Why speculative design is wrong

Many web design agencies are refusing to do unpaid design work before a contract is signed. This is not because it is damaging to them. It is because they believe it is damaging to their clients. But why?

On the surface asking a web design agency to produce some design concepts before you sign on the dotted line appears to be a good idea. After all, it allows you to assess the quality of their design work and see whether they have understood your brief.

However, if you scratch the surface of this once common practice, you quickly expose the flaws. Here are just five…

1. It costs everybody money

In order to remain in business every company needs to recover their cost of sale. This includes web designers. As speculative work is part of the sales process, they ultimately have to charge you for it. The web designer is forced to roll the cost of that work into the project if they win.

However, it is worse than that. The web designer also has to recover the cost of speculative design done for jobs he did not win. This means that if you choose to work with an agency that produces speculative design, you are paying for their failed sales pitches! Why should you be paying for other people’s design work?

2. It is about selling not delivering

As somebody who used to produce speculative designs for years, I can tell you that doing this type of design work is not about delivering a solution the client actually needs.

Speculative design is about impressing the client and creating the ‘wow factor’. The target audience is the client and not the end user.

Being a good web designer is about encouraging the client to make tough choices. A good designer will challenge your preconceptions and suggest better ways of meeting your business aims. However, they are not going to take that risk in the sales process. They will play safe, showing you what you want to see, rather than telling you what you need to hear.

The danger is that if you then hire this company the speculative design is adopted for your site. Ultimately you end up with a solution that fails to meet your businesses needs.

3. It is wasteful

Even worse than actually using a piece of speculative design is throwing it away. I have worked on many projects where the design work created as part of the sales process is discarded on project commencement.

What was the point of producing a piece of design only to discard it? Because ultimately you (the client) are paying for the design it is absurd that you would then choose not to use it.

Of course the reason you discard it, is because it is not fit for purpose. Not only was the design was created to sell, it is also largely uninformed.

4. It is uninformed

No matter how good the brief you distribute to agencies, they are still not going to have all the facts.

Good design comes from being well informed. The designer needs to understand business objectives, success criteria, brand personality, competition and numerous other factors in order to provide the right solution.

Most of all the design needs to emerge from an understanding of your users. Until the designer can interact and empathise with your users, he can produce nothing more than a superficial solution.

5. It ignores the collaborative nature of design

Finally speculative design ignores the collaborative nature of the design process. Good design is not just about a designer having a moment of inspiration and producing a master piece. Design is not the same thing as art.

Design is a collaborative process between the designer and the client. The designer may have the expertise in design aesthetics and usability, but the client knows their business and target audience.

If the designer works in isolation he cannot hope to produce a rounded design. Without mood boards, sketches and initial concepts there is no dialogue between client and designer. The design will only tell half the story.

Example Mood board

To request speculative design is to deny your own importance in the process.

The alternatives

So where does that leave you? If you should not ask for speculative design, how then can you assess the design skills of agencies?

The answer obviously lies in their portfolios. However, in my opinion it is about more than just looking at ‘pretty pictures’. In order to know whether a design has been successful you need background information.

I recommend that where a portfolio piece is relevant to your sector or project, you request the contact information of the client. This provides you with the opportunity to speak to that client and find out how well the design fulfils their business objectives.

Speaking to the client also gives you the opportunity to find out more about the designers. Did they understand the brief? Did they provide positive suggestions? Did they deal with criticism well? Were they flexible and understanding of broader objectives?

Ultimately there is far more to be learned by talking to existing clients than requesting speculative design.

  • If clients want a proof of a designer’s work, the latter has a portfolio for the first one to get that “wow” factor you mentioned. That’s what it’s for, rite?! Speculative work is definitely a waste of money (you can still have fun and learn something new, like me), I know it by experience, sadly.
    Great job, Paul! A great voice in our community indeed.

  • A really good article Paul, one of your best ever I think.

  • I think this also underlines the importance of having case studies on your site, as well as the ubiquitous lightbox portfolio.
    I know, I know, it’s on my to-do list.

  • Hi,
    Thanks for the article :-) This is more a question than a comment. I quite agree with what you’re saying, but it obviously doesn’t always work that way. A lot of potential (actually I think mainly smaller) clients will only get sold on that ‘wow’ factor. They’d want to see the potential of their site. I guess its a case of the clients being ill informaed about the process and the benefits too. So what would you think is a good way for a web designer/developer to convince potential clients to work with them collaboratively right from the start?

  • Excellent article. Very true. This will hopefully add another nail in the coffin of spec work.

  • Andrew

    It would be useful if the industry as a whole, would agree to stop doing speculative design. Currently you risk losing contracts to competitors who are still prepared to jump though the hoops and produce the designs.

  • @Andrew – we have actually won projects BECAUSE we REFUSED to do speculative work. If you explain the logic outlined above they are often impressed and it can work in your favour.

  • I agree that No Spec should be the norm.
    Feel that asking prospective clients to contact previous clients could get a little annoying for them though!
    Could the old-but-slightly-naff ‘testimonial’ be the answer?

  • “However, in my opinion it is about more than just looking at ‘pretty pictures'”
    exactly. I am by no means the perfect designer, but you said it right there. Design is about solving a problem, not just about making a cool looking site. Many people still seem to forget this. Great Post Paul.

  • a great post Paul. I’m not a designer but I whole-heartedly agree with this approach. what I think would work for me as say a potential client is a detailed portfolio as you mention… along the lines of case studies. the stats wouldn’t be hard to come by and gives great context to the design work.
    of course i do believe that for shiny new designers there will probably still be a need to do some work on spec. I would say on the whole be open and honest – you have no portfolio! but give them incentive to pad it for you… it is essentially prime real estate for some advertising after all!

  • Great article.
    I always said we’d refuse speculative work, but then a big oppotunity came along so I gave in.
    The result – we didn’t get the work.
    – I’ve no idea if we pressed the right buttons with the work – a decision was made and virtually no feedback provided (despite asking)
    – We had no assets for the design – stock photos and lorem ipsum don’t help the client see the end result
    – No consultation or feedback during the design process so poor understanding of design decisions we made
    The sooner clients can realise the purpose of a portfolio and engage in a consultative design process, the better everyone’s sites will be – and the stronger the agencies portfolio too.
    Will I do speculative work again – no way. If it costs me the work – then so be it. At least in the future the time I could have wasted on the speculative designs will have gone into a better proposal for someone else, or looking after current clients better.

  • @Dave – the wow factor should come from your portfolio to win those types of clients. There’s some great ways of explaining this to the client and some success stores on no-spec.com

  • @Simon pointed something interesting. What if a designer is just starting? I thought of that when I tried to start off and realized that your own website is a way of showing yourself off a little. And then try and add some case studies or even simulate a project.
    Paul you really hit it this time. Grats!

  • We don’t do an ounce of design work until the whole discovery and IA process is over. We’ve found offering this service separately from the design and dev helps clients understand that the planning is a product in itself. If a potential client is not teachable and does not show respect for our knowledge then we refer them elsewhere.
    @Dave I’d say small clients don’t need the “wow” factor in regards to design — better that they say “Wow, Dave really GETS me and my business and I trust him to represent us well online.” Don’t underprice yourself and don’t accept anyone as a client who does not respect you and your profession!

  • I read a blog post this morning, and even if its subject was slightly different, it was ending to the same conclusion:
    “Always get some money up front. Always get a signed contract before you start working. Always get a clear picture of what the deliverables are. Always charge what you’re worth.”
    I think these simple rules can prevent from many disillusions (especially for young designers/developers, often desperate to get new clients) .
    Communication on what motivates your decision to refuse speculative design will demonstrate your professionalism… “If you explain the logic outlined”

  • Couldn’t agree more with the points raised and I had a similar discussion on these points on Designbit = Design Mock ups don’t work?

  • While I basically agree with all this – and we have long resisted spec work – there are some home truths from a client’s viewpoint that you just can’t ignore.
    1. Portfolio work shows what you did for the other guy, clients want to see (and hear) what you would do for them (and why). If they feel they can work with you, they may well choose to do that even if your work is not their favourite at pitch stage.
    2. Smart clients know that your spec work is stage one of an iterative process. WHY they want it, is to see whether you are basically on the same wavelength and someone they can collaborate with. Smart pitches acknowledge this, and produce and PRESENT designs in such a way that the client becomes engaged in the dialogue. This can put you in a good place to win.
    3. Come off it everyone, very few people want to buy something so important and so visual just on trust. Costly as it may be, we have to DEMONSTRATE that we are the people to choose.

  • Made sure to read this post carefully after recent posts.
    I think when it comes to getting new clients giving a certain amount of free advice helps to form a relationship so long as you are careful to not give away the secrets that could follow the client out of the door. Doing this makes the client feel your willing to engage with them and go that extra mile.
    However advice is one thing, doing actual work like a speculative design is another. As you say Paul creating designs is not only a complete waste of time, money and effort but can result in the wrong end product.
    It’s frustrating that people see the web industry as something different, I don’t go to a tailor for a suit making for free so I can see the quality of his work and then potentially never come back to pay for a full suit later.
    Luckily however there are more professional web agencies out there and more people teaching the rest so that everyone can educate clients on the right ways to go about getting a website.

  • I have read everyone’s comments and find it hard to believe that some people still insist on giving away FREE WORK to a client. When you have created good work in the past, it should be displayed in the portfolio area of the website. If that is not good enough for the client– walk away because you don’t want to do business with them anyway.
    Several years ago, a great article was written that covers this topic and much more. It is so important to me that I adopted it as our Request for Proposal (RFP) policy.

  • I’ve worked marketing architecture firms for years, and there are always clients that insist on a speculative design.
    Most sensible clients will go through a thorough RFP process in which to best determine the team that will work best on their project. Still, there are many ‘design competitions,’ disguised as an RFI/RFP/SOQ offered by government agencies and some private vendors. Even when narrowed down to three, two teams are going to invest thousands ($50,000 isn’t uncommon) in marketing, design, materials and expenses with no ROI.
    But what do you do –potentially walk away from a 200 million dollar project without throwing your hat in the ring? No, not if you are a real player. It’s the cost of business.
    (playing devil’s advocate and yes, I know graphics are a different arena than building design)

  • Great article. I take a deposit with all my clients now. My tip is to build a portfolio first so that they don’t need to be “wowed”. If they’re not “wowed” by your portfolio, then either your portfolio isn’t strong enough, you’re not the right designer for them, or they don’t know what they want.

  • Johnnyb

    An observation: in the physical exhibition design world spec work frequently attracts a modest payment to the tendering companies.
    An admission: I have just been through a pitch process where I supplied the brief with the stipulation that I expected either spec designs or mood boards. From a purely selfish perspective this served my purposes very well as it appealed to my visually led stakeholders. Sorry you guys.

  • Andy Wickes

    I totally agree with the article – from personal experience I think you always need to temper your approach to this with a little common sense. Some clients are approaching a lot of agencies, and simply don’t want or have time for agencies to explain to them the why spec work is costly and inefficient, and why the correct way to approach a project is with a scoping document.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that in some cases it is better to walk away that compromise.

  • If you are strongly against doing work without a guaranteed pay, then simply don’t participate. Not only is spec work a great opportunity for designers that improve, they can compare themselves to others and if they happen to not win they can learn from the winners. In other words, payment may not be in monetary form when you do spec work but that does not mean you will be wasting your time and effort and not getting anything out of it. Similar to how olympic athletes devote so much of their time and effort into training for the olympics with no guarantee of winning, what people get out of spec work is experience. Something is being greatly undervalued.