Why speculative design is wrong

Paul Boag

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.