Final Thoughts

… someone who is providing the solutions as part of the proposal might not fully understand your problem.

Clients, be wary of someone who seems to have all of the answers up front. Confidence is not a problem; you want to hire someone with confidence and a proven track record. But someone who is providing the solutions as part of the proposal might not fully understand your problem.

Designers, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t do your best work on spec, so why short-change your process to win a bid? Help the potential client see why you’re best for the job. Draw parallels between their project and others you’ve completed in the past. Talk with them about what you envision for your project. Help them get comfortable with you and your process.

Another Aside, for Designers: One of the arguments sometimes made to support spec work is that a designer with a slim portfolio can benefit by adding their free work to it. It’s not necessarily a bad argument, but in this Wednesday’s design article, I will talk about ways to build your portfolio—none of which that involve spec work.

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