Designers, Stop Devaluing Your Work!

As a graphic artist and website developer by profession, I often receive requests from potential clients to submit an estimate/proposal for the production of a piece of artwork (logo, billboard, annual report, website etc).

However, and although I am always appreciative of the opportunities afforded to us, there is a growing trend in the industry that stands to do nothing less than even further devalue an already under appreciated profession.

Namely, the request by “potential clients” for designers/developers to submit “design concepts” along with our estimates.

Speculative work, as it is referred to, is just such a request. It is usually done without a contract and as such it removes any representation of rights to the artwork between the client and the designer. As a result, some clients seem to believe that they can pick and choose from the ideas the designer has presented and then, either do the project themselves (using the ever popular internal marketing department or in-house graphic artist that couldn’t come up with a decent concept in the first place), or, take the ideas to another, cheaper designer.

In either case, this sounds like highway robbery to me and we as designers/developers set ourselves up when responding to these requests, to be taken advantage of. From a strictly legal standpoint, the designer has no legal leg to stand on in the event that the client takes the design concept presented as part of a “bid” and uses it – because there was no contract. No cash changed hands, and no agreement was signed.

Clients I believe, should think before making such requests, and as designers we should turn them down when requested (especially those of us with established track records, and extensive supporting portfolios). Furthermore, although as designers/developers we are for the most part reluctant to say it out loud – clients making requests like this come across to us in the industry at times as not having a clue as to what they really want in the first place. It’s asking the creative professional to take a creative “shot in the dark”, while projecting to the developer that you, the client, are taking a “I’ll know what I want when I see it” approach. Sorry, but that does come across as unprofessional, especially to an experienced designer that has heard it all before.

However, if you are a client, before dropping that “design concept required as part of your initial submission” mumbo jumbo in your RFP, consider asking why you really expect that a professional designer should or would take on a spec project in the first place. If they take it on, are they in fact really as professional as they claim to be? Do they have the experience and abilities to do creative justice to the project and help the client achieve its strategic marketing objectives? To answer these questions, you can usually, and rather simply, review the portfolio and track record of the designer or design firm, rather than request a “concept” of new work, without compensation. Also, consider this: If the potential designer has so much free time on their hands that they’re willing to work for free on speculative work, why is this the case?

Your Time is Money

Graphic Artists, Website Developers, Illustrators and other visual communications specialists, sell two things – their ideas and their time. Speculative work requests, require a designer to invest both their ideas and time without a guarantee of compensation. Furthermore, if you could give it away for free yesterday, as part of a bid, why then should you charge what you know you should charge when it comes time for billing? Shouldn’t a discount (in the mind of the client) be in order. Get where I’m going with this? Your product now values less, and therefore should cost less, in the mind of the client.

Unprofessional / Inexperienced

I admit, when I just started out, and for perhaps the first couple of years, I jumped at every speculative bid I could get my hands on. My thinking at the time was simply, “if this is what I have to do to get the job or prove myself, then I’ll get it done”. However, I look at that approach now and seriously wonder if it was the best approach to have taken. I certainly lost thousands of dollars in productive time that could have been spent on billable projects – and also lost out to some clients who, as mentioned earlier, just took my ideas and ran with them — to other designers!

Missing the Mark

I hate to do design concepts for websites having only received a request for proposal. Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) are usually prepared by IT/MIS Departments, with little or no input from the Marketing representatives within the client’s organisation. That being said, effective design requires an investment in time to appropriately research the client’s company, its competition, target audience for the website and so on. Since many speculative projects are run on a tight deadline, and without the necessary creative brief, the designer/developer simply does not have the opportunity to do the best possible job. An attractive design, based on no strategic objectives or clearly defined marketing brief, is simply pointless. What’s worse is the fact that the design ‘concept’ usually produced without the client even providing the necessary branding guidelines, even further devalues the investment the company and their previous creative efforts.

Reduces value

In addition to devaluing the creative effort, speculative jobs also significantly dilute the value of the client/designer relationship. One could argue, that there may in fact be no relationship!

Undervalues the entire profession and industry

I don’t believe that designers should participate in speculative bids at all. Consider for a moment that designers that do participate in speculative work are undervaluing our shared profession. In fact, they are encouraging the behavior by allowing clients to dangle the carrot in our faces, backed by promises of more work “down the line” or payment “if the client likes the work done”. Usually, the “additional work” never materializes and, certainly within the Jamaican context, nor does payment!

So when is it OK to do Speculative work?

I wish I could say never, but that’s really not realistic. Certainly if the request for proposal makes mention of compensation (with a specific dollar amount) for time spent on coming up with the creative concept – then knock yourself out. Outside of that – I suggest that designers should be more professional in their approach to this aspect of their business.

How to spot a “scam”…

If asked to produce speculative work, the first thing I always ask myself is why does this client making this request in the first place. Is it due to a lack of understanding of the industry? Perhaps there isn’t enough money in their budget? Do they understand marketing? Will they be a difficult client to work with in the long term?

NOTE: It is important to note that advertising agencies often participate in speculative bids, however when you consider that they do so in an effort to not only showcase their creativity, but also back that creativity with an entire marketing plan for their potential client in the process, all with a view to obtaining rather large contract (usually all marketing work for a particular client or campaign), that approach is perfectly fine. However, for a freelancer or a small design firm to take the same approach, and for just a brochure, book cover, logo design or website home page, is pointless, and counter productive.

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