Don't Pitch Your Work For Free!

Say No to - Request for Proposal (RFP), Spec Work and Pitch Work!

I’m so glad you’re here! - Thanks for sticking with me!

A member of our newsletter group Brian Hollingsworth shared out the video below on Twitter, this got me thinking and writing about this issue.

Thanks for sharing Brian you sparking inspiration for this one! 👍

As you can see from the video Architects don’t give away their blueprints. Restaurants and cafes don’t give out free drinks or meals. Personal Trainers don’t sign over their intellectual property on spec. Why should designers?

What is Spec Work or Pitch Work?

Spec Work = (Work for free) for a prospective client or they asked you to pitch against other designers and studios before taking steps to commission you officially.

No contract signing, no budgets or fees discussed, no down payments basically you’re auditioning for the project.

At some point in a designer’s career you or your studio will receive this request also known as a Request for Proposal (RFP)

Now let me just clear something up before we get into it.

Request for Proposal (RFP) vs Basic Proposal

The word proposal gets thrown around quite a lot and can mean different things to different people,

Basic Proposal

A basic proposal is an email/document detailing the project cost, scope, timeline and deliverables. This is sometimes called a quote or estimate.

Request for Proposal (RFP)

Most of the time when you see this in your email it is for actual work submitted as a proposed direction for the client also known as pitch work and spec work.

Actually doing any kind of creative work to pitch for a project is wrong and you should not be doing this.

The deeper issue I personally have with this RFP concept is that the majority I see in my inbox are flawed terribly and misguided documents that are prepared by unqualified people.

What I don’t like is many times it will tell you precisely what the desired solution and outcome of the project and the price the company is paying.

This means the client is self-diagnosing or they have been told by someone who thinks they know what they are talking about for you to implement the work.

We have all had those emails where the client knows someone who could do the work but they are too busy,

Or the client is an architect who thinks they are a graphic designer (Like that has anything to do with graphic design!) who can design but they don’t have the software or the time at the moment.

You get where I’m going, let’s move on.  

It’s a complex situation and there are many different types of requests and ways for you to respond to them.

A simple design for print

For instance let’s say a client wants just a business card design ready for print, now in this case if you design business cards on their own as a single service you can contact them find out more info and give them a standard price take it or leave it no big deal.

A logo design

With logos it’s tricky as it can be straight forward or a more complex logo system.

I personally like to validate my clients first and I will ask them to supply more information through the website brief.

This way I can learn more about them and gain some expectations for the project.

Depending on a number of factors including the scope and the client requesting.

I will either meet with them or speak with them on the phone to discuss the project before discussing pricing.

Once happy then I will send over details such as a proposal/design agreement in writing and get a down payment/deposit.

I then take a goal orientated approach and send them a list of goals to agree to before commencing further.

By having the client agree to the goals set forth we are both on the same page moving forward and these goals can be returned to throughout the project.

This approach works well for me and my studio as it weeds out time-wasters, gains better clients and projects run smoother.

Quite a lot of the time the projects turn from a logo design to identity design or brand identity system which brings me to my next option.

Discovery Session / More Complex Projects / Brand Strategy

You need to be getting paid to think and diagnose!

We as designers do not by any means begin to solve client issues before we as a design professional is engage and commissioned by that client to do so.

Depending on the complexity of the identity design / brand identity system.

I may need to offer a discovery session with the client to dig deep and co-create a brief and strategy to move forward.

A discovery session is a service by itself as it’s a consultation for your time to meet with the client and look at their business and existing branding.

For instance I’m looking to learn the following and get more into the core of the brand and work outwards:

  • I’m looking to learn about their business and their purpose in more detail.

  • How consistent they are in doing things to market their brand.

  • Are they engaging with their customers and creating an emotional connection between the brand and its consumers?

  • Do they understand their target customer base?

  • Do they know and understand their competition?

  • Their overall brand awareness and the message they are projecting.

  • Anything else that is concerning them with their business branding.

During a discovery session I give advice and guidance for a way forward based on findings from the session.

This way you get an opportunity to build rapport and show your value before they see the project price tag.

If a client decides to move forward with the project the discovery fee is then applied to the final project fee.

Then you can send them a written proposal to confirm as this is how we as designers secure clients.

David C. Baker says it all in this short video. 👇

I also have his book The Business of Expertise which David was kind enough to send over some copies for the studio. I highly recommend reading it, and I will be doing a full review of it soon.

Speak or Not to Speak?

There is no right or wrong answer, it all depends on the project, and people involved.

Some designers will only speak to clients over the phone to discuss pricing and then when agreed they will send over written information confirming what has been agreed on.

Others will do everything via email without speaking to the client. There is no right or wrong way of doing this it’s what the designer and client feel more comfortable with.

I do it both ways and it depends who I’m working with and how big the project is.

I personally do like to build rapport and engage with clients face to face as much as I can as this will bring out the best work and end result.

Meeting a client is not always possible as the majority of my clients are all around the world but when I get a chance I will meet the client over a pint or at their office etc if they are in the UK and budget allows I will travel.

Ok so now we understand the phraseology of RFP, basic proposal, spec work, pitch work etc

Let me now discuss why a freelance designer or studio should not be making this type of request.

Why Pitching Your Work For Free Is Bad

The client may be running their own contest were they will contact several designers or agencies with a Request for Proposal (RFP) and say they want to “test” the skills of each and see who’s work they prefer, or they are a large company of famous person who is giving you a chance of a life time to work with them.

When all the work is submitted and reviewed the chosen designer or agency gets the project, so when you think about it they basically want to window shop their design before they commit to buy or in most cases the client uses this freely gained work as they please without fear of legal repercussions.

When you think about that, does this seem fair???

“Pitching Design Ideas For Free Just Demeans You” – Michael Johnson - Johnson Banks

Another great book I highly recommend – Now Try Something Weirder by Michael Johnson - Read my full book review – Available on Amazon and Wordery

Crowdsourcing Websites

There are “crowdsourcing” websites that host design contests (I’m not mentioning any names here but if you’re a designer like me you can properly name several in seconds!)

It’s not exactly an RFP but the concept is the same, and the reality is that the only people who benefit from spec work are the people asking for it, whether it be a private client or a crowdsourcing website.

Even when it comes to a crowdsourcing website only one party benefits from this and it’s neither the client nor designer that wins.

It’s the website hosting the contest!

They are making a profit by persuading designers to work for free for them basically!

And by doing this as a designer you’re devaluing your time and efforts not to mention your skillset and the profession as a whole.

I understand that some designers enter these contests as a way to try and earn money but wouldn’t the time and efforts be best put into your own business, working on your portfolio and displaying your work online to attract clients rather than doing spec work on a crowdsourcing website, which is pretty much like playing the uncertainty of a daily lottery and trying to win.

Because we love our profession as graphic designers many clients feel like we will happily work for them free of charge.

This is Not Good for Business for both Designer and Client

Here is why...

  • No client or designer rapport or relationship building.

  • No trust building opportunity between client and designer.

  • The designer’s proposal can be easily disqualified based on something very subjective and you’re not there to offer clarification.

  • You can’t explain your work and gage client reactions, and the client can’t explain their business, vision, values and goals effectively.

  • There is a very high change you will not be compensated for your hard work. And a very high chance the client will not get the quality of work they deserve.

  • When you don’t win the project it will affect the designer negatively and you will feel defeated after all that hard work. You should feel positive in your work!

  • The designer could have spent this time a lot better…

Spending Your Time More Effectively…

The time that you allocated to producing the proposal and all that creative work could have been spent on more constructive business development activities.

Work on your business!

Such as time on your own portfolio, you could have spent that time on a personal project to include in your portfolio which will help gain clients in the future.

You could have devoted it into content marketing and writing some articles that clients will find helpful gaining you trust as a designer who can help solve their problems.

A Better Approach for Clients

Forget about RFPs and spec work altogether, consult with colleagues or friends, and get recommendations for your project.

Focus on working one on one with a designer who you can build a relationship with, remember communication and information is key to a successful end result.

By opening yourself up to having meetings and engaging conversations with a designer you’re going to get the best outcome for your project.

Never approach design with a price orienteded mind-set. Yes, as humans we all want the best deal, but design is a profession respect that!

Focus on looking for the best value a designer can give you not in the form of price but the actual designer and their body of work.

Some designers will be out of budget to respect that! A lot will be way below your budget to move them out of the way.

Feel their passion and find out “why” a designer does what he does, let them inspire you.

Remember when you’re dealing with a true passionate creative professional they can really inspire you more with your project.

You will discover that these types of designers have a wealth of knowledge and insights, they know the industry better than anyone and have a range of resources that they will share with you for your business.

You may end up paying more but you get what you pay for and a lot more. It may be more work for you as a client but this strategy is the way to go!

By approaching it this way I guarantee that the best option will be available to you and you can make the best choice for your business, not only that you will have a loyal advocate for your business moving forward who fully understands you as a person and your business.

In business you have to make good investments, when you make a good investment this leads to better outcomes, and better outcomes means a better business.

That’s why you’re in business right? To make a profit and enjoy doing it, so make a good investment it will pay for itself in the long run!

Don’t let price dictate your choice!

If You Win I have a Bag of Cash for You!

I myself have received requests for spec work and as a rule I don’t entertain them at all in most cases I just ignore the email or send a template email I have saying:

“We appreciate the request but don’t offer spec work and if they ever decide that they would like to work with us we would love to hear from them”

Sometimes they come back and say we want to work with you, and sometimes they don’t

Sometimes I may add some humour to the email when I’m in the mood. To try and prove a point to this whole thing I’m writing about.

Here’s a Funny Story!  

Speaking of adding some humour.

Last year I was approached by a supposed representative of Machine Gun Kelly asking for RFP / Spec work for a new logo design.

It seemed legit as the email was from a PR company based in the states claiming to be representatives.

It basically said they were contacting designers with a chance to redesign a new logo for the rapper Machine Gun Kelly and what an amazing opportunity it would be, it would make a wonderful piece for your portfolio, and gain you world-wide exposure blah.. blah.. blah heard it all before how splendid this was!

Even though the email was legit I still thought it was a joke …turned out It wasn’t!  

I thought I would have a little fun with my reply, and not the kind thanks for the offer reply I normally send.

I kindly explained I don’t offer free spec work, and asked if Colson would consider doing me a rap recording for an audition for free? J

I later found out he had put it out on twitter (can’t have had much interest from the email outreach requests!) asking fans to design a new logo for him and the best one gets a bag of money.

Seriously? I thought it was a joke! They actually emailed requesting it!

The bloody Cheek of some people!

Why not just hire a designer or agency you got a bag of cash to pay for it?

Some people did take the Michael with their designs on Twitter which was fun to see but again what you expect with no brief, there were also some good designs as well!

If there is anybody else out there who was contacted by email leave a comment I would love to know! I just find the whole thing very strange but deal with it the same way I would with other similar types of requests.

Putting Your Skills to Good Use for the Greater Good

If you’re learning and its feedback you’re wanting, it’s very unlikely you will get any with a contest or spec work, the times you do it will almost certainly be from an individual who is not a designer and unqualified to give constructive design advice.

Why not spend this time effectively towards building your portfolio with a real client by contacting a local non-profit organisation and offering to work pro bono (donating your work for the greater good)

You’re not getting paid but there are so many benefits to this such as you will get to work with a real client form start to end, building your confidence and engaging with people.

The final work will be in use and you will be able to see it in the real world not to mention you have a real life case study and recommendation you can feature on your portfolio which will in turn get you more clients.

Designers have just as much right to get paid upfront as any other profession.

Think about it like this you’re having issues with your knee such as its function and mobility so you seek private physiotherapy for their specialist advice and treatment.

They give you advice and help you through physical rehabilitation. Would you only then pay for physiotherapy only if you feel better after all the?

No! You’re expected to pay upfront for each session of that physiotherapist’s time and expertise.

This is maybe a little crazy but let’s say you need a wall building you call a builder and ask them to build the wall down one side to your specification as spec work, and if you like how it looks when finished you will hire them to complete the rest?

Yes I’m sure they will agree to that and spend their time and efforts for free in the hopes of landing the full job.

Regardless of what profession or industry it is, nobody unless it’s a volunteer or charity worker is expected to work for free let alone audition for a job unless you’re an actor, so why it is that designers are thought of in this way.

Caring out free work upon request is very bad business practice and hurts the design industry. Please don’t do it!

If you have had any requests for RFP, or been asked to do free spec work please share your experience in the comments I would love to hear from you.

The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns

If you’re looking for the perfect reading material on this subject I highly recommend this book. The Win Without Pitching Manifesto

I was lucky enough to receive a copy from Blair and the WWP team which was a nice surprise.

It was a great read. I have read through some of the sections two or three times and said plenty of good things about it online.

I have not fully reviewed the book on the website yet but it’s in the works.

The book includes twelve steps-in the form of proclamations--that owners of creative businesses can take to distance themselves from their competition , regain the high ground in their client relationships and learn to win business without first parting with their thinking or writing lengthy proposals. 

As I always say - “Stay curious & enthusiastic, and good things will happen!”

Thanks for reading. I appreciate your support. 😃


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