Speculative work requests from potential clients…

AIGA believes that doing speculative work—that is, work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation—seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA 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.

Are requests of speculative nature really coming from potential clients?  I mean to insinuate that “potential” is not the right word to use because invariably these folks are looking for free work.  I have encountered speculative work requests from many job inquiry replies where the client is “impressed with your work” and would like you to “demonstrate your ability” by sending a mock-up or submitting some type of speculative work in hopes of possibly being chosen in the end.  Of course, the client could choose no one…it’s free after all.  Hmm…Do you only pay for one dinner after you’ve tried out 10 different meals at 10 different restaurants?  Do you only pay the one plumber after you’ve asked 10 different ones to visit your home and fix the problem?  Everything comes at a cost and requesting work means you should pay for it – whatever form of compensation it may be.

Let’s talk about consultations.  Designers offer consultations just as orthodontists do to give prospective clients a chance to learn more, but not necessarily commit.  After all, everyone shops around and it’s the same in the design world.  We certainly offer a variety of assets for the client to base their decision on, from portfolios to recommendations to direct communication and quoting for a particular project.  If you have questions, please do ask and we will be happy to explain our process and what we will do – how it all works in a sense.  However, actually executing the work without a contract or agreement of compensation is not part of doing business.  At least not part of doing good business.

From a designer’s point of view spec work is definitely evil.  Whether people are realizing it or not, asking for spec work is rather offensive.  You are asking me to work for free.  Are you assuming that what I do can’t be worth much or that it simply doesn’t take much time or thought?  Do you not value the work that I do?  Yes, I am offended as a designer when it comes to spec work requests.  However, people have the right to request and I therefore utilize my right to decline.

There are many designers who are willing to give up some of their rights because they are in a desperate situation – a slight chance at compensation is better than nothing.  There are always those who are taken advantage of in a sense, but the pros and cons are different from every perspective.  Perhaps it was the right thing to do for that person at that point in time?  I think it is bad for the industry in general however, as it pollutes the understanding of what design is worth and perhaps what good design and the proper process really is.

From the client’s point of view it seems as if you are getting the better end of the stick, right?  You get multiple designers to work for you at no charge and in the end, you still get the opportunity to choose one if you really like it or start all over again.  Do you realize that you are losing control of your own project?  Listing a few bullet points of what you think you need will not result in the best solution.  Design is a collaborative process where client and professional work together and the relationship is important to fully understand the issue and come up with a proper solution.  Are you requesting spec work because you do not know what you really want or need?  Do you realize that designers will be working towards the goal of being chosen – not what is best for the goals of your business in spec submissions?  There is definitely a difference.

I certainly see the arguments on both sides of the issue and undoubtedly the great debates and practices will continue into the future.  Ultimately, everyone has to make their own decision as to what they want to do and think hard about why it is proper or not proper for their business.  For those who participate in spec work, think hard about how else you could spend your time that might be a better investment.  For those who ask for spec work, please tread carefully and understand why a designer would refuse.  Designers who agree to your requests have their reasons but perhaps you should ask them why they are willing to work for free.

Reference reading:
AIGA – Position on spec work
No Spec!
MarkBoulton.co.uk – The personal cost of designing on spec
SXSW 2009 Is Spec Work Evil? Youtube clip