Nothing to loose… Nothing to gain?

As a design company we are occasionally asked to provide design work on spec. In a nutshell this means that we do the work, and if the client ‘likes’ it, he will use us. This usually comes with the promise of lots of work, budgets for which might be in place, but usually the complexity and likely value of this promised manna is unspecified.

Trust is the key

We always turn down these requests. Successful design is collaboration between the design company and the client. Good design is hard work, and requires a thorough understanding of exactly what the client is trying to achieve. This will involve important research before the design work even begins. The route to perfection may not be straightforward and the final solution may be something quite different, and far more exciting than the client originally envisaged. Trust is the key. We need to have the confidence to know that the client will stay the course, and be receptive to seeing the germ of a great idea. If we are working on spec, it’s down to guess work, we are working in the dark.

Time to waste…

Very often, the client is subconsciously looking for a highly polished finished design solution and will keep rattling around numerous design companies until, by sheer fluke he might just see something that vaguely represents his preconceptions. A great idea could be rejected merely because he forgot to mention something minor. Often, little in the way of a viable design is gained, but much time has been wasted in this design lottery.

Sorry… could you just try…

Another problem with producing work for free, even for a tried and trusted client, is that the job can spin out of control… no-one is exactly sure how much time the client is expecting the design company to donate. Pretty-please, just one last thing or could you just try… can lead to frustration on both sides and is often the result of an inadequate brief with a tight deadline.

If you really must ask a favour from your design company, give them as much notice as you can, tie up the loose ends when you brief them, and give them as much time as you can to get the job done. They’ll usually be delighted to help, especially if the task is outside your usual day job. But don’t abuse the privilege. After all, why should they give their experience, talent and expertise for free or, more realistically, at their own cost? Do you ask your car dealer to give you a service or repair for free? Or ask your dentist for a free filling. Of course not!


If you have a reasonable budget and/or a prestigious project you can ask several companies to pitch for the work. Pitching for a large design contract is quite different to doing design work on spec and is a valid process. Invited companies should be provided with a carefully thought-out, detailed design brief.

From an initial round of written proposals you can usually shortlist at most three or four contenders and invite them to make a presentation to the key decision makers, letting them know precisely which points you would like them to focus on. Their presentation might well involve some speculative design work to demonstrate their creative approach, but should never present a final design solution. From the design company’s perspective, pitching for work is an exciting competitive process so long as the project aligns with their experience and the prize is worth fighting for. If it’s an exercise in getting free ideas with little intention of appointing a new agency word will get round and next time you’ll find people declining your kind offer to pitch. Remember: there’s no such thing as a free launch.