No more speculative designs

Arriving at a design for a website is a process rather than a flash of creative inspiration. A whole range of factors influence how a design develops and none of these steps are present in speculative work.

One of the worst parts of my job is doing design work for pitches. You simply don’t have enough information to produce a quality design. Recently I discovered I was not the only one to feel like this and that in fact there was a growing movement campaigning for an end to speculative work.


It’s not that I have a particular problem with doing speculative unpaid work in order to win a new client. I have no problem, for example, in the hours spent producing a proposal or going to presentations. My problem is that speculative designs provide no real value to the client in making their choice of a web design agency. They might perceive them as useful but in reality they are less than worthless.

Design is a process

Arriving at a design for a website is a process rather than a flash of creative inspiration. A whole range of factors influence how a design develops and none of these steps are present in speculative work.

Producing a truly good design involves:

  • A collaborative process with the client in which you understand their organisation and vision for the site.
  • Usability testing with end users to see how they respond to different design approaches.
  • An understanding of the competition and how they present themselves online.
  • Detailed analysis of brand guidelines and other marketing collateral.
  • An iterative process where a design is refined and evolved through a number of stages.
  • A solid grasp of other external factors which may impact the look and feel, including accessibility, technology constraints and internal business factors.

At the proposal stage of a project you have little or no communication with the client, have undertaken no usability testing and have little in the way of background information on the company and their objectives.

Everybody loses

Of course many clients see things differently. They want to see what the design agency is capable of “creatively”. Of course the web design agencies are all too aware of this and so the designs produced are often not realistic. Instead the designs become part of the sales process and are more about selling than providing a viable solution. The emphasis is on “looking cool” and “creating impact” rather than tackling the harder to understand issues of accessibility, usability and business objectives. Showmanship replaces substance and everybody loses.

The client loses because they are being shown the superficial rather than a real world solution.

The design agency loses because even if they win the project they will almost certainly have to throw out the initial design work done as being unfeasible.

If you are in the process of issuing an invitation to tender, seriously consider whether you need to ask for speculative designs. Instead, take the time to review the web design agencies portfolio and speak to their clients. Far more can be learnt from accessing their “final designs” on actual sites than can ever be gleaned from a design produced with the single objective of selling you their services!

Check out the NO!SPEC campaign

  • Do you consider design/web design “contests” as spec work as well? or would you catagorize that as something different?

  • Sounds like an attempt to get work for free to me :) Of course sometimes such competitions can be good publicity. Not something I have ever gone in for personally.

  • I agree with the no-spec campaign. I think the bigger issue here is people not knowing what they want and the use of no-spec to figure it out. I refuse to even consider building a website for someone unless that person knows “why” they want the website.

  • I agree with the ‘No ! SPEC’ ideal based on many of the same points you have made Paul and those provided at the No Spec site. I’m just not sure I would put that on my commercial site as it may appear abrasive toward some customers. I’d rather guide customer toward a project path that was sans Spec rather than put up a barb wire fence with a on the fence post.
    That is just my initial knee jerk reaction.

  • There is NO WAY I would say any of this on the Headscape site. I am sure I will have to do speculative work way into the future. This is all well and good in theory but the reality of a commercial environment is very different.

  • I went and jinxed myself commenting on specs as I just got of the phone with a potential client and they requested to see some mock ups… Oh blast how I could wear the ‘No ! Spec’ badge sleave rather than on the pajamas… in the dark. Oh well.

  • Doing speculative work is a pretty good way to drive yourself out of business. Imagine if the average company that requests spec work gets proposals from 10 potential clients, including you. Unless the rest are incompetent, you can expect to win 10% of your bids. In other words, you’re working for 10% of your normal rate.
    I also agree, spec work is useless for the client, even though it’s tough to make them understand why.
    P.S. That should be “loses”, not “looses”.

  • I have long since given up correct typos Paul :)
    Also I would say there is something wrong if you are only expecting to win 10% of the work. That is presuming all web design companies are equal which they arent. Anybody who reads this blog must be above average surely! ;)
    I reckon we win about 50% of the work we go for. Something like that.

  • In fairness, advertising agencies have always had to do work on spec.
    I think it depends who’s asking, to be honest.
    If a blue chip client asks you to pitch for a 6 or 7 figure project and part of that pitch involves doing some photoshop mock-ups of designs that’s fair enough, if you ask me.
    However it’s not OK if it’s:
    – an existing client
    – not part of a competetive tender process (it they just want to see if you’re “up to the job” – that’s what a portfolio’s for)
    – a 3 page brochureware site
    – the amount of work they’re asking you to put in is large in relation to the value of the potential contract
    In those situations I’d politely tell the client we don’t do “on spec” work except for high-value competetive tenders, but we’d be happy to split the project into two parts.
    In the first part we’ll do some mock-ups and then we’ll proceed to stage 2, which is everything else. That gives them a get-out clause if they’re not happy with the work – which in almost all cases is enough to satisfy a genuine client. It also puts off time wasters – which is never a bad thing.
    IME most clients aren’t worried about losing a few quid, but committing to a large budget and then getting let down.

  • I’m a copywriter, and in my business speculative work is just as big as a monster as it is for you. The only difference is that my work is far less understood in the business world. People don’t think that a write-up, sales letter, corporate newsletter, or any of that kind of thing takes any time. They, firstly, complain about the price – then complain about the time.
    Seriously, some expect the ENTIRE newsletter / mini-magazine to be complete – with interviews and everything – on the speculative project. Then, they say, “well, actually we have a lot of work to do for you” but in truth they don’t. They’re really just often looking for freebies. Because, “surely it doesn’t require that much work to write good copy…”

  • which in almost all cases is enough to satisfy a genuine client. It also puts off time wasters.