Of spec work, design competitions and other such shady practices.

Just say no.


Time to read: 6 minutes

So what is Spec Work and these design competitions you talk of?

According to AIGA (the closest thing the graphic / web design community has to a regulating / supporting body), they define spec work as:

and they are strongly against Spec Work:

Andy Rutledge gives a far more colourful view of it here:

From that standpoint it's hard to see why any designer would consider doing it.

A confession

We have been involved with 2 projects that asked for spec work, that is to say, as part of the proposal process, they also asked for a series of visual designs to be carried out and also be submitted. The first project we did this for was early on in Moogaloo's life and we won it. It was a great project, the clients were amazing, respectful and are still good friends today and have come back for additional work since.

The second project we didn't win.

As we now record all work done in FreeAgent I could go back and look at how many days we spent working on the proposal and visual design work for that client - 7 days. For no pay whatsoever. Obviously we chose to spend that time and we knew we may not get picked. The competition certainly was stiff but we made it from 31 proposals down to the final shortlist of 7 where we then travelled to London to pitch to the prospective clients. Assuming all 31 webdesigners worked somewhere between 5-7 days on their own proposals, that's 186 days of time spent in the webdesign industry that is pretty much gone, unpaid for, vanished. Time that none of us will get back (of course none of which is taxed either). By putting out a Request For Proposal requiring spec work, one client has drawn over 37 weeks of unpaid work from the design industry. Nearly one whole working year.

Moogaloo are all about results too - I wish I could say the process worked and the end result this potential client got was worth the approach taken, but looking at what arrived over half a year later, it simply wasn't.

Of course all proposals require time, and there's definitely merit in doing these proposals as it helps both parties better understand, visualise and plan the project from the outset. This experience has however taken us to the the place of deciding we will not do spec design work again. We may miss out on the opportunity to pitch on some potentially excellent jobs, but we also know that we will be paid for our time.

As Andy Budd points out:

A question of ethics

For us this is as much an ethical decision as it is a cashflow decision. All skilled professionals, whether you are a lawyer, plumber or hairdresser, should be paid for the time spent doing that work. Not doing so and being a part of an industry that accepts, or even worse encourages it is not an industry with a good future.

On top of that, Moogaloo are all about the journey. When we work on a project with a client, it isn't just a case of getting a list of requirements from them, throwing them into Photoshop and handing back the first design that comes out hoping it gets signed off first time. In fact, we don't expect it to be signed off first time. We take the time to completely understand the client and the business objectives for their website. We build in time to allow for the exploring of ideas, trying things out, giving our clients the option to say "lets go back to the drawing board" As Jeffrey Zeldman puts it, "Design is only partly decoration. Mainly it is problem solving."

Starting a working relationship based on work done for free with no consultation, no exploration and not allowing the webdesigners to bring their own expertise to the table from the outset, you're not only devaluing them and their industry but are doing yourself a disservice. When a designer has little information to go on, they will be designing, largely blind, needing to make something that doesn't actually meet your own goals for your site. It is made to be eye catching, glitzy and flashy, but ultimatley not fit for purpose. As a client you then have the decision to either stick with your favoured design which may well be inappropriate for you, or start again from scracth in which case we have yet more time and money wasted.

Phew.. that's a bit heavy.

To close, a more light-hearted take: