• Professional Practice

To Spec or Not to Spec?

We were recently approached by a potential client with a not unheard-of request. It was a large, well-known corporation looking for a design firm to create its annual report. They had taken the unusual step of calling all firms under consideration in for an initial group briefing, with individual presentations to be made a couple of weeks later. What they wanted in the follow-up meetings was an idea of how we’d “approach” their project. (This turns out to have been code for a request to have preliminary designs created without compensation.)

In the follow-up meeting (in which we’d appeared empty-handed save for a portfolio and a proposal outlining in detail how we would approach the assignment), it was made clear that in order to be considered we’d have to prepare sample designs. Once we’d gotten to the bottom of what they were looking for, we removed our names from consideration and explained that we choose not to work under those conditions because a) the selected work is almost always flashy and initially crowd-pleasing but upon further consideration does not address or solve the real problems, and b) there is no provision made for compensation.

We didn’t get into issues of collaboration, professional respect, research, process, trust, or how doing spec work places a mutually agreed-upon value of design consultation at exactly $0. Or how, once you’ve agreed to work under those conditions, it becomes quite difficult to charge fair and competitive fees for additional work. (And forget about being able to charge equitably for changes.) 

We also offered that if we’d been more attuned to their request earlier in the process, we’d have recommended the approach of providing a development fee to each of the selected firms—not an ideal approach, but more ethically serviceable in my opinion. (As an aside, we see a difference between a potential client that is truly naïve and needs to be guided along the process and one that is craven, wanting something for nothing. The disingenuous way in which the brief was presented left no doubt in our minds as to where on the spectrum this particular client fell.)

At any rate, none of the above is what’s disturbing. What bugs us is the fact that all the other firms in consideration for this assignment had, as far as we could tell, agreed to go along with this procedure in order to get the job. All are firms you’d recognize—in most cases large, established graphic design consultancies, some with their names prominently displayed on the walls of the AIGA headquarters as donors and supporters, and, by extension I’d assume, adherents to the guidelines outlined in the AIGA’s Statement of Policy on Professional Practice, which says, among other things, that designers should avoid doing work without being appropriately compensated.

Is everyone doing business this way these days? To be fair, the other guys saw us in the briefing as well and surely figured that we were in agreement with the deal. Or perhaps they too had misunderstood what the deal was. That’s entirely possible.

We know that it’s a free country and that firms can structure their businesses however they see fit. We’re not advocating restraint of trade, and we realize that the AIGA should not and cannot take a position advocating this either. It is our feeling, however, that approaching assignments in this way serves to cheapen our profession, and we’re not talking in terms of money. It indicates to us a deep misunderstanding of what a good designer can offer, and by accepting the arrangement, designers contribute to the problem.

Every once in a while, we’re asked to prepare some spec designs for review. We give our little speech about a methodical approach, fair compensation, professional responsibility, etc. Often we’ll hear something back like, “You know, you’re the third person who has told me the same thing. I guess there’s something to that.” We’ve even heard it in those exact words. It’s a nice feeling and, more important, the ground on which a trusting and equitable relationship can be built, ground that is much more firm than the slippery sands of speculative design.

We will admit that we once did some spec work for a potential client, so my high horse is more of a kneeling pony. I still regret doing it, and not because we didn’t get the job. (We didn’t, but does anyone? Why does it always seem that the spec project goes to the firm that, at some point, had a previous relationship with the client? Is it a reality check for the client? A chance to get free ideas? An opportunity to goose the incumbent?)  I regret it because I knew that, even while doing it, that our charitable efforts should have been going toward helping out an organization that was truly in need. Or toward planting tomatoes. Or doing anything other than reaffirming the misconception that graphic design is cheap, fast, and easy. Maybe it is for other people, but I kind of doubt it.

— Alexander Isley

Adapted from an article that first appeared in the AIGA Journal, the publication of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

© 2002 Alexander Isley Inc.